A Conversation with Michael V. Pisani

A Conversation with Michael V. Pisani

Michael V. Pisani
Photo by Vince B. Vincent

  • READ an excerpt from Imagining Native America in Music by Michael V. Pisani.


    Frank J. Oteri: Someone who first sees the title of your book might assume it to be ethnomusicology, but in fact it’s more historical musicology. It’s actually not about Native American music at all, but rather the creation of faux-Native American music by non-Native Americans. What has been your experience of actual Native American music and is it something you would be interested in writing about in greater detail someday?

    Michael V. Pisani: I thought that the word imagining might give it away, that it was a book about something that is itself about something. You’re right that Imagining Native America does not particularly explain music of American Indians but rather explores how music of American Indians was of use to Euro-American musicians, so of course, there’s plenty of Indian music quoted, described, reinterpreted. I consider myself a historian, and so I am drawn to the historical circumstances in which this music came into being and was used. At the same time, I am always interested in the music and culture of native America, especially since I feel we owe so much to American Indians for this great country. But aside from my experiences of having been to powwows and listening to Native American music and storytelling, I feel it would be presumptuous for me, a white Euro-American of Italian ancestry, to write about the music of a culture of which I’m essentially a foreigner. It was my initial belief—one decidedly reinforced after having written this book—that American Indian history, including cultural history, is best told by Indians themselves, or should at least first be told by American Indians, since so many non-natives have presumed to know about the culture and then went ahead and wrote about it.

    FJO: Your history of faux-Native Americanisms is amazingly thorough from the period of First Contact through about the middle of the last century. But aside from your fascinating chapter on Native American tropes in film music, your book seems to imply that such practices have been on the wane since the second half of the 20th century. Did such practices cease or should we expect a second volume?

    MVP: There is actually quite a bit on the 1960s to the 1990s, particularly as the older tropes are challenged by new ways of thinking and by American Indian cultural emergence since the 1960s. In general, however, this study needed to be thorough, as I discovered while engaged in my research. I encountered too often the hasty conclusion that misrepresentations could easily be laughed away by calling them stereotypes and simply moving on, without even trying to answer obvious questions, such as: “What makes this a stereotype?” and “What use did it have?” or “Why was it so prevalent?” Of course I had to look in detail at exactly what the components of this music were, down to the level of musical borrowing and adaptation, and to deal with the degree to which these are embedded in largely fanciful projections. One of the things I learned in the process—and that I hope my book reveals to others—is that these stereotypes changed from generation to generation. What represented native America in music in stage and film in 1940 was very different than, say, in 1790, when there were lots of Indian characters on the stage with music to accompany them. I wanted to know what accounted for these differences, and so I decided to look at the “big picture.” My book does go beyond the 1960s and really does take film music up to the present, and I look at quite a few film scores from the 1970s, ’80s, and, particularly, the 1990s, when there was another obvious surge of interest in native America (as I expect there will be in the 2090s). Still, the question as you posed it is not one I can easily answer here and really does merit another book. The exact practices of “faux-Native Americanisms,” as you put it, may cease, but native America as a subject—and music written to tell stories about specific Indians or about native America in general—certainly will not cease. I do not foresee these “faux-Native Americanisms” ending, just changing, as our interpretation of the world around us changes.

    FJO: Might the waning of such practices in the mainstream of concert music be the result of an ever further reduced consciousness about Native Americans, a greater degree of racial sensitivity these days, or the emergence of more accessible authentic Native American music?

    MVP: When I engaged in the research for this book, which took about eight years, I really didn’t know what I would say about the 20th century after, say, 1945, since nationalism and music as ethnic identifier became such an intellectual quagmire in that period. It gradually dawned on me, as I was assembling my sources for the 20th century, that the most compelling arena of music in that century, at least for this kind of thing, was really the stage and the cinema, not the concert hall.

    After about 1945, the concert hall ceases to be the place that reflects society back to itself, as it did in the Baroque or Romantic periods. Perhaps this has something to do with the conservatism of concert audiences, or the fear of offending somebody, I don’t know. In general, I think you are indeed correct about the country today possessing a further reduced consciousness about native America. Back at the start of the 20th century, many political and cultural progressives struggled to help American Indians be heard, and land rights were hot-button issues.

    Today, we are in a period where American Indians figure quite low in terms of American identity. How many Indians can you name that are in Congress or are governors of states, for example? Too many American Indians still live in poverty and have not become part of the American system that allows other races and ethnicities to prosper. Certainly we as a society have grown more racially sensitive toward others. But until the terrible situation in which many American Indians find themselves these days is remedied—which could take generations—it would be inappropriate, at least in a concert setting, to render a picturesque native America, as MacDowell did back in 1896. As far as the cinema goes, however, it is done all the time, although we often don’t realize that’s what’s happening.

