Nov. 7, 2022Print | PDF
This piece was written in collaboration with Indigenous hand-drummer, poet and singer Cara Loft. It incorporates Cara’s song The Good Life (Ne Ionnhí:io) as well as a short poem (of the same title), which describes the traditional way of life of Indigenous People on Turtle Island. Both the song and the poem were created specifically for this project. This piece celebrates the life and traditions of First Nations People and their relationship to their land (Turtle Island).
Conceived in three large sections (exposition, development, recapitulation), the piece alternates between smaller sections of narration (recitation of the poem), song, and orchestral interludes. Each song verse is sung in a different language (Mohawk, Ojibwe, and English), depicting people’s gratitude to Mother Earth for a good life, while orchestral sections depict Mother Earth. Narration sections provide the context for the work as well as establish the connection and relationship between the people and the earth.
The piece makes use of several prominent thematic ideas that recur throughout the piece. One such idea is the opening flute melody, representing the voice of mother earth; it occurs in various instruments and moods throughout the piece, symbolizing the various states of her nature. Another idea is the heartbeat of the earth that can often be heard in various percussion instruments. Yet another idea is an ascending four-note motive, first heard at the end of the first section in low strings and winds; gently dubbed as the connection motive, it occurs in various transformations throughout the work and symbolizes the connection between the people and the earth.
While the soloists (drummers and singers) consistently take the role of First Nations People, the orchestra takes on several roles and functions. On the one hand, it represents Mother Earth, who leads a dialogue with the people. In many sections of the work, you can hear the orchestra responding to the song of the people by sometimes interrupting, sometimes supporting (accompanying), and sometimes contrasting with the song. On the other hand, the orchestra provides the musical background and the appropriate mood for various sections. For example, the music undergirding the narration sections is more mood-supporting rather than representative of a specific character. The orchestration of the work is succinct and straightforward: during song sections it articulates, reinforces, and punctuates the formal structure of the song, while during orchestral and narration sections it helps create the appropriate moods and images.
The piece opens with a brief introduction, depicting Mother Earth, over which a narrator reads the poem. Earth’s voice can be heard in the flute, while her heartbeat in the timpani and bass drum. Great expanses of her land are depicted as open-fifth sonority in the strings. This section ends with the connection motive in lower strings and winds, which leads to the first (Mohawk) verse of the song. In the first verse the drummers and singers take the lead while the orchestra quietly accompanies and punctuates the song.
The calm and peaceful atmosphere of the song is suddenly interrupted with the appearance of the first orchestral interlude. Here, Mother Earth has a more serious and somber demeanor, as two tone clusters, played in strings and winds, project a more intense atmosphere. Earth’s voice appears in the clarinet this time, while her elevated and somewhat uneven heartbeat in the timpani and bass drum. In this section the drummers join the orchestra in accompaniment, as if listening intently to what the mother has to say. Following the interruption, the song resumes with the second (Ojibwe) verse. The peaceful, calm atmosphere returns as the singers take the lead once again and the orchestra accompanies.
The development section begins with another narration section, where Mother Earth “speaks” once again and reading of the poem occurs. The mood and pacing of this section is more intense and urgent. Earth’s voice appears this time in fragmentation, with short motives of the melody stated in imitation in different wind instruments. The heartbeat motive (in bass drum) is also much faster and intense. The narration reflects the fragmented nature of the melody: the first portion of the poem is presented in a call-and-response manner between the narrator, who reads the poem text, and the rest of the singers, who respond to the narrator by emphasizing important words in the text. A gradual crescendo and addition of low brass and percussion instruments leads to the third (English) verse of the song. In this verse the previously calm and peaceful atmosphere is transformed into a more celebratory one by way of greater harmonic exploration and colorful orchestration. In this section the singers and the orchestra are on equal footing, joyfully joining together in song.
Initiated by a thundering timpani roll, a sudden key change leads to the first climax of the work. In this section the English verse is repeated with broad and majestic sonorities in the orchestra. Both soloists and orchestra join together in joyous, sun-filled celebration and song. This section features majestic brass passages, shimmering harp glissandi, playful percussion rhythms and other colorful moments. As the verse draws to a close, the radiant sunshine atmosphere gives way to incoming rain clouds, as short orchestral transition leads to a violent storm scene.
The storm scene is the second climax of the work. Here, the earth's violent nature is portrayed with howling winds, rain and stormy conditions coming together in a violent outburst. In this section, earth’s voice appears in the blaring brass, while strong winds, rain and thunder are depicted in flute and clarinet runs and crashing rolls of the gong. Earth's pounding heartbeat is now amplified by all strings and percussion instruments, while the connection motive appears in its augmented form in low brass. All drummers and singers join the orchestra in incessant drumming rhythms that amplify the violent, stormy mood of this section.
The recapitulation section arrives with the third and final narration section. As the storm subsides, a moment of clarity and calm occurs over which the narrator reads the first part of the poem. This section has a somewhat eerie atmosphere created by the continual repetition of the connection motive in low strings, while harp and bowed vibraphone punctuate the passages. Short rhythmic motifs in the bassoons prepare the entrance of the closing verse of the song, which promptly follows with the statement “we are the people” sung by the soloists in both Mohawk and English languages. The piece ends in the same way it began: Mother Earth’s voice in the flute and her heartbeat in timpani and bass drum return as the narrator finishes reading the poem.