Interview: Chickasaw Composer Jerod Tate's 'MoonStrike' Hits Carnegie Hall

March 7, 2023, 2:25 PM · When the Apollo Chamber Players quartet performs at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, the ensemble not only will celebrate its own 15th anniversary, but it will also put a spotlight on Native American culture and accomplishment.

The program is called "Apollo Moonshot", and among the pieces performed will be "MoonStrike," a piece by Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate.

Jerod Tate
Chickasaw Classical Composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. Photo by Shevaun Williams.

Jerod composed "MoonStrike" in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, using American Indian moon legends, which will be narrated by Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington, the first Native American to fly in space. "MoonStrike" was also part of the Apollo Chamber Players' 20x2020 project, launched in 2014 with a mission to commission 20 new multicultural works before the end of the last decade.

Here's a little preview: the Apollo Chamber Players playing Jerod's "Corn Dance," from their recording of MoonStrike, which was released last fall. The Corn Dance is traditionally performed for the annual harvest moon:

It looks like some seriously fun string playing, doesn't it? That's what interested me, along with the fact that I've known Jerod since we went to Northwestern University's School of Music together in the late 80s.

At the time he was a piano performance major, studying with Donald Isaak. He went on to earn a masters degree in piano and composition at the Cleveland Institute. Now living with his son Heloha in Oklahoma City, Jerod is a prolific composer of symphonic, chamber, opera and ballet music. His music has been inspired by the culture of not only his own Chickasaw tribe, but also of Choctaw, Navajo, Cherokee, Ojibway, Creek, Pechanga, Comanche, Lakota, Hopi, Tlingit, Lenape, Tongva, Shawnee, Caddo, Ute, Aleut, Shoshone, Cree, Paiute, and Salish/Kootenai tribes.

In other words, if you want to explore Native American culture through classical music, here is someone who has been working to that end for a lifetime (and here is his website).

With his music reaching Carnegie Hall in a few days, I wanted to talk with Jerod about how it all came about, as well as to highlight some of his works for strings. As I already knew from those college days, Jerod got his start on the piano.

"My Chickasaw father, Charles, is a phenomenal classical pianist and baritone," Jerod said. "He played and sang classical repertoire in the house on a regular basis. When I was eight, I told him I wanted to start piano lessons. After three months of study, I announced to my family that I was to be a concert pianist. I had absolutely no plans to compose, nor had I composed anything until I was a senior at Northwestern, when my mother, Patricia, a professional choreographer and university professor, asked me to compose her next ballet score."

For Jerod, that was a huge moment of connection.

"Chickasaw and American Indian music of other tribes has always been a part of my life. I simply saw no relationship between Native music and classical music until I began composing," Jerod said. "Ironically, it was my Manx mother who asked me to compose a ballet score for her about American Indian legends from the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains. In a very beautiful and innocent way, she was asking me to be my complete self in a single medium of expression."

"After we premiered and toured our new ballet, 'Winter Moons,' I added composition to my degree program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and promptly announced to my family that I was to be a Chickasaw Classical Composer," Jerod said. Just last summer, that 1992 ballet was released in album form, find 'Winter Moons' here.

Jerod has found Native American culture to be rich with inspiration.

"Indian Country is replete with brilliant legends, melodies and art forms which yield themselves to larger-than-life expression on the world concert stage," Jerod said. "In a way, modern Native artists are preserving and archiving our ancient cultures in dramatic and romantic fashion. I find it to be a wonderful time to be a modern Chickasaw artist."

"What I do is in line with what other American Indian artists do in the other mediums of painting, literature, theatre, choreography and film," he said. "Just like historic artists of the past - Tchaikovsky, Monet, Basquiat. We express the ethos of our modern ethnic identities, steeped in historic traditions."

MoonStrike - the piece that the Apollo Chamber Players will perform at Carnegie Hall on Thursday - is comprised of three American Indian legends (Kallispel, Isleta Pueblo and Haida) about the moon, bookended by a modern arrangement of a Calusa corn dance - a dance traditionally performed for the annual harvest moon.

"Apollo was wanting a work that might incorporate American Indian stories about the moon, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing," Jerod said. "In our conversations, we agreed that we would like a narrator, and that's when I called my friend John. John Herrington is Chickasaw, the first American Indian citizen to go to space, a saxophonist and a very good actor."

Apollo Chamber Players with John Herrington and Jerod Tate
L-R: Apollo Chamber Players violinists Anabel Detrick, Matthew Detrick, composer Jerod Tate, narrator John Herrington, cellist Matthew Dudzick and violist Whitney Bullock.

"It was a perfect match - an alignment of the stars!" Jerod said. "Already, his deceased wife, Marco, had strongly articulated her desire for the two of us to create a concert work that focused on Native astrology. 'MoonStrike' is composed in her honor."

And what are the challenges, in composing for stringed instruments?

"The challenge for composing for any instrument is balancing pure adventure with intelligence," Jerod said. "A composer must always be physiologically in touch with the instrument they are writing for. We must be able to clearly imagine what it is like to play the music we are composing. Almost like the best VR goggles - ever - but in your heart and mind!"

Jerod has composed a number of pieces for strings besides MoonStrike, including Chokfi', Pisachi, Shakamaxon, Oshta and Shawi' Imanompa'.

"All of my works are listed on my website, and they are all acquirable through me, as I am self-published. Many of these works are on all the streaming channels (SoundCloud, Spotify), and many video performances are on my YouTube channel. I love working with all people and I feel I could do this for 50 lifetimes. For me, it's a blast helping brag about and promote others who are programming my works."

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Click here for more information about the Carnegie Hall "Apollo MoonShot" concert on March 9, featuring the Apollo Chamber Players performing works by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, Jennifer Higdon, Pierre Jalbert and John Cornelius.

Click here for a catalogue of works by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, and click here to contact the composer.

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