    FJO: The “Indianist” phenomenon of course has not been limited to music, and faux-Indianisms in other forms have garnered a great deal of critical venom in recent years. The memoir The Education of Little Tree or the controversies surrounding the work of novelist Jamake Highwater immediately come to mind. What has been the Native American response, if any, to music that claims a Native American pedigree?

    MVP: Very little of the music discussed in my book, unlike some of the myths and rituals discussed by Highwater, can claim anything approaching an Indian pedigree. Perhaps some of the earliest chants transcribed by clerics who accompanied Spanish and French explorers—and the versions of their chants that were performed by European singers or played by European instrumentalists—might be said to have some claim to authenticity. By the time the ethnographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were recording and transcribing native songs, the composers who were interested in these mostly used them as departures for more elaborate compositions. This was partly in an attempt to give their concert music an “American” sound, particularly at a time when no one was quite sure what that sound was (or was going to be). Today, there are native scholars like Philip Deloria or Ward Churchill—to cite two very different kinds of critics—who have examined the use of American Indian images and rituals in 20th-century media. From what I have been able to tell, however, most American Indians back at the beginning of the century were silent about this kind of borrowing. During these years they had far more important things to argue for, and indeed still do.

    FJO: The appropriations of misunderstood Native Americanisms in classical music definitely bear a relationship to similar appropriations/misappropriations of music from other cultures by Europeans and the European settlers of the Americas—I’m thinking of the fake Chinoiserie or Turkish marches of everyone from the French harpsichord composers to Mozart. Even in more recent times, the minimalists and other experimental composers (Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, etc.) have taken non-Western musics as a departure point for music that ultimately bears little relationship to the music that inspired it. What might a greater awareness of actual Native American music bring to the language of contemporary composers?

    MVP: One way of looking at this is along the lines posed by the historians Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas several decades ago, the idea that there were two kinds of primitivisms, a chronological one and an existential one. In the chronological form, artists, composers, novelists, etc., described (or portrayed) primitive cultures largely to illustrate their differences from the artist or composer’s target audience. In the existential form, artists went and lived a different culture in an effort to understand it, learn from it, be more like that culture, sometimes partly to escape what they saw as their own spiritually bankrupt society. Harrison and Partch were definitely existentialists, in that they respected and understood the source of their musics, in fact, were directing modern Western music toward more Eastern ideas and aesthetics. The danger here—and I think it is a particularly dangerous one in the case of native America—is that native America has been tapped for so many of its supposed characteristics, particularly in the area of spiritualism. You already mentioned the controversial writer Jamake Highwater. Countless non-native writers have aspired to Native American values and, in doing so, take more from native cultures than they have to give back to them. That, I think, is the real danger. If the composer’s end is to enrich his or her style with a more “authentic” language, then it is best to leave American Indian music alone. If the goal, however, is to say something important about Native America, then perhaps there is long-term benefit in it. It’s not at all, as I see it, like borrowing the characteristics of Balinese gamelan, as Harrison did, or East Indian talas, as Glass did, although I can’t say for sure as I’m not from Indonesia or India.

    FJO: There are a handful of composers today who cite Native American music as an influence, I’m thinking of composers like Kyle Gann, Judith Saint-Croix, and Jerome Kitzke. Is their music somehow a continuation of your history? How is it different?

    MVP: Of course the Indian-influenced pieces by these composers are a continuation of this history, particularly a work like Kitzke’s Box Death Hollow, with its evocation of native America, or music by Canadian R. Murray Schafer. As I mentioned, in my overview I dispensed with the “classical tradition” after about 1940, turning instead to stage and film. In concert and chamber music, the interest in native America began to grow again in the 1970s, likely for two reasons: 1) associations with the musical nationalism of MacDowell, Farwell, and similar composers were now safely in the long-forgotten past; and 2) the new-age spiritualism of the 1960s, often linked with native America, was seen as synonymous with a new aesthetic that composers were seeking, a less goal-oriented and more cyclical approach to composition. This aspect of the history—the “art music tradition” from about 1945 to the present—I’m going to have to leave to someone else, or many someone elses, to write about.

    FJO: In popular music, exoticisms have been ubiquitous throughout the last century, whether it’s Ellington’s jungle band of the early ’30s, the ’50s mambo craze, raga rock, or the current ongoing “world music” explosion. Native American music seems strangely outside these appropriations, though. Is authentic Native American music ultimately more difficult to assimilate than Asian or African musical traditions? Or is the fact that Native Americans are less visible in our society nowadays more of a factor here?

