Lakota Music Project finds beauty in the merging of musical traditions

Released October 28, 2022 on innova Recordings, Lakota music project works to bridge cultural and racial differences through collaboration. The live album is a continuation of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra’s long-running program of the same name, in which the symphony performs, commissions and presents with members of the American Indian tribes of South Dakota and the surrounding area. 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, creating a strong sense of movement that contrasts with longer, more expansive and more 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, loosening up the structure and driving the piece forward. The piece then alternates between thorny and colorful modernist orchestral writing and bright sections of Lakota vocals, each time building in intensity to a pounding, rhythmic close with full orchestra and singers.

Brent Michael Davids - Photo courtesy of the artist

Brent Michael Davids – Photo courtesy of the artist

Wind on Clear Lake, composed by SDSO solo oboist Jeffrey Paul, is darker and more delicate. Long, searching melodies unfold over bubbling strings, percussion and brass. Paul slowly builds in rumbling brass to sculpt highs and lows into the texture. About halfway through, we hear Dakota flautist Bryan Akipa for the first time, whose extremely expressive playing and beautiful tone blend beautifully with and enhance the texture of the piece. Paul’s composition for the orchestral accompaniment, with the strings slightly doubling Akipa’s playing and the harmonies moving underneath, is also highly commendable here.

The longest work on the album, Waktégli olówaŋ (Victory Songs) by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, returns to the darker, brooding sentiments of the opening work. The sprawling orchestral rhapsody, in which singer Stephen L. Bryant sings in the Lakota language, was composed “in honor of Lloyd Running Bear, Sr. and all of the Lakota Indian warriors.” The track consists of several parts, the first of which is built around waves of energy that build and recede, getting stronger each time we get higher and higher, carried by Bryant’s lively vocals.

The piece uses lots of dark, rich timbres throughout, with contrasting moments of lightness that help the piece not become too heavy. The penultimate section is particularly beautiful and subdued, giving Bryant a chance to sing with exquisite delicacy as the texture fades to nothing before the bombastic and massive ending. The work is quite effective, and Bryant projects easily across the entire orchestra while singing with astonishing sensitivity in the quieter moments. Tate’s music is moving and varied, easily holding the attention throughout the 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 issues in the loud sections of the album, as well as a few other minor issues such as obvious mic gain changes, small jumps and audio artifacts. This has an effect Black Hills Olowan and Waktégli olówaŋ especially since both contain several full tutti sections where the audio is muddled by the consistent clipping. As this is a live recording some audio artifacts are always to be expected, but the clipping issues are fairly consistent throughout the album and particularly impact the listening experience.

desert wind, also composed by Jeffrey Paul, offers a welcome contrast to the other pieces, with a haunting melody for the strings that includes glissandi, harmonies and echoes reminiscent of a windy expanse. The track also features electric guitar with a rich, distorted tone that expands the album’s tonal palette. Theodore Wiprud’s arrangement of “Amazing Grace” for orchestra and the Creekside Singers is a highly effective closing piece. The colorfully orchestrated setting of this familiar tune emphasizes and embraces the album’s concept as styles exchange and mingle.

While the music is hampered by some recording issues Lakota music project is wonderfully varied, including dissonant and dense modernism, quiet lyricism, contemporary pieces with advanced techniques, traditional Lakota drum groups, and so many other styles in between. The performances by soloists, singers and the orchestra are phenomenal – especially the orchestra’s crisp clarity, allowing their staff and the details in the music to shine through. If the goal of this project is to create music rooted in multiple traditions and bridging these realms, then it is easy to find beauty in both similarities and differences.

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