Celebration of Native American Culture:
Focus on Dr. Louis
International Native American Composer
some went out trick or treating on October 31st,
1999 a group of music lovers with strong affinities for art
and social action gathered for a lasting treat at Carnegie
Hall that featured, among other works, a little known but highly
regarded orchestral piece, Incident at Wounded Knee by
Native American composer, Louis Ballard. The work had been
commissioned in 1973 at the behest of Dennis Russell Davies,
then Conductor and Music Director of The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
A year later it was performed here and in Europe to great acclaim.
Scored for flute, oboe,
clarinet, percussion, strings, bassoons, and horns, the sixteen-minute, four-movement
piece was part of the American Composers Orchestra celebration of 20th Century
Snapshots “examining themes, moments, and trends of 20th century
protest music.” (Other composers on the program included Robert Beaser,
Alvin Singleton and Curtis Curtis-Smith.) A musical artist of Cherokee and
Quapaw descent, Dr. Ballard, an Oklahoman, who received his doctorate in music
from the College of Santa Fe, boasts among his forebears a Principal Chief
of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a Medicine Chief of the Quapaw Nation
of OklahomaÍbut there are Scottish, French and English ancestors as well—fitting
enough for an internationally honored composer, music educator, and journalist
who was the first American to have his works performed in the new Beethoven-House
Chamber Music Hall, in Bonn. He was also the recipient in 1997 of A Lifetime
Musical Achievement Award as one of the “First Americans in the Arts.” Other
credits include performances at the Smithsonian, Lincoln Center and the Robert
F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, D.C., and, Nov. 12, 2004, in Muskogee, Oklahoma,
he joins a roster of popular music artists by his induction into The Oklahoma
Music Hall of Fame.
Of course, the
prompt that stirred Dr. Ballard’s to compose Incident was
the massacre at Wounded Knee, euphemistically first referred to by the U.S.
Army as the Battle of Wounded Knee. The “incident” which took place
December 29, 1890 in southwestern South Dakota, was the most devastating of
the conflicts between members of the Lakota tribe, including Chief Big Foot
and followers of the slain Sitting Bull, and the U.S. Cavalry. The “incident” resulted
in the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of men, women and children and has come
to mark the failure of Indian policies as well as the end of the American frontier.
Thus Dr. Ballard’s inner command: not just to present American Indian
music to the larger American culture but, as he has written, to awaken and
reorient the country’s “total spiritual and cultural perspective
to embrace, understand and learn about the artistic impulses and culture of “the
Aboriginal American.” The roundup, which culminated at the Pine Ridge
Reservation, soon turned brutally violent, and the “incident” went
on to become of the most disgraceful symbols of culture clash in American history.
The 73-year old composer says the title came to him when in 1ÍÍÍ973 a number
of Native Americans went on trial in St. Paul for a protest on the Sioux Reservation
at Pine Ridge, but it was largely the “tragic” horror of 1890 that
he wanted to memorialize.
Neither literal or programmatic,
the music of Incident has been described
by Dr. Ballard as “an evocation of the traditions and moods of the Native
American people,” its four parts—Procession, Prayer, Blood and
War, and Ritual—capturing the sense of the Native American’s “regeneration
and hopes for a better future life.” In this regard, Incident
at Wounded Knee is deeply American, part of a music history that includes
the expression of the sufferings of oppressed people, but because the value
of Incident rises “above all political emotions of this
epoch,” it has also entered the mainstream.#
Dr. Ballard has written
a book with an accompanying CD for schools and music teachers that will be
reviewed next month.