Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate finds identity in new work

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate is a Chickasaw classical composer and pianist.Courtesy of the artist

June 04, 2021

It’s a long way from Limerick, Ireland, to the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, yet the gap is bridged in a surprising way on Lowak Shoppala’, a new CD by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate —an American Indian composer who should be familiar to Minnesota audiences.

Described as “a work that expresses Chickasaw identity through modern classical music and theater,” Lowak Shoppala’ (Fire and Light) has an unusual source of inspiration.

“You’re gonna love this,” Tate says. “My strongest inspiration for Lowak Shoppala’ was Riverdance. It’s my Chickasaw Riverdance.”

Tate is, of course, referring to Limerick-born composer Bill Whelan’s smash-hit show of 1995, which catapulted traditional Irish dance and music to global attention and made a superstar of American dancer Michael Flatley.

Riverdance came smack in the middle of a time when multiple cultures were having a revival around the world, including American Indian,” Tate says.

“I was very inspired by that whole movement of pride in identity, especially by the way in which Riverdance uses scenes and tableaux from Irish culture and history. And I remember thinking I would love to do an American Indian version of that.”

Like Riverdance, Lowak Shoppala’ is divided into different sections, exploring aspects of its composer’s native culture. Poems by Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan provide the spoken narrative, and, in live performances, Chickasaw dance and costumes feature.

Hogan’s words tap into ancient truths about the umbilical relationship between living beings and the natural world, and they apply to all peoples, Tate says.

“Although many of us now live in big cities, we are still very much part of our environment,” he says. “There’s a reason why kids are born wanting to play in dirt. I don’t think that will ever change.”

Tate’s music for what he calls a “theatric suite of Chickasaw legends” thrums with elemental energies, referencing the earth-rhythms of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring while remaining entirely distinctive in idiom.

The balletic influences on Lowak Shoppala’ are no coincidence. Tate’s mother was a choreographer and professor of dance, and she commissioned him to write his first piece —the ballet Winter Moons, a work that the Minnesota Orchestra played a year after its 1992 premiere.

Far from being a one-off project, Lowak Shoppala’ is part of a substantial body of work that Tate has created over the past three decades, performed by ensembles such as the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Ballet and the Minnesota-based Dale Warland Singers.

Tate’s musical heritage runs deep — his great-grandparents played fiddle and piano, his father was a pianist and baritone — as does the historic engagement of Native American tribes with the people and cultural traditions of mainland Europe.

“By the time the United States became a country, Chickasaws had been traveling to Europe for 300 years and coming home again,” he says. “So we had Chickasaw classical musicians even before the removal from Mississippi.”

Tate readily acknowledges the influence of European composers on his music, particularly Béla Bartók, whose use of Hungarian folk tunes inspired Tate’s inclusion of Chickasaw melodies in Lowak Shoppala’ and other pieces.

“I actually transcribe and quote music from my tribe and other tribes, or I will create stuff that has the same sound,” he says.

Aside from his music, Tate works intensively as a teacher to develop more composers like himself.

“I am actively working on helping to develop American Indian identity in classical music, just like Tōru Takemitsu did in Japan,” he says.

Some of that work has been done in the Twin Cities, where as a composer-in-residence for the Joyce Foundation/American Composers Forum, Tate taught composition to American Indian high school students in Minneapolis.

“The work I do with kids is absolutely paramount,'“ he says. “I love it. For many of them, it’s the very first time they’ve ever composed, and it’s amazing how quickly and intensely they take to it.”

The results, he adds, can have extraordinary stylistic variety.

“There may be different tribes in the room, and there are as many ways to be an Indian as there are Indians,” he says.

Lowak Shoppala’ also has Twin Cities roots. Commissioned by the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum, its release on CD is undoubtedly a milestone moment in the development of Native American classical music, little of which is available on recordings.

That heartens Tate. At a time when classical music in general is struggling to define its relevance amid a surge of competing entertainment options, he is optimistic about the future.

“I’m very excited about it,” he says. “We live in a time when there’s an unparalleled number of composers in many genres, including film music.”

And the staggering advances in technology of recent years have also revolutionized access to events unfolding in the world around us, creating a new generation of composers with unprecedented levels of social awareness.

“When I went to the Hopi reservation to teach a couple of years ago, I walk into their media studio and they’re watching the latest news from Great Britain pop onto their screens,” he says. “These kids know more about politics than I do.”

Helping that younger generation express their feelings and reactions in music, and continuing to write music is what fires Tate’s positivity about the future.

“The word ‘remote’ does not apply in the world anymore,” he says. “I believe it’s for me as a Native American classical composer to say we’re in the game, just be who you are and take risks. Let’s go, just do it.”