An arts organization with a great reputation for quality that deserves more recognition and support is the Omaha Conservatory of Music. The following story previewed a recent concert by the conservatory celebrating music of the Omaha Nation that brought students from area high schools together with students from St. Augustine Mission School on the Winnebago Reservation and Omaha Indian elders.
Indigenous Music Celebrated in Omaha Conservatory of Music Nebraska Roots Concert
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Indigenous themes take center stage for a March 24 Omaha Conservatory of Music concert that culminates the school’s Nebraska Roots: Native American Music of the Omaha Indian Tribe curriculum. The program is also the conservatory’s annual Winter Festival Orchestra showcase.
Various ensembles featuring conservatory students and youth players from schools near and far will perform along with Omaha Indian tribal elders and students from St. Augustine Mission School on the Winnebago (Neb.) Reservation. Premiering are two pieces for orchestral strings written by OCM faculty member Danny Sarba that he adapted from Native tunes. One is the “Flag Song.” The other is “The Appreciation Song.”
A featured presentation is the Winter Festival Orchestra performing a movement from the OCM-commissioned and Pulitzer Prize and Grawemeyer Award nominated “La pert de la Terre” by noted violinist and composer Maria Newman. A member of a Hollywood dynasty of film composers, she drew on Native peace pipe melodies for her new work.
“She’s a stunning composer and she’s credited a pretty stunning work,” says OCM executive director Ruth Meints.
Guest conductor is David Barg, whom Meints describes as “an internationally known conductor” with “unorthodox methods” for getting the best out of young players.
The 7 p.m. program at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is free and open to the public.
Meints says the diverse concert expresses the nonprofit’s mission to build artistic communities through education and performance. “We’re always trying to do collaborative things that build community,” she says. “It should be a pretty full program. It’s kind of like all worlds are colliding.”
The concert caps a year’s exploration of “the first music of Nebraska.” Tribal elders Calvin Harlan and Pierre Merrick came to the conservatory, located in new digs at the Westside Community Center, to demonstrate the traditional way Omaha Indian music is performed. It’s all part of OCM’s effort to archive the music. A drum circle led by Harlan and Merrick was recorded at the OCM studio. The March concert will also be professionally recorded. CDs containing the recordings will eventually be produced with a book of the transcribed music.
The idea to study, perform and record indigenous music has its roots in a 1893 book that Meints, a music educator, stumbled upon years ago. A Study of Omaha Indian Music by ethno-musicologist Alice Fletcher is a compilation of Omaha Indian chants and ceremonial music she recorded and transcribed. With Omaha Indian music a largely oral tradition and few Native speakers left, Meints thought the time right to celebrate and perpetuate traditional Native material and make it the focus of cross-cultural exchange.
She says elders have shared with students stories about the meanings behind the songs and students have performed for them selections from the new compositions by Sarba. Sarba spent time on the res and in Omaha recording-transcribing the elders’ music much as Fletcher did more than a century ago.
Conservatory teacher Cody Jorgensen is doing an outreach program with St. Augustine Mission students, including 2nd and 4th graders coming to sing for the concert.
Newman, a guest artist at the OCM summer institute, responded strongly when Meints asked her to conceive a piece echoing Native sounds. Her “La perte de la Terra” premiered at last year’s institute and has since been performed widely across the U.S.. Fletcher’s book became Newman’s inspiration. “I found that absolutely fascinating,” she says. “Just as Bela Bartok did with Romanian and Hungarian folk music and all the vernacular music of those peoples, Alice Fletcher did with Omaha Indian Nation music. Our country has for so many years been obsessed with European music, so I think what she did was really significant.”
Until working on the commission Newman says her exposure to Indian music was “in a cliche manner” informed by her own family’s Hollywood pedigree.
“We here in Hollywood have often been bombarded with real cliches of cowboys and Indians and that sort of thing, and so I was petrified to tell you the truth when I received this commission that I was going to offend somehow with my composition. I had not studied Indian music to the extent that I could understand what was going on with the small variations in tonality, intonation, musical contour. All of those things became so much more apparent when I began to study the Alice Fletcher book.
