Inspired by the poetic writings of Native Americans from the 1400s to present, composer Clyde Thompson's concert-length cantata, We Have Spoken: Voices from Native America, spins those stories and historical accounts into rich musical tapestry rooted in classical orchestral sensibilities. There are no traditional Native American sounds here—no drums, no chanting.
"The music is my own," Thompson says. "I made a decision from the get-go not to try to imitate their music. I just stuck to my own personal expression that I felt moved to compose in reaction to the texts."
The texts come in large part from a book he stumbled up while touring in Boston in the early 1990s, I Have Spoken: American History through the Voices of the Indians, compiled by Virginia Irving Armstrong. A collection of oratory focusing on speeches about Indian-white relations and treaty-making negotiations, the writings inspired Thompson to begin work on a concert-length cantata that unfolded over two decades.
"I was particularly struck by the poetic quality of Indians' words, especially the frequent use of similes drawn from nature, and the simplicity and directness of the language," Thompson wrote in the program notes from his May performance of the cantata with the Central Oregon Symphony. "Several of the passages in the book sparked musical ideas, and I quickly realized that I had my subject for a choral piece that I needed to compose as part of my doctoral studies [at the University of Missouri-Kansas City]."
Over the following years, he added to the work sporadically, always intending to craft it into a full cantata. A stripped down version of the piece—a choir accompanied by two pianos and percussion—premiered in 2002 in Chicago and made its first appearance locally with the Cascade Chorale in 2003.
But the muse continued to speak to Thompson, and We Have Spoken evolved into a more complex composition for a full orchestra. That version was performed for the first time in May, with the Central Oregon Mastersingers and Central Oregon Symphony, and Thompson has just released a recording of that live performance.
"I think the orchestra collaboration didn't change the music, but rather finished it," Thompson explains. "Of course, the experience of performing and directing the piece was far less intimate, and more technical, with the orchestra involved than with just a choir and two pianos, so some of the warm-fuzzy experience was lost. But on the balance, far more was gained by hearing the accompaniments come to full fruition in the orchestral sounds."
The Central Oregon Mastersingers, a group Thompson founded in 1995, strips back down to its vocal core for a 10 Year Anniversary retrospective performance this weekend. Singers will perform their favorite pieces from over the years.
Singers' Choice: Central Oregon Mastersingers 10 Year Anniversary
7:30 pm. Saturday, Feb. 28. Church of the Nazarene, 1270 NE 27th St. $15.