Sing to the Corn
for Narrator & String Quartet
This piece is a musical setting of a text recorded from Waheenee, a Hidatsa woman born in the Knife River area of present North Dakota around 1839.
The Hidatsa people, a northern Plains Indians culture, are among the oldest to have lived on this land, with the first villages dating back to the 13th century. While hunting was an important part of their lifestyle, the Hidatsa also very much relied on agriculture.
Historically, their agricultural surplus, combined with artisans' crafts and an advantageous geographical position, granted them a central role in the Great Plains Indian trading networks.
The Hidatsa traditionally lived in permanent villages composed of distinctive, large, circular earthen lodges. They were not a nomadic people.
The piece is comprised of seven deliberately uneven sections.
It deals with transition and treats not only the subject of time but also our perception of it. In this sense, it is a sequence of states -- physical, cultural, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
The final graphic complements the fourth section, central to the work. Its symbolic aspects address a torn fabric of time and the roots of a tree, the longest of which penetrate both the depths of the earth and of our subconscious.
As such, the piece operates in both a sequential and a simultaneous mode.
The work quotes two traditional songs. Suitable Hidatsa material was not available at the time of writing, so the songs quoted are from the closely related Mandan culture.
The very beginning quotes the first fragment of the "Song of the Black-Tailed Deer", which is narrative in nature.
In the fifth section, the viola plays the "Song to the Corn" in its entirety. In traditional use, this song would have served a slightly different purpose than that described by Waheenee, but the spirit of it remains true to form.
Both songs appear again and are reworked in the sixth section.
The original source material for the songs is provided further below. Groups performing the piece are encouraged to study it.
As the songs are crucial to understanding the core of the work, one possibility when rehearsing would be to play, or preferably, sing the songs together in unison.
I could of course never say enough to the power of Waheenee's words and the amazing cultural heritage of the Hidatsa people. They are true sources of inspiration, of which this piece is a meager and very fragmented reflection.
Credit must also be given to Frances Densmore for her visionary foresight and incredible dedication in recording the music of the Hidatsa and related cultures and preserving it for future generations. The resources below are pulled from her book "Mandan & Hidatsa Music", published in 1923.
As stated previously, the piece reflects on the nature of time and the passing thereof.
While it was written specifically in the context of the Hidatsa culture, it in this way offers a theme that is universal to humanity.
It is my wish that in this way, the music may speak to the heart of anyone, young and old alike, who has experienced loss, death, transition, remembrance, and a particular sort of inward reflection -- be it upon a person, a culture, a place, a time, a dream, or a hope.
While the music does make use of authentic quotes, it was never the goal of this piece to accurately emulate the whole of that cultural tradition.
As Waheenee herself stated, "Our Indian life, I know, is gone forever." While, fortunately, many aspects live and thrive in the present day, her assessment is also sadly accurate in a number of ways. What is gone is gone, and she is absolutely right.
Instead, the work reaches to music as a tool that is universal to humanity so that it may speak across the boundaries of space, time, and prejudice, and in doing so share a deeper understanding of existence.
The narrator should be a woman with a low voice.
I humbly request that the cellist sit on the outside when performing this piece.