Native American Composers

Native American Composers

As a group, Native Americans who write music churn out work in genres from classical to hip-hop, and those in the classical business write in styles from neo-romantic to electro-acoustic and pretty much everything in between.

Written By

Gail Wein

As a group, Native Americans who write music churn out work in genres from classical to hip-hop, and those in the classical business write in styles from neo-romantic to electro-acoustic and pretty much everything in between. The composers’ heritages run just as wide a gamut as their music. Chickasaw, Mohican, and Navaho are each quite different cultures under the umbrella term “American Indian.”

If the general public is surprised by the concept of American Indians writing classical music, perhaps that’s because Indian arts are often only thought of in traditional contexts: blankets, baskets, dancing, and drums. But scratch the surface and note that in general, these composers did not grow up on a reservation; they were raised in America and fell under the same spell of influences as white, black and Hispanic people, and everyone else raised in the USA.

There is a growing list of successful composers who proudly identify their heritage as American Indian; notably Brent Michael Davids, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, R. Carlos Nakai, and the late Louis Ballard. The list is long enough, in fact, that an entire branch of the American Composers Forum—First Nations Composer Initiative (FNCI)—is devoted to supporting this demographic. FNCI advocates for Native American composers working in any genre, from classical and jazz to rock and hip-hop.



R. Carlos Nakai is widely regarded as the most accomplished Native American flute player in the world. His musical experiences began at a small farm school in Poston, Arizona. Given a choice of instruments through the school’s music program, Nakai requested a flute, but was told that men don’t play flute and was handed a cornet instead, which he despised instantly because of its resemblance to plumbing.

Through high school, Nakai found himself listening to recordings of Beethoven and Mozart, and found his interests were to compose and harmonize. He attended college at NAU and did a stint in the Navy. Though he passed the audition for the Armed Forces School of Music, competition was fierce: he was the 28th person on waiting list for the brass opening.

Nakai says that much of his inspiration is derived from the expressions of the tribal communities of which he is a part. “I build upon the tribal context, while still retaining its essence. Much of what I do builds upon and expresses the environment and experience that I’m having at the moment.”

Nakai’s trademark is his cross-cultural collaborations, blending Native American music with other genres. The ensembles that he performs with exemplify this philosophy: The Wilde Boys Trio with guitarist William Eaton and percussionist Will Clipman; the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet; a collaboration with a Japanese folk ensemble; and a collaboration resulting in Native American and Jewish music with Israeli-born cellist Udi Bar-David, to name a few. Nakai’s open-minded musicianship makes him a success as a soloist with symphony orchestras, and his recordings have been nominated for eight Grammy awards.

What Makes it Native?

Brent Michael Davids (Mohican) maintains that there is no such thing as generic Indian music. “Hollywood might lead you to believe that the sound is of a pentatonic scale. That’s from the Plains tribes, as are the headdresses, moccasins, horses that Hollywood depicts, but there are over 500 different tribes in the country,” Davids explains, and the fact is that most Native music is very sophisticated and complex.

Musician, songwriter, and poet Joy Harjo (Muscogee) notes: “You will not normally hear flutes and powwow drums, yet, these two instruments have become the recognized signature of ‘Native’ music. In all cultures there is a tension between classical and traditional forms, and offshoots. Sometimes the offshoots become viable forms of their own. There is no such thing as ‘Native music’. There are musics. In the Mvskoke (Muscogee) Nation there are many recognizable elements, and basically two strands: ceremonial grounds music and Christian music. At first there appear to be few overlaps between the two, but there are a few.”

