During a Tuesday afternoon rehearsal of an improvisational new work called “Exchange,” held at Seattle Symphony’s Soundbridge music center, Native American musician Swil Kanim — a violinist and member of the Lummi tribe — begins the piece with a passionate tremolo.
Swil Kanim (his names are inseparable) follows that opening with a brief but enthralling cadenza that gradually engages three other players: flutist Paul Taub, a professor at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts; clarinetist Angelique Poteat, substituting on this occasion for Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s (SSO) Laura DeLuca; and Native wooden flute master Paul “Che oke ten” Wagner, of the Wsaanich (Saanich) tribe of southern Vancouver Island, B.C.
After several minutes of searching, shapeless improvisation, Swil Kanim suggests the group find inspiration outside, in the chaos of the city. He leads the others to Second Avenue and Union Street, where they absorb the wild energy of rush hour.
After the players return, there is more of a pulse to their collaboration, intuitive spaces inserted between bumper-to-bumper solos that alternately rise above a collective hum, sparking accents picked up by the next instrumentalist.
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“One person stops and another goes,” Swil Kanim says. “We’re traffic.”
This unusual quartet is also celebrating the work’s titular dynamic, an exchange of musical offerings among talented players from different worlds linked by a difficult history between whites and Natives. This is music leading to a communion that is more than the sum of its parts.
“Exchange” is only one section of a larger, new composition, Potlatch Symphony, making its world premiere in Benaroya Hall during Seattle Symphony’s “Day of Music” on Sunday.
“Day of Music,” a free event at Benaroya Hall, will feature 35 acts representing classical, jazz, rock and hip-hop. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s contribution includes two 45-minute performances led by associate conductor Stilian Kirov.
The new symphony, written by composer and Cornish professor Janice Giteck, and involving Native musicians, tribal artists and leaders, and classical players, will be part of those performances.
“The history between Euro-Americans and Natives in this region is pretty difficult,” says Giteck. “That’s been the most powerful thing about this project: a group of us has sat in the same room together off and on for a year, looking at each other’s faces wondering, can we just play for each other, and find moments of overlapping?”
Potlatch Symphony began in 2012 as the brainchild of Kelly Dylla, the SSO vice president of education and community engagement, who was looking for ways for the symphony to connect with other local communities.
“I feel that’s the deepest way we can engage,” Dylla says. “Being that vulnerable in a creative process, you’re learning to communicate in different ways and take risks.”
Dylla and SSO artistic planner Elena Dubinets decided to reach out to Salish tribes to work together on a symphony. Giteck came aboard in October as composer-in-residence.
“Two cultures approaching”
As commissions go, the symphony has been atypical, not specific in theme or form but rather created from the ground up, wholly dependent on communication, trust and cooperation between different cultures.
“I started by inviting folks from several tribes to meetings, where we talked about the possibility of making something together,” says Giteck. “From the beginning, the intention was to listen to each other, to share musical expressions.”
Those meetings led to two “cultural-exchange” nights last spring, at Squaxin Island and at the Duwamish Longhouse.
Besides the host tribes, other participants included members of the Chinook and Puyallup tribes, the Shooting Stars Performance Ensemble (string students from Puyallup), Giteck, Swil Kanim, Taub, Wagner and DeLuca.
“The way we approach music as a Native people and the European approach are different,” says Wagner. “Native people receive our songs from spirit, from nature. It’s been good to work with people who are open-minded, curious and respectful of our traditional ways.”
Potlatch Symphony comprises several sections, including Native songs, a blessing, a Wagner solo on wooden flute, and two movements for 14 instruments written by Giteