One of the uglier pieces of American history is the systematic extinction of many Native American tribes, especially during the westward expansion of the 19th century. In 1911, the last surviving member of one such tribe, the California Yahi tribe, surrendered to the white man.
San Francisco anthropologists took care of the man, known as "Ishi," the Yahi word for "man" (the Yahi people did not reveal their names to strangers). In one of the continued efforts to share his tribe's culture and language, Ishi performed a series of traditional songs on a series of Edison wax cylinder recordings.
Local composer Tom Taylor has taken those wax recordings a step further, digitally cleaning up the performances and writing a beautiful orchestral score to accompany them. The songs are ethereal and haunting, and Taylor's expert instrumentation follows the song's tones from the joyful (arpeggios in the strings) to the melancholy (the returning theme played by the bassoon and other wind instruments).
The Chamber Orchestra of Colorado Springs will perform Taylor's composition, "Ishi Sings," to open their 2004-2005 concert season. Taylor took a moment to talk to the Independent about the composition.
Indy: How did you discover the wax cylinder recordings?
Taylor: In the 1970s, I read a collection written by one of the anthropologists who discovered Ishi, and one of the appendixes mentioned these old recordings on Edison wax cylinders. Someone had written out some of the songs in Western notation, and after I saw those I became fascinated by the story.
Indy: How did you choose the instrumentation to go along with the singing?
Taylor: Tom Blomster, who used to play percussion in the Colorado Springs Symphony, is now up in Denver and works with the Mercury Ensemble. He was very interested in the piece, and the chamber orchestra seemed to be the perfect size ensemble for the piece, rather than an 80-person orchestra. As for the individual instruments, the bassoon represents Ishi's voice and introduces the melody in each of the three sections, while the strings provide a nice complement to the wind sections and, of course, [to] Ishi's voice itself.
Indy: Can you describe the three sections of the piece?
Taylor: The sections are based on three of Ishi's songs, but we really don't know quite what they mean. When he surrendered, the Berkeley anthropologists brought a member of the Yana tribe to try to act as interpreter, but even after Ishi himself learned some English, he didn't explain much of the content of the songs. At the time, it would have been a Native American tradition to be extremely private about the rituals and mythology of one's tribe. The first is an adolescent girls' dance; the second is the Yahi "Thunder Song"; and the third is the "Dancing Song of Dead People in Other Worlds." I think it's fair to extrapolate that the songs are to some extent about rites of passage, a middle period of life, and, of course, an afterlife.
Indy: Does Ishi's story hold any particular relevance in our contemporary world?
Taylor: I started writing this work long before Sept. 11, 2001, and though I certainly don't want to exploit that tragedy, it is an interesting coincidence that just before I started working on the last section (about death), I saw those planes crash into the buildings. In 1911, Ishi was a middle-aged man who surrendered peacefully to the very people who had systematically wiped out his people. He was fully prepared to be killed, but was cheerful and, for the most part, able to get along with the white men who represented a group of people that had committed horrible acts against his people. That's pretty amazing.
-- Bettina Swigger
capsule Chamber Orchestra of the Springs season premiere featuring Tom Taylor's "Ishi Sings," conducted by Thomas Wilson
First Christian Church, 16 E. Platte Ave.
Sunday, Oct. 10, 2:30 p.m.
$12 adults, $6 seniors and students; Call 633-3649.