According to R. Carlos Nakai (Navajo/Ute), Native American classical music is “an expression of an indigenous Amerindian composer, arranger or instrumentalist who applies the usual practice of the western European discipline to derivations of songs, melodies, portions of sacred music traditions or innovations utilizing Native and European instruments.” Howard Bass, director of cultural programs at the National Museum of the American Indian and curator of that institution’s annual Classical Native series, agrees that there is no single definition. “The composers each have their own approach. In the end, it’s defined by the composers themselves. All of them make use of some form of Native material, but you won’t necessarily detect something that leaps out to you as ‘Native’. For example, composer Raven Chacon (Navajo) uses electronics, and everything he does is informed by his Navajo upbringing, but this may not be apparent to most listeners.”


Louis W. Ballard: The father of Native American Composition

It is not enough to acknowledge that American Indian music is different from other music. What is needed in America is an awakening and reorienting of our total spiritual and cultural perspective to embrace, understand and learn from the Aboriginal American what motivates his musical and artistic impulses. —Dr. Louis W. Ballard (Quapaw)


Dr. Louis W. Ballard, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 75, is the acknowledged father of Native American composition. A member of the Quapaw and Cherokee nations, Ballard was born in 1931 on the Quapaw Indian Reservation in Oklahoma and studied music theory at Oklahoma University and Tulsa University. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the College of Santa Fe. He was a founding member of FNCI.

In the 1950s, after getting his music degree at Tulsa, Ballard tought in the Oklahoma public schools. Along the way, he studied privately with Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Carlos Surinach, and Felix Labunski. He became music curriculum director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1970, and he is credited with rejuvenating music education in Native American schools, introducing indigenous instruments and materials into the classrooms. He created and published a guidebook with two CDs called Native American Indian Songs, Taught by Louis W. Ballard. The book, widely acknowledged as a standard text, includes music notations, song analyses, language translation, dance diagrams, lesson plans, color photos, and extensive cultural materials.

Ballard’s national breakthrough as a composer was a 1967 performance of his piece, Why the Duck Has a Short Tail by the Phoenix Symphony, with Dennis Russell Davies conducting. For narrator and symphony orchestra, the piece is based on a traditional Navaho tale. This performance led to a commission for Incident at Wounded Knee for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; the orchestra premiered the work in 1974 again under the direction of Davies who at the time was the music director of the SPCO.

In 1989, the Beethoven House Chamber Music Hall in Bonn, Germany mounted a program dedicated to Ballard’s compositions; he was the first American composer to have that distinction. His works are usually programmatic, and other notable pieces in his catalogue include Ritmo Indio for woodwind quintet; Moontide: the Man Who Hated Money, an opera; The Maid in the Mist and Thunder Beings for orchestra; and Will Rogers: Tribute to a Great American, a cantata.

A major compositional inspiration for Ballard was composer Béla Bartók, who collected the traditional folk songs of his native Hungary and used them to infuse and inform his compositions. Similarly, Ballard made use of melodies that he had heard growing up on the reservation in his own works.


Before Ballard

Long before Ballard began composing, there was a group of non-Native American composers who attempted to use Native American themes and materials as the basis for their own music. The “Indianist” movement of late 19th and early 20th century America was comprised of European-trained composers such as Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946) and Arthur Farwell (1872-1952). Amy Beach (1867-1944) and Edward McDowell (1860-1908) also composed “Indianist” works. All were no doubt spurred on by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s fascination with African American and Native American musics during his visits to the United States in the 1890s.

According to Davids, there actually were some Native American composers during the Carlisle Boarding School era, which was roughly contemporaneous with the Indianists, although details are scarce. The Carlisle Boarding School was the first of a number of Indian boarding schools in the United States in operation from the 1870s to around 1930. The schools were essentially assimilation academies, part of the effort to “civilize” Native Americans by forcing English-language European curriculum into school-aged children’s education; their disturbingly brutal motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Students weren’t permitted to sing Native songs, but they were taught brass and other instruments. There was a jazz band, a marching band, and a spate of recitals featuring music by such European favorites as Haydn and Mozart.

Nakai mentions Native American composers in the 1920s and 30s who wrote tunes that became jingles for cigarette and beer commercials. These melodies were erroneously credited to black American composers, however, and the names of the Native Americans responsible have tragically been lost.

