Lakota Music Project Finds Beauty in Blending Musical Traditions

Released October 28, 2022 on innova Recordings, Lakota Music Project works to bridge cultural and racial divides through collaboration. The live album is a continuation of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra’s long-standing program of the same name, in which the symphony performs with, commissions, and features members of American Indian tribes of South Dakota and the surrounding areas. Musically, this collaboration has been quite successful, with the compositions on the album clearly blending multiple traditions in meaningful and exciting ways.

Brent Michael Davids‘ Black Hills Olowan begins mysteriously: short, fragmented gestures are thrown across the orchestra in rapid succession and create a strong sense of movement, which contrasts with longer, more drawn out and subdued lyrical lines in the strings. This first section maintains a character of uncertainty and a veiled lyricism before the Creekside Singers enter and clear the air, lightening up the texture and propelling the piece forward. Afterwards, the piece alternates thorny and colorful modernist orchestral writing with bright sections of Lakota singing, building in intensity each time to a crashing, rhythmic ending with the full orchestra and singers.

Brent Michael Davids–Photo courtesy of the artist

Wind on Clear Lake, composed by SDSO Principal Oboist Jeffrey Paul, is more somber and delicate. Long, searching melodies unfold over effervescent strings, percussion, and winds. Slowly, Paul incorporates rumbling brass to shape peaks and troughs into the texture. About halfway through, we first hear Dakota flutist Bryan Akipa, whose extremely expressive playing and gorgeous tone wonderfully blends into and extends the texture of the piece. Paul’s writing for the orchestral accompaniment, with strings lightly doubling Akipa’s playing and the shifting harmonies underneath, is also very worthy of praise here.

The longest work on the album, Waktégli olówaŋ (Victory Songs) by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, returns to the darker, brooding feelings of the opening work. The sprawling orchestral rhapsody, featuring vocalist Stephen L. Bryant singing in the Lakota language, was composed “in honor of Lloyd Running Bear, Sr. and all Lakota Indian warriors.” The piece is in several parts, the first of which is built around waves of energy that build and recede, growing stronger each time as we get higher and higher, carried forward by Bryant’s vibrant singing.

Throughout, the piece uses many dark, rich timbres, with contrasting moments of lightness that help the piece from becoming too heavy. The second to last section is particularly beautiful and subdued, providing Bryant the opportunity to sing with exquisite delicacy as the texture fades to nothing before the bombastic and massive ending. The work is quite effective, and Bryant easily projects over the entire orchestra while singing with stunning sensitivity in the quieter moments. Tate’s music is moving and varied, easily holding one’s attention for the entire length of the work.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate--Photo by Shevaun Williams

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate–Photo by Shevaun Williams

Unfortunately, there are audible clipping and volume level problems throughout the loud sections of the album, as well as some other minor issues such as obvious microphone gain changes, small skips, and audio artifacts. This impacts Black Hills Olowan and Waktégli olówaŋ especially, as both feature multiple full tutti sections where the audio becomes more muddled by the consistent clipping. Being a live recording, some audio artifacts are always expected, but the clipping issues are quite consistent across the album and notably impact the listening experience.

Desert Wind, also composed by Jeffrey Paul, provides welcome contrast to the other pieces with haunting melodic writing for the strings that incorporates glissandi, harmonics, and echoing effects that feel suggestive of a windy expanse. The piece also features electric guitar, with a rich, distorted tone that expands the sonic palette of the album. Theodore Wiprud’s arrangement of “Amazing Grace” for orchestra and the Creekside Singers is an extremely effective final piece. The colorfully orchestrated setting of this familiar tune highlights and encompasses the concept of the album as styles exchange and blend together.

While hampered by some recording issues, the music on Lakota Music Project is wonderfully varied, including dissonant and dense modernism, quiet lyricism, contemporary pieces with extended techniques, traditional Lakota drumming groups, and so many other styles in between. The performances by soloists, singers, and the orchestra are phenomenal — especially the crisp clarity from the orchestra, which allows their collaborators and the details in the music to shine through. If the goal of this project is to create music that is rooted in multiple traditions and bridges across these realms, then it has easily succeeded, finding beauty in both similarities and differences.

 

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