The Grand Canyon Music Festival’s Native American Composer Apprentice Project

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The Grand Canyon Music Festival’s Native American Composer Apprentice Project

Clare Hoffman, Founder and Artistic Director, Grand Canyon Music Festival


NACAP apprentice composer Arika Morningstar with Catalyst Quartet at Hopi High School. Photo Clare Hoffman.

In 1983, just a few years out of music conservatory, I embarked with my husband Robert Bonfiglio  on a vacation to the American Southwest. We started our trip at the Grand Canyon, with our instruments in our backpacks, a rim-to-rim-to-rim four-day hike through the canyon. The first evening, with my aching feet soaking in the cold waters of the Colorado River, I took out my flute and played. The following morning, we packed up and headed up the floor of the canyon to Cottonwood campground, where I found a washed-out tree trunk to rest under and again played my flute. A park ranger followed the sound of the flute and, when he found us, invited us to the ranger’s hut that evening to play a concert.

That was the birth of the Grand Canyon Music Festival (GCMF). Today, 37 years later, the GCMF is an award-winning three-week festival of concerts performed at the Shrine of the Ages on Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim, featuring musicians of national and international acclaim and a commitment to commissions and premieres of new music. Our educational outreach programs reach youth throughout northern Arizona, including schools and communities on the Navajo and Hopi Nations.

In 2000, the GCMF was the Arizona host for the White House Millennium Council’s nationwide Continental Harmony Project. We chose composer Brent Michael Davids (Mohican Nation) to create a piece for us. His work, “Guardians of the Grand Canyon,” a chamber work in which four flutists and two percussionists surround the Havasupai Guardians of the Grand Canyon as they perform their Ram Dance, was premiered at the Grand Canyon Music Festival on July 4, 2000. It was the first time the Havasupai had been invited back to Grand Canyon National Park since they were forcibly evicted from their land to create the national park.

Brent had previously completed a McKnight Fellowship teaching composition to students in Minnesota; he told us he had always wanted to teach composition to Native students. His arrival was a perfect confluence of synergy and serendipity. We had been thinking about establishing a composer teaching residency as a way to have a more meaningful and deep engagement with our students. Just one year later, in 2001, we launched the Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP), with Brent at the helm.

We knew that our Navajo Nation partner schools had little in the way of formal music education programs. Many of the students Brent would be working with were self-taught rock guitarists. They weren’t familiar with Western music notation or theory. Their assignment was to create a work for string quartet of at least two minutes. I remembered my own struggles trying to compose a string quartet when I was a conservatory student. How would this work? We didn’t know what to expect.

Raven Chacon works with apprentice composer, Whitehorse High School. Photo Kim Schaefer.

The music the students created that first year was a revelation: here were original, authentic voices. It was Native music, but it was also infused with reggae and heavy metal influences. What impressed me most was the apprentice composers’ sense of form and shape. What they lacked in knowledge of formal keys and chord structures they more than made up for in their authentic aesthetic sense.

Over the last two decades, NACAP’s intensive, immersive program of instruction in music composition has fostered a culture of composition among Navajo Diné and Hopi youth, with over 450 new works created by NACAP apprentice composers for strings, flute, and even trombone. NACAP students study with professional Native composers, including Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (Chickasaw), Trevor Reed (Hopi), and our current teaching composers Raven Chacon (Navajo) and Michael Begay (Navajo, NACAP alum). They also work with renowned performers (NACAP teaching ensembles have included the Miró and Calder Quartets, ETHEL, Sweet Plantain, and currently The Catalyst Quartet), traversing the complete composer experience from inspiration to realization. NACAP’s alumni include emerging composers, like Begay and Sage Bond, and teachers, like Russell Goodluck, Canyon de Chelly Elementary School’s music teacher. Current NACAP apprentice composer Gemal Benallie has just been accepted to Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute.

NACAP apprentice composers continue to amaze with their creativity and fearless approach. They often use Native symbols in their notation, and they draw inspiration from stories from their culture or from the land itself, as in “Tsedeeshgizhnii Ashkii” (“Boy of the Rock Gap People”) by apprentice composer Lisa Robbins. Mixed meters are used to recreate rhythms from their own culture, and there is even a specific style of vibrato they’ve developed, called Navajo vibrato, which mimics the wide vibrato used by Navajo singers.

Shelly Lowe, Executive Director of the Harvard University Native American Program, has said of Native music, “What we are missing is not voices but ears.” NACAP is reaching ears. Works by NACAP composers have been performed on stages worldwide, including “From the Top” at Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers, and APM’s “Performance Today.” Recent partnerships include “The Stories We Tell,” with the Arizona Opera and the Heard Museum, in which our apprentice composers created micro-operas performed by Arizona Opera artists, and Shelter Music Boston’s “Voices From the Land,” a project that shares NACAP apprentice composers’ music and stories with musicians and shelter residents in the Boston area. In 2020, we launched a NACAP podcast, Original Score, an Indigenous Perspective on Music.

NACAP gives voice to Native American youth—isolated through geography and marginalized by the dominant culture—through a challenging, empowering artistic experience, and a platform to disseminate their unique, vital voices as 21st century Native citizens. “NACAP opened my mind to how powerful art is,” says Michael Begay. “What gets me going is: I come from a land that is beautiful and always shimmering with broken dreams.”


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