Native American Composers Apprentice Project
In the auditorium of a high school on the Navajo reservation, a teenager sits surrounded by members of the New York-based new music ensemble ETHEL. “Do you like the tempo? We could play it faster,” a quartet member suggested to the teenager. But the young composer quietly held his ground, until the quartet had an “aha” moment: Looking outside, seeing and listening, they recognized that the composition’s sense of spaciousness—a quality that echoed the vast Arizona landscape surrounding them—was intentional.
That a teenager living on a remote reservation would not only have the chance to create an original musical composition, but also see it come to life at the hands of a nationally renowned quartet is thanks to the groundbreaking Native American Composers Apprentice Project. NACAP identifies high school students on Navajo and Hopi reservations in Arizona and Utah who have a passion for music and at least a basic ability to play an instrument. Over a period of several weeks, participants work one on one with a Native American composer, who helps them transform their ideas into a two-minute score for string ensemble. The quartet arrives next, rehearsing with the young composers in preparation for concerts at reservation schools, culminating in a premiere at the Grand Canyon Music Festival.
The GCMF launched the program in 2000 because “there were so few Native American voices in the mix,” explains Artistic Director Clare Hoffman. The program has produced some 200 compositions to date, works that often contain indigenous dance rhythms or other traditional elements, intermingled with heavy-metal or reggae influences. “These students are not writing ‘classical’ music, but are using the instruments in any way they want,” reflects Raven Chacon, one of the resident composers.
While the program inspires some participants go on to study music or composing, NACAP’s non-musical benefits are equally significant. “On day one, we give them an ‘impossible challenge,’ to compose a piece for string quartet, and within a month, they’ve done it,” Hoffman says. “It teaches participants not to put limits on themselves.” The high-profile premiere also sends an important message to those Indian youth who may be struggling to find their place in the world: “There’s a big world out there, and you belong there,” she emphasizes.