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How the "Chickasaw Classical Composer" Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate Draws on North American Indian Culture

Daniel Hautzinger
Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate
"I identify very specifically as a Chickasaw classical composer," says Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate.

A Chickasaw legend tells of a girl who is teased by other children and named Loksi’—Turtle—for her slowness. Upon the counsel of a river, she goes to live in the forest. There, she finds hospitality among the turtle people. One day, the god of the turtles asks her to tell her fellow humans to treat turtles with respect and kindness, and gives her a gift of turtle shells filled with pebbles and seeds to bring back with her. The rattles were adopted by the people of Loksi’ and used to accompany dances and ceremonies, a reminder to treat the natural world with care.

“Their sound resembled the flow of the river,” writes the Chickasaw author Linda Hogan in the libretto to Lowak Shoppala’, a multimedia theatrical work that celebrates Chickasaw culture. “Their sound contained the rains.”

“That’s our sound,” says Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate, the Chickasaw composer of Lowak Shoppala’. “It’s a beautiful, heroic story of Loksi’’s journey on acquiring much of our culture and the shell-shaking sound.”

Tate has returned to that story—and that sound—again and again in his work. It not only appears as part of Lowak Shoppala’, which was conceived and designed by him and was released as a recording earlier this year, but is also the basis of an opera due to be premiered at Mount Holyoke College in March of next year as well as an upcoming piece commissioned by the wide-ranging vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.

“American Indian culture is just completely saturated with stories, which is just fabulous,” Tate says. “We have so many stories, it’s just unreal. And I love that, and I always love having a story as a basis for what I’m doing.”

The Roomful of Teeth commission, Talowa’ Loksi’, draws not just on Chickasaw lore but also music: each of its six sections is based upon a traditional Chickasaw song. “I have a mission in my music,” Tate explains. “I identify very specifically as a Chickasaw classical composer. I focus very specifically on Chickasaw and other North American Indian music as source material for my compositions. You will hear tons of tribal melodies and rhythms and forms and architecture within my compositions.”

But Tate is also, obviously, a contemporary composer who applies modern techniques and orchestrations in his work: dissonant shadings against a simple theme, atmospheric string harmonics, spacious parallel chords, ominous timpani glissandos. He compares the approach to that of contemporary American Indian painters. “When you go to like Santa Fe Indian Market, you see totally modern American Indian visual artists. They are drawing from iconography that comes from their tribal experience and their tribal history. They’ve literally modernized their ancient art. And that’s what I do as a composer.”

Sometimes Tate presents those Chickasaw melodies or stories in a straightforward manner, as in the upcoming opera or Lowak Shoppala’; sometimes they are abstracted, as in the Roomful of Teeth work or several concertos based upon legends. Given his frequent use of story in his music, his dramatic style lends itself well to film, too. He composed the score for two documentaries airing on WTTW this month: Independent LensHome from School: The Children of Carlisle, about efforts to repatriate the remains of three Northern Arapaho boys who died at an Indian boarding school; and Searching for Sequoyah, which investigates the little-known life of the creator of the Cherokee writing system. (Tate is also currently working on an opera sung entirely in Cherokee. In addition to being a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, he is also Cherokee and Creek.)

“I’m not a cosmopolitan writer like someone that would write for Marvel films,” says Tate—but his music has appeared in Westworld and the Terrence Malick film To the Wonder. “I made a career choice very specifically that I was going to focus entirely on North American Indian culture.”

He came to that decision when his mother, a choreographer and dancer who taught at the University of Wyoming, asked him to compose a score for a ballet based on American Indian stories from the Northern Plains and Rockies. His Chickasaw father, a tribal judge, was also a classically trained pianist and baritone who filled the house with music as well as “an enormous amount of Indian lore and culture and politics.” After majoring in piano at Northwestern University, Tate was working on a Master’s in the instrument at the Cleveland Institute of Music when his mother commissioned him.

“She turned to me and said, ‘Well, you’re my Chickasaw pianist, you can write my score,’” Tate recalls. “Ironically, my Irish mother commissioned an Indian ballet from me. But I was very encouraged after that by members of both my Native community and the classical community to really focus on composition. I had an enormous amount of support and enthusiasm from those communities. And that’s when I went back to the Cleveland Institute and added composition to my degree.”

Having received affirming support early in his career, Tate now tries to do the same for young musicians. “Teaching is important in every discipline in life: legacy, helping make what you do accessible to others who want to do the same thing,” he says. He has taught Navajo and Hopi children at the Grand Canyon Music Festival and taught at and organized the Chickasaw Summer Arts Academy, where he is composer-in-residence. (He is also Artistic Director for the Chickasaw Chamber Music Festival.)

“It’s been a focus on providing opportunities for American Indian youth,” he says. “I’m telling you, their music is some of the most amazing music I’ve heard in my life.” The work of young Chickasaw composers taught by Tate has been recorded and released in several volumes by Azica Records.

Tate also works outside Indian Country, with commissions from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (which has recorded two of his works for flute and orchestra), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, among others. He envisions his music working on different levels: “I am always dreaming of two circumstances: one is of an audience from the tribe or culture that a work focuses on, and the other is of an audience that has absolutely no knowledge of that tribe,” he says. “Joseph Campbell talks about how there’s a universal connection with certain stories. I like to create music that I hope connects on both a tribal level and a universal level.”

Through the power of stories like the tale of Loksi’ and the shell-shaker, Tate seeks to carry on traditional North American Indian culture and continue to bring it into contemporary times, to contemporary audiences.