Monday, April 27, 2009

Between Two Cultures: A Muscial Interpretation of the Art of Star Wallowing Bull

Star Wallowing Bull, Once Upon a Time.... 2004

I was commissioned by the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony to compose a work for the 2005/06 season-opening concert. When the Plains Art Museum and the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony decided to make a collaborative evening of the art and music, I was introduced to Star Wallowing Bull. As I have worked with him, It has been a real thrill to study his work and to get a glimpse into a variety of cultures that have shaped his life.

Initially, Star had reservations about how the orchestra and music might reconcile with his art, but as we worked together, the realm of possibilities opened up, and we both gained enthusiasm for the project.

I first met Star at his studio. He showed me several pieces that would be in the exhibition. After a few minutes of talking with Star and seeing his work, I knew what I was going to do with the Symphony's piece. I decided to name my symphonic work after Star's exhibition Between Two Cultures. I would score for full orchestra: with two flutes, both doubling on piccolo; two oboes, with the second doubling on English horn; two B flat clarinets; one bass clarinet; one alto saxophone; three bassoons, with the third doubling on contra; four French horns; two trumpets; three trombones; one tuba; timpani; and four percussionists-all playing a variety of instruments, harp, and strings.

The pieces is based on three of Star's drawings. The first movement is based on the work Unknown Territory. It begins with our principal flutist playing a traditional, wooden, Native American flute. The movement explores the dark and distant look on the man's face in the drawing, as well as his contemplation and rage. To me, the loss of his arms signifies the loss of something deeper: his culture? his land? his family?

The second movement is based on Windigo versus the Cannibal Man. This drawing depicts a fight between two evil spirits. The music is driving and dark. This movement evokes my understanding of the sounds at a pow wow, where the alto saxophone is the leader and the rest of the orchestra answers the chant. As the piece builds to climax with the fight, the Thunderboyz, the Native American drum group from the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe, enters the stage and performs a short work, ending this movement.

The last movement is based on Once Upon a Time. This drawing seems very significant to Star, as it represents a new beginning in his life. From out of a very troubled past he's reaching for a star-success, a new life (thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian). The Movement begins with the full string section playing rather a somber, intense music. The pensive mood turns heroic with the brass section entering and the piece's end is uplifting and positive.

I'm thankful to the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony and the Plains Art Museum for making this collaboration possible. I'm also grateful to Star for sharing his culture and his personal stories.

-Russell Peterson
Fargo, ND
August 2005

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