Conference Morsel: American Indian Choral Music
Date: June 7, 2014
(An excerpt from the interest session “American Indian Choral Music: The Works of Brent Michael Davids,” presented by Robert Gehrenbeck and Brent Michael Davids, with the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater Chamber Singers during the 2014 ACDA North Central Division Conference)
Brent Michael Davids’ 2002 commission for Chanticleer, The Un-Covered Wagon, combines traditional western choral singing with three distinct American Indian vocal styles. Melodies composed in the style of the Great Basin Indians (e.g. Ojibwe), Plains Indians (e.g. Cherokee), and the Northeastern Indians (e.g. the Mohicans, Davids’ own tribe) are first heard separately, then they are combined at the end of the piece in a contrapuntal tour de force. The recording excerpt available on Davids’ website presents the sweeping Plains-style melody in a spacious sounding texture, followed by the quicker Northeastern-style melody sung over a rock-inspired vamp in the low basses. The excerpt concludes with the first few measures of the passage where all three melodies unite.
This piece begins in a much darker mood with a highly dissonant treatment of the well-known missionary hymn, Faith Of Our Fathers, presented over an eerie backdrop of fragments of the native melodies. Davids’ aim in this music was to demonstrate the jarring contrast between the myth of European “pioneers” settling an uninhabited wilderness—as depicted in the 1923 blockbuster film, The Covered Wagon — and the historical reality of the Indians who were already here, inhabiting every corner of what later became the United States. The stylistic diversity of Davids’ music reflects the rich variety of American Indian music passed down through centuries and still performed today. Like The Uncovered Wagon, many of Davids’ other choral works also trace a progression from despair to empowerment, including She Is One of Us, performed live during this session by the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater Chamber Singers.