For Concert Band and Indigenous Drummers and Singers
(There is a lot to say about this one, so instead of trying to summarize and make something quick and snappy, this page includes the program notes for this piece.)
In 2019, I was commissioned by the bands of the Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg, MB to write a piece for Concert Band and Indigenous Drummers and Singers as an act of reconciliation from their organization and students. The commissioning body had diverse staff on the project and we had many conversations and discussions, including meeting with an elder more than once. I wrote the concert band sections and drummer “Coco” Ray Stevenson wrote the drumming and singing, so that both the Settler and Indigenous musicians each had autonomy over their own art for the project. We both wanted to ensure that neither artistic party was appropriating the other during this process.
Furthermore, it’s a vehicle to get Indigenous musicians into the band room, not only to teach about the drum and the songs of the region, but of the tradition and function of Indigenous music as a whole. Cardinal Elements is as much a framework for bringing these two ensembles together as it is a piece of music. It cannot just be about “playing the song” – there is teaching to be done. The instructions for drumming are only what we did for our performance and are just a guide. They don’t need to be followed exactly. Because of the nature of each band connecting with Indigenous musicians using their own songs, every performance of this piece will be different. As said earlier, the concert band parts are fixed, but the singing and drumming is not. The drummers could use songs from their own treaty area, their own traditions, and their own First Nations heritage to work with the band piece – it is up to them.
Through our meetings and ideation process, we settled on the four elements as a common ground to base our pieces. While both Settler and Indigenous cultures have a common history of them, they share a different context, which is a crucial part of the conversation.
Program and Performance Notes:
I want to begin by thanking you for programming this piece. This is a bit of an undertaking, but it’s one that pays off in spades. You are exposing your students to exploring a cultural narrative beyond something that much traditional band music can offer. If you are Canadian and performing this piece, you probably understand the difficult dialogue that has existed (and continues to exist) between Settler and Indigenous Canadians throughout history, and now you’re doing your part to change it. Excellent job.
Now for the hard stuff, and this can’t be understated: The piece cannot and should not be performed without Indigenous drumming, because of both the intent of the piece and its musical structure. The entrances and exits of the band’s parts are designed to transition into and out of the drumming.
Each movement flows from one into the other in one continuous stream of music, not only highlighting each ensemble, but also the connectedness of the four elements to one another. To play a piece focused on bringing together (presumably) Settler and Indigenous artists, then exclude the Indigenous voices is antithetical to both the integrity of this work and Truth and Reconciliation as a whole. Furthermore, to exclude Indigenous voices is to reinforce what has happened in Canada for centuries and I, for one, have no interest in contributing to that injustice through my art or otherwise.
This work is a personal act of reconciliation for me.
Movement I is about the wind and is started by the drummers and singers. In the premiere performance, the Indigenous musicians began with four honour beats, then sang four sets of eight bars, so the band entered on the third set of eight, with the percussion rumbling underneath the singers and maracas and suspended cymbals swirling like wind gusts. The band’s parts emulate the swelling throughout the movement, rising and falling in both dynamic and range.
Movement II begins with a sequence of tension rising through the clarinets beneath the drums and singing. In the premiere performance, the drummers and singers sang a song of thanks for to the earth and waterkeepers, creating a discordant tension between our strained relationship with water and the environment. This was the one instance of the suite where the main melody of a movement references the Indigenous song being sung, as the band reaches to honour the waterkeepers. The middle section, starting at m19, reflects a serenity around water, as though its value and benefit is obvious, but culminating at m29 with darkness in a minor tonality. However, the movement ends on a major chord, as though hope cannot be ruled out quite yet.
Movement III begins a troubled and haunted musical story. When I was researching this piece and talking to Treaty One Indigenous folks about their tradition of the elements, I expected them to talk about the “strength” of earth and rock; to my surprise, they said something quite different. They spoke of the wisdom of the rock and that it had been present for ages, seeing the First Peoples on the land, then the coming of the settlers, and the difficult relationship we’ve been navigating for the last few centuries. We are connected to the earth and need its wisdom, perhaps now more than ever. Like the end of the second movement, m21 reveals a more hopeful side of the music – perhaps by listening to the rock and forming a stronger connection with the earth, we may forge a better relationship with one another.
Movement IV is the Sacred Fire. Like Movement III, many narratives emerged when I did research by talking to Indigenous peoples (in Treaty One territory) and reading. One was a ceremony of shared value between peoples from all parts of the nation. Another was about connecting with the Spirit World and their ancestors. Others were about fire as a core part of other ceremonies like a Sun Dance, for example. In Settler culture, fire can be seen as destructive, but also as a symbol of rebirth, like the legend of the Phoenix. Fire can be culturally complex and read in different ways, but can also be connective as we understand the diverse ways of looking at it. Musically, it begins with intense percussion, interpreting (but not copying) the Indigenous drumming from the transition. Long swelling chords, like breath, ebb and flow over the rhythmic percussion. In m17, the drums are (most likely) out and the band moves into a 3/4-in-one feel, dancing like fire in a pit, but also symbolizing the importance of dance around a fire. The original feel returns at m49 and, in our telling of this piece (but not the performance recording), the drums re-entered and both ensembles end together.
Connecting With Indigenous Musicians:
This piece involves some non-musical legwork, but the effect is authentic and powerful. It involves connecting with Indigenous teachers and musicians in your community or school division and working together to teach one another about their arts and culture. You may have Indigenous students in your school who are active in traditional drumming and singing and this is an excellent opportunity to bring them into the band room and teach the other students about what music means to them, about their community’s songs, and about what the drum has meant to their people. It also gives them a platform to speak their truth about their history and experience in school and Settler communities.
If your school division has an Indigenous lead teacher, this is an excellent opportunity to bring them in and share information and history with your students.
If your school division has a drum group – either in your school or a different one – this is a great time to have them connect meaningfully with one another.