OKLAHOMA CITY – Chickasaw classical music composer Jerod “Impichchaachaaha’ “Tate remembers the first time he laid eyes on Joshua Hinson.
It was 2007 and Hinson was honored by the Chickasaw Nation for his master’s thesis on Chickasaw stickball regalia. Hinson is director of the Chickasaw Nation Language Division, which is tasked with preserving the Chickasaw language. Tate was aware of Hinson’s critical role.
Only 70 fluent Chickasaw speakers remain, so language preservation is a very high priority, to say the least.
Eight years passed.
In the chilly early winter of 2015, Tate was commissioned by Canterbury Voices of Oklahoma City to compose an oratorio, a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices.
The Chickasaw composer had been approached in 2013 by the group’s executive director, Dr. Kay Holt, who planted the seed of a commissioned work.
“It is an important part of Canterbury’s mission to add to the greater body of choral literature. When it was time for us to commission again, we could think of no one more exciting than Jerod Tate,” Holt said. “We have long admired his music and talent.”
Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said it was gratifying to see this traditional Chickasaw story expressed in a new and creative way.
“It is exciting to see a story so important to Chickasaw culture and history conveyed in a Chickasaw language oratorio,” said Anoatubby. “Chickasaw storyteller Te Ata once wrote that art binds all people together. It is our hope that this musical work will help a new audience develop a better understanding and appreciation for Chickasaw culture that will bring us all closer together.”
Tate’s creation is titled “Misha Sipokni’” (The Old Ground). In song, it allows people to experience the pre-history migration of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes.
The oratorio will be performed entirely in Chickasaw.
Tate reached out to Hinson almost immediately for assistance in translating English into Chickasaw in time for the performance Oct. 7.
More than 250 individuals will perform the oratorio at the Oklahoma Civic Center Music Hall, encompassing the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra and Canterbury Voices – both adult and children choirs – in addition to a trio of top vocal soloists.
The soloists represent the voices of Chickasaw leader Chikasha, Choctaw leader Chahta, and the last soloist will sing as the matriarch of the Chickasaw people.
Hinson jumped at the opportunity to tackle Tate’s project.
“You know, it isn’t every day you get a call from an Emmy award-winning composer whose very compositions preserve endangered Native languages,” Hinson exclaimed. “Jerod Tate is a nationally known classical composer. His work is critically acclaimed both in Native American circles and in the mainstream classical music realm. To be asked to assist, even in a small way, was truly an honor.”
Tate explained Hinson’s role as anything but small.
“I’m not a fluent Chickasaw speaker,” Tate noted. “I’ve known Josh Hinson for years, and he is the man who made this all happen.”
While the initial collaboration was discussed in December 2015, the dual endeavor began full tilt in April and concluded in August 2016.
Months of work
Tate spent months in his Oklahoma City studio composing music, scribbling melodies and harmonies on blank staff paper; and creating English lyrics to bring the migration story — which Tate terms “amazing, awesome and epic” — to a historic metropolitan stage.
“It is the human condition to construct expression,” Tate said while thoughtfully explaining the creative process. “For the libretto, I was interested in what the two brothers were saying to each other and what was said to the community making the journey. What was the sacred White Dog thinking? What did the brothers feel? What emotions were felt by weary tribal citizens? How did all of these feelings and thoughts coalesce into action and decisions, and what would the Creator think and how would he speak to them?”
Libretto is the formal musical term for lyrics of a classic piece.
English lyrics proved problematic for translation to Chickasaw.
Hinson “interpreted” Tate’s lyrics and then asked fluent speakers JoAnn Ellis and Stan Smith to edit the interpretation.
Hinson prefers the term “interpreted” to “translated.”
“My duty was to the meaning of his text, (Jerod’s) creative vision, rather than the literal words – not a literal translation from English to Chickasaw. Any product of that sort would be unintelligible to our native speakers. I was trying to craft an interpretation that was acceptable in spoken Chickasaw and acceptable as verse in a song,” Hinson wrote.
Hinson illustrated how the two languages do not work in tandem.
“Jerod wrote, ‘Freedom sings its sweet euphonious song.’ Chickasaws would not speak using that type of sentence structure. Freedom would not be a noun. In Chickasaw, the word ‘freedom’ would mean to get loose of some type of bond,” Hinson explained.
“So my interpretation became, ‘If we get free, we will sing and sing,’” Hinson said.
One example cited by Hinson that stayed very true to Tate’s original libretto was: “The sun emerges on this new day.”
The Chickasaw interpretation became: “The sun is coming out. A new day has arrived.”
Music has been described by experts as “math in motion.” Taken literally, it is a true statement. Music is comprised of notes played at varying lengths of time; “meter” is the timing – or beat – of the composition, and the lyrical rhyme must occur within the designated time allotted each measure.
These elements, too, caused woes when interpreting English to Chickasaw. Some Chickasaw words are quite long and can be used as a complete phrase.
“I recall Jerod contacting me to request we eliminate six syllables in one stanza so it fit the meter,” Hinson said, laughing. To cut the syllables to meet the meter, it was necessary for Hinson and Mrs. Ellis and Mr. Smith to collaborate to rework the interpreted words.
“I couldn’t have been more pleased Josh stayed true to the Chickasaw language,” Tate remarked. “It is wonderful how song colorizes our language. It is truly awesome.”
Rehearsals began a few weeks ago.
Tate’s emotional stockpile exudes many heartfelt elements embedded in his soulful composition.
“It is important. It matters. It is something that needs to be expressed. I think of the many journeys of my people. Just as my ancestors made similar journeys for their children and grandchildren, I felt obligated to tell this story,” he said, “for my son.”