“I really worked hard to try to figure out how to use the pentatonic or five-note scale used by the Indian nations. I didn’t want to take one of those chants Alice Fletcher had on paper and arrange it. What I wanted to do was write something completely original. I was desperately trying to run away from cliche. I sought to create something that was somehow infused rhythmically and harmonically with the essence of those materials.”
Newman says “La perte de la Terra” translates literally as “A Part of the Earth” but that to French Indians it means “Lost Pieces of the Earth,” which expresses more closely what she means to evoke.
“I have a really great respect for our Native American cultures. A lot of blood was given by the Native American people in the white man taking over this continent. The blood they shed went into what made our country. Things like the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Louisiana Purchase also formed the country. These lost pieces of the earth came together as a puzzle and connected so that we could now hopefully join our nations and become one great nation.”
For more on the conservatory, visit http://www.omahacm.org.
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Fascinating profile subjects abound everywhere I turn. Often times though I feel constrained to impart just how compelling a person’s story is by the limited space editors grant me. The subject of this of this profile, Taylor Keen, is a case in point. The 500 to 600 words allotted me to tell his story can only provide a hint of the complexity and nuance that attend his life and career journey. It’s a delightful writing challenge to be sure. All I can hope is that I leave you the reader with an engaging glimpse of the man and a thirst to know more.
Entrepreneur, Strategist and Nation Builder Taylor Keen
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in Omaha Magazine
As the son of prominent, college-educated Native American parents who found success in and out of traditional circles, Creighton University‘s Taylor Keen says he grew up with the expectation “you had to walk in both worlds.”
He hails from northeast Oklahoma, where his late attorney father, Ralph F. Keen, was a conservative big wheel in Cherokee nation politics. His liberal Omaha Indian mother, Octa Keen, is a veteran nursing professional. He credits her for his being well-versed in traditional dances, songs and prayer ceremonies.
He successfully navigates “dual worlds” at Creighton as director of the Native American Center and as executive director of the Halo Institute, a business incubator. He’s also managing partner of his own consulting firm. Talon Strategy, which provides clients competitive intelligence and strategic facilitation solutions.
Off-campus, he maintains ceremonial duties as a member of the Omaha Hethuska Warriors. He previously did economic development consulting for the Omaha and Cherokee nations and served a stint on the Cherokee National Council.
He joined Creighton in 2008 in the wake of a tribal political controversy that pitted him against fellow Cherokee nation elected leaders. The issue involved the descendants of slaves held by the Cherokee in earlier times. Keen, who had eyes on becoming chief, says he “committed political suicide” when he took an unpopular stance and advocated these descendants enjoy the same rights as all native Cherokees.
It wasn’t the first time Keen survived personal upset. When his parents divorced he and his siblings bounced back and forth between Oklahoma and Omaha. With deep roots in each place, Keen calls both home.
Even from his earliest dealings with the outside world he says he was always aware “I was very different from other people,” adding, “That was a crucial life lesson. Identity for all of us as human beings is where it begins and ends.” He says his own “strong sense of identity” has helped him thrive.
He graduated from Millard North and ventured east to attend a private boarding school in Massachusetts to improve his chances of getting into an Ivy League institution. His plan worked when Dartmouth accepted him. He also studied at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. A paper he wrote attracted the attention of Metropolitan Fiber Systems, a spin-off of Peter Kiewit and Sons. “I was hired as a graduate intern at a very exciting time, working for all these powerful executives at a fresh young startup. I was hooked,” he says. “I returned the next summer and they sent me overseas.”
Swept up in the dot com-technology-telecom boom, he tried his hand at his own online business and though he says “it failed miserably,” he adds, “I learned a ton. I think all entrepreneurs learn more from their mistakes than from their successes.
My class at Harvard Business School, whether we like it or not, will be forever remembered as the dot com class. I believe 80 percent of us at least had some association with dot coms.”
Encouraged in the belief that his true calling lay in teaching, he’s found the right fit at Creighton. There he combines two of his favorite things by easing the path of Natives in higher education and by helping emerging businesses prepare themselves for angel investors .
“Creighton’s been very good to me,” he says. “It has very much let me play towards my passions and my strengths.”