    MVP: Again, this is a question that really merits a whole book. A short answer is likely to sound pat and perhaps too simplistic. I believe that American Indian music is outside these traditions and cultures. So did Hamlin Garland or Philip Hale back in the 1890s, when concert music first began to appear that quoted Native American sources. The question you pose here is nevertheless really fascinating and it would be a good idea to bring several people together, including others who have dealt extensively with Asian or African musical traditions and their assimilation into an “American” culture. American society as a whole is much more aware of the African influence in its music, beginning with spirituals, gospel, and soul, but certainly very prominently with blues and jazz, prompting some to call jazz “America’s music,” as if this nation didn’t bring forth lots of other kinds of distinctive musics. But consider what ethical issues are involved in discussing jazz as “assimilated African American music” as opposed to honoring it as a distinctly black American music. Duke Ellington himself used to be criticized by black musicians for his assimilationist stance. How much more difficult—and ethically murky—is it likely to be to talk about “assimilating” American Indian music in American culture, particular given the fact that American Indians have been struggling for the past eighty years or so to make their voices heard above the din of what the rest of us have been saying about them?

    FJO: Practically none of the American Indian-inspired music discussed in your book has entered the repertoire. I’ve enjoyed what little of Farwell’s and Cadman’s music I’ve heard on recordings. In your estimation, how much of their work or the work of others you describe is worthy of a revival?

    MVP: I think a lot of it can be revived, although context matters enormously. To perform an opera like Cadman’s Shanewis—which was remarkably sympathetic to American Indians in 1918 but can seem very dated today—a director would have to find a way to treat it as a period piece, while still bringing out the music’s charm and the opera’s universally human values. (Andrew Porter wrote a favorable review of a 1979 piano performance in Colorado.) Victor Herbert’s Natoma (1911) is filled with absolutely wonderful music, some of it on quite a grand scale. But the plot is terribly hackneyed, and the libretto is at times downright laughable. He should have set it in Italian, in which case it would probably still be performed in America today! Certainly most of Arthur Farwell’s “Indian” music is wonderful and original and each performance I’ve heard of Pawnee Horses or Navajo War Dance sounds different, which goes to show that a good piece of music—regardless of the nature of its source material—lends itself to reinterpretation. If you go to the webpage designed to accompany my book, you’ll see thousands of compositions listed. Many of the 19th-century pieces have probably not been played since, let alone recorded. I would like to hear Stoepel’s Hiawatha (1859) or Converse’s The Peace Pipe (1915) played someday. So far, it’s only been me singing these at the piano. Any of the Hiawatha-based pieces are perhaps less offensive today than the “war dances” or character pieces such as Loomis’s Chattering Squaw.

    FJO: In what seems to me like an ironic twist of history, there are now several prominent Native American symphonic composers. I’m thinking of people like Louis Ballard and Brent Michael Davids. As they approach a synthesis of European approaches with Native American materials, has the phenomenon of imagining native America in music in some sense come full circle? Might their work ultimately be somewhat related either sonically or philosophically to the work of composers like Arthur Farwell and Charles Wakefield Cadman?

    MVP: Since you’re asking about recent concert music, I would again add that this is a question for someone else to answer someday. I would be very surprised if someone actually drew connections between Ballard or Davids and Cadman. The two modern composers would probably be dumbfounded at the comparison. What Davids, particularly, has been doing is so different, even using alternative forms of notation. He writes from a Mohegan perspective, not necessarily quoting Mohegan music. On the other hand, the piece he composed for Chanticleer, The Uncovered Wagon, is actually quite pictorial, depicting an older time and capturing the windy sweep of the plains, although this effect is helped by the ambience of the recording. In either case, I wouldn’t say that Ballard or Davids is imagining native America as much as telling personal stories about some aspects of native America.

    FJO: Whether native or non-native, ultimately how close could a composer writing for something like an orchestra ever come to creating something that resonates with “authentic Native American music”? And could such a music ever have a broad audience?

    MVP: I think “authentic Native American music,” if that’s what we’re going to call it, really is social music, not “listening” music. So the whole Western idea of attracting people into concert halls for a “listening experience” in which they achieve some kind of transcendence has nothing to do with what I know of the music of American Indians, whether these were singing Natchez chasing DeSoto’s men down the Mississippi or an O’odham “chicken scratch” band to dance to in Arizona. Now, if there were performing groups called the Navajo Symphony or a Five Nations Symphony consisting principally of American Indian musicians—there certainly were plenty of bands, but I don’t know about orchestras—and they wanted to commission works that incorporate familiar music into a larger symphonic context, well then it would be interesting to see what comes of it, especially as this would be music of American Indians made by American Indians. If I tried to cover all of these aspects in Imagining Native America in Music, it would have been three times as long. In its current form, I hope my book helps us understand more about American music history and the role that native America played in it (and will no doubt continue to play in it).

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