Pepper’s Pow Wow (1971) Wounded Bird Records

Jim Pepper (Kaw/Creek, 1941-1992) was a jazz saxophonist and composer whose career was roughly concurrent with that of Ballard’s. Pepper was a pioneer in the jazz fusion movement, and was known for combining jazz and Native American elements in his compositions. In the 1960s his jazz-rock fusion band The Free Spirits included the now-legendary guitarist Larry Coryell. Witchi Tai To, Pepper’s composition with a later incarnation of this band, was a song that Pepper crafted from ritual chants he learned from his Kaw grandfather. This song was a crossover hit and was subsequently covered dozens of times by other artists. Encouraged by his colleagues Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, Pepper incorporated more Native American elements into his compositions and jazz style, and his first album under his own name, Pepper’s Pow Wow, essentially announced this intent. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Pepper recorded with a vast range of jazz greats, including Cherry, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, and Dewey Redman.

But ultimately the influence of current Native American

One of the most active and visible Native American composers today is composer and flutist Brent Michael Davids. Davids was born in 1959 in Madison, Wisconsin, and is a member of the Mohican nation. He says he got his start as a composer when he was a teenager, hearing George Crumb’s Black Angels. “I was amazed at the sounds he got. The music sounded like the title. It sounds like what it’s supposed to be. That got me hooked.” Davids has been composing ever since, and his first commission came just two years later, at age 18.

Davids, one of the founders of the FNCI, writes music for a living. “As a Native, I don’t see myself as a traditionalist. I am influenced by tradition, but I’m more of an experimentalist. I write experimental chamber works and picture notation a la George Crumb. Plus I invent instruments, and write music for dance, theater, film, choruses and electronics.” Davids is also a teacher, and is especially active with Native American youth.

composition all leads back to Ballard. Composers Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (Chickasaw), Brent Michael Davids, and others can be viewed as disciples of Ballard. According to Tate, “The fact that he existed was the biggest inspiration to me. As a mixed-blood Indian and classical pianist, I never imaged the two could come together.”

Davids first heard about Ballard in 1979, when he was an undergraduate student at Northern Illinois University. “I was becoming a ‘stylist’, recalls Davids, “I studied privately with Paul Steg, who was a walking encyclopedia. For my lessons, I had to write pieces in different styles. I’d bring examples to lessons—thinking I had come up with something wholly original—but Steg would always compare the style to someone else. One day, something I wrote reminded him of Louis Ballard. I wrote a letter to Ballard, and he responded and encouraged me.” Over the years, Davids became close to Ballard and his family, understanding Ballard’s compositional style so well that he was able to complete Ballard’s Indiana Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, left unfinished at the time of the composer’s death. Mario Venzago conducted the Indianapolis Symphony in the premiere in January 2008 with Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli for whom the concerto was commissioned.




Over the past decade, a variety of programs have started across the country to specifically promote music by Native American composers. In 2004, Brent Michael Davids approached John Nuechterlein, President and CEO of the American Composers Forum (ACF), about forming a virtual chapter of ACF to serve and connect Native Americans composers and performers. Upon receiving a planning grant from the Ford Foundation later that year, ACF launched the First Nations Composer Initiative (FNCI). Under the leadership of Georgia Wettlin-Larsen and operating out of the ACF’s offices in St. Paul, Minnesota, FNCI supports projects throughout the United States from its offices in St. Paul, Minnesota.

FNCI’s mission is to give Native American composers and musicians access to information and opportunities for collaboration. Its outreach includes short-term residencies for American Indian artists intended to foster musical and artistic development within tribal and urban Indian communities. Since January 2007, FNCI has offered Common Ground grants for commissions, residencies, performance, production, travel, study, and outreach. Other programs include the whimsically acronymed CANOE (Composer Apprentice National Outreach Endeavor), established in 2006, which places American Indian composers in residency to teach American Indian high school students. Through on-line forums, the FNCI considers itself a meeting ground, linking composers, performers, and audiences in cyberspace. FNCI currently serves over 100 Native American composers and performers and to date has awarded 36 grants to a total of 43 artists.


