08 SepBehind the Scenes at ‘Oshtali’ Recording Sessions
By Rik Fairlie
For three days last January, ETHEL joined 11 young Native American composers, their teacher, and a producer in Oklahoma City to create something entirely new: The first professional classical recording of works composed by Native American students.
The project was, as ETHEL’s Mary Rowell recalls, “a really wonderful exchange.”
You can hear the results yourself in the recording “Oshtali: Music for String Quartet,” a collection of 16 (mostly) classical pieces composed by Chickasaw students who ranged in age from 13 to 21 years old.
There are many distinctive aspects of this album: the way it was written, the way it was recorded, the way it sounds. I wasn’t on hand for the sessions in Oklahoma City, but I have been intrigued by the project since the CD was released in June. I spoke with ETHEL – Neil Dufallo, Ralph Farris, Dorothy Lawson, and Mary Rowell — to get their take on the CD, and they had plenty to say.
The group hadn’t met the composers or the producer, Alan Bise, before the recording sessions began. ETHEL had, however, previously worked with Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, the students’ composition teacher at the Chickasaw Nation Summer Arts Academy in Ada, Okla.
The Chickasaw student arts program itself is groundbreaking: It is the only fine arts academy in the United States that is sponsored by a tribe. Jerod had heard the students’ compositions early on and was impressed enough to ask Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby to approve the recording project.
“It was striking that their teacher worked so well with them and really took it very seriously and paved the way for them to take the project all the way through,” Mary says.
The recording sessions took place Oklahoma City University’s Wanda L. Bass School of Music, with ETHEL playing in a rehearsal hall and the producer and students working in an adjacent recording studio and connected via an audio and video feed.
“Alan really got the best of them,” Ralph says of the producer, who is also owner of Thunderbird Records, the label on which “Oshtali” is recorded. “He had the kids sit beside him and they had a hands-on role throughout the entire project.”
In addition, Jerod set the stage for what would become a perfect storm of discipline, creativity, and support.
It is a cultural norm that Native American youth are often shy with outsiders, and these kids were no exception. But Alan drew them out and gave them the support to interact with professional musicians and to clarify their musical intentions in the compositions.
“We asked them questions about what they wanted and whether they were hearing what they wanted, and they were at once very open-minded about our suggestions and yet quite decided about what they wanted to hear,” Mary says. “That’s pretty neat for people that young to understand what they’re going for clearly and to be able to express themselves. They were guided very beautifully by the producer.”
Ralph recalls one piece with a puzzling notation for viola that asked him to play high notes on a low string, which he found counterintuitive. Turns out, the composers knew exactly what they wanted: The sound of an erhu, a Chinese violin.
“I don’t know how they figured it out, but they noted it to make it sound exactly like an erhu,” Ralph says. “That was a really special thing–and very rare to have composers so eloquently know how they wanted the instrument to sound.” Listen to “Oshtali” and you’ll hear that, in addition to a complex, compelling blend of musical influences. Titles range from “Yeah ? I Hit Like a Girl,” to “Holhchifo Ki’yo,” and “Concerto for Strings;” the music itself is similarly diverse.
“It’s wonderful to see them create their own organic fusion of different styles of music,” Neil says. “It’s a mixture of what they listen to now, what they grew up hearing, and the music they encounter in movies and in daily experience in life. The students were not afraid to express themselves in a very quirky and personal way, and that was cool.”
Embedded in the pieces are also references to Chickasaw culture that the average listener may not catch. “You may hear a work song or a sacred song or a chant that a grandmother sings at sunset,” Ralph says. “A Chickasaw listener would get the reference, but it’s very subtle.”
This level of creativity and talent is not an accident, however. Dorothy says that the student composers have already established their drive to succeed. “These kids are already leaders among their peers; they are very smart and very motivated,” she says. “They showed up with an unusual degree of talent and intensity.”
Listen carefully and you’ll also hear that “Oshtali” sounds a bit different than the typical ETHEL recording. In part that’s because of the unique compositions themselves, of course, but also because producer Alan Bise put his own stamp on the sound. “Alan had a very clear vision of what he wanted, and the result is very convincing,” Neil says. “It’s a little different sound that ETHEL typically gets.”
The producer set up an audience area for friends and family to watch the recording unfold via live video, and the Chickasaw Nation responded enthusiastically. “These kids have the support of their families but we were surprised at the level of support from the Chickasaw community,” Dorothy says. “The depth of the community involvement was surprising. They really understand it, and that’s a very big deal.
“We’re very, very lucky to be involved in something with so much passion and belief behind it, and heart in it,” Dorothy says.