Classical Native

Photo by Alana Rothstein

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate was born in 1968 in Norman, Oklahoma, and is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. After receiving a degree in piano performance from Northwestern University, he went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music. But he didn’t focus on composition until his mother, choreographer Dr. Patricia Tate, commissioned him to score a ballet, Winter Moons, in 1992. Since then, his music has been performed across the country by ensembles ranging from the National Symphony Orchestra to the Colorado Ballet.

Tate is the artistic director for the Chickasaw Chamber Music Festival and is composer-in-residence for the Chickasaw Summer Arts Academy, a program for children in Oklahoma age 19 and under, and was composer-in-residence for Native American Composers Apprentice Project (NACAP). Last year, Tate was the recipient of a Joyce Foundation Award in conjunction with the American Composers Forum, in which he taught composition to American Indian high school students in Minneapolis.

Having decided to record his music on Thunderbird Records, a new label that specializes in Native American composers and performers, he cold-called the San Francisco Symphony with his proposal. And they bit. “To be quite honest, this rarely happens,” SFS General Manager John Kieser told Donald Rosenberg of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But according to Rosenberg’s account, Kieser and SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas were impressed with Tate’s music, which employs Chickasaw source materials in highly evocative settings, complete with haunting solo lines, orchestral colors and vocal effects.

[Ed. Note: Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate is the April 2009 Cover of NewMusicBox.]

Another important vehicle for bringing together Native American composers and musicians is the Classical Native series at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. Both Howard Bass, public programs producer, and Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, senior advisor for museum programs and scholarly research at the museum, had very strong interest in the topic. Four years ago, Bass began to put together programs for the series when he visited FNCI in St. Paul, where he met with program director Georgia Wettlin-Larsen (Assiniboine/Nakota) and composers Davids, Tate, and others.

Part of the mission at NMAI is to provide a venue for Native talent and to dispel common misconceptions and stereotypes of Native people. Classical Native, which presented its first series in October 2006, fits that mission well. In that first year, the Classical Native brought together a score of Native American composers and performers to present 12 performances over four days. Similar Classical Native series were mounted at the NMAI in Fall 2007 and Fall 2008.

Because of decreased resources, plans for a 2009 celebration have been telescoped to a single work, Victor Rasgado’s children’s opera, El conejo y el coyote. The opera, which will be performed at the NMAI on November 5, 6 and 7, 2009, is based on a Zapotecas legend and is sung in an imaginary language. Bass hopes to find ways to continue to highlight the work of Native composers and classical musicians next year and beyond, despite the challenges of diminished resources.


Thunderbird Records


Alan Bise has taken the advice “find a niche” to heart. Recently Bise, an audio engineer who is classical music producer for the Cleveland-based Azica Records, was inspired to launch a record label of solely Native American composers and performers. In 2004, he had produced a recording of compositions by David Yeagley (Comanche) with James Pellerite performing on cedar flute. According to Bise, this was the first full-length album of a single Native American composer, and this rarity is one of the things that inspired Bise to create Thunderbird Records specifically for that niche.


David Yeagley (Comanche) is a composer, pianist, and portrait artist. His collection of compositions for Native Indian flute is recorded on the Azica label. With degrees from Oberlin, Yale, Emory and the University of Arizona, Yeagley also writes poetry and fiction and plays the Native American flute. He has studied composition with Daniel Asia, Krzysztof Penderecki, Richard Hoffman and Joseph Wood. Yeagley has also made a name for himself as a conservative political commentator, and he has appeared on the O’Reilly Factor, C-SPAN, and

The idea for Thunderbird Records stemmed from an emotional reaction Bise had at a performance of a piece by Jerod Tate, a friend from their student days at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Bise was moved by both the music and the programmatic story behind it, and “a light bulb went off. I can get to know these people and this music and have others hear it as well. There are so many different styles of American Indian music, some composers will use Native themes and melodies while others may write like Beethoven. For Thunderbird I decided I shouldn’t make artistic judgments about composers. The music may not reflect my own personal taste, but the quality of performance should be as high as possible.”

Thunderbird’s sole release thus far is the aforementioned recording of the San Fransisco Symphony performing works by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, released in March 2008. But Bise asserts that there are several more projects in Thunderbird’s pipeline.


Bringing up a New Generation of Composers


Raven Chacon is a working composer living in Los Angeles. Born and raised on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, Chacon has studied and/or collaborated with composers Morton Subotnick, James Tenney, and Glenn Branca. He is Composer-in-Residence with the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project, a program aimed at exposing Native American youngsters to the world of composition. His catalogue of works include a series of pieces for processed voice and Native flute and percussion and Meet the Beatles, an audio collage involving 10,000 samples from music by The Beatles.

Jerod Tate, Brent Michael Davids, Raven Chacon, and others are pushing forth a new generation of composers. In 2001, in association with the Grand Canyon Music Festival, Davids founded the Native American Composer Apprentice Program (NACAP) with the vision of creating a pool of young Native American composers. Each year, a Native composer (Raven Chacon has been the composer-in-residence for the past few years and will return this summer) works with students selected from four area high schools, with intensive one-on-one instruction over a period of several weeks. The resulting compositions are premiered by a top-shelf professional string quartet (the string quartet Ethel returns in 2009) at the GCMF.

This particular program has already begat a poster-child: Michael Begay was one of the student composers in 2001 and, having now graduated from college, will be back this summer as the program’s assistant composer in residence. This summer’s program culminates with the NACAP Fair on September 20 at the Grand Canyon National Park, with workshops and a final concert in which all the students’ new works will be played.

Chacon and Davids have expanded this program to other parts of the country. CANOE stands for Composer Apprentice National Outreach Endeavor, and composers work with students in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and California.


Not Native Enough?

Photo by Paul Abdoo

Joy Harjo is a modern renaissance woman. She is equally lauded for her work as a poet, composer and visual artist. Her first love was music, and she has fond childhood memories of watching her mother compose songs on her Underwood typewriter. Harjo met Louis Ballard while she was studying at the Institute of American Arts in Santa Fe. He became her advisor and mentor, and she remained close to him until he died. Also a one-time student of Jim Pepper, Harjo sings and plays tenor saxophone with her band, Poetic Justice and as a solo performer.

While the intent of all of these programs is to help Native American composers bring attention to their music, there is always the danger that putting a label on these composers can ghettoize what they do. The flip side of dispelling misconceptions and stereotypes is the question “Is it Native enough?”. Joy Harjo says that there have been times when “her music was dismissed as not Native enough because the flute and powwow drums were not present.”

The genre is still hindered by stereotypes, Nakai maintains. “I have heard [audiences] at the convocations that we’ve held say that’s not American Indian music because it doesn’t have the 1-2-1-2 beat, it doesn’t use just rattles and drums, and the performers are not dressed in Native clothing. So I’m almost forced to appear in Native American dress when I perform. When I don’t, there’s the guarded response of ‘He’s trying to be something he isn’t,’ so when I appear onstage in a tux with a small bit of Native regalia, [the reaction is] ‘Don’t you respect your culture?’ I have to pack my suitcase very carefully.”


Gail Wein; Photo by Chad Evans Wyatt

Gail Wein‘s writing credits include reviews and articles for The Washington Post,, and, as well as CD booklet notes for Joan Tower’s triple-Grammy winner Made in America. Her diverse career path runs the gamut from producer for National Public Radio’s Performance Today and general manager of the contemporary chamber ensemble Voices of Change to stints as a computer programmer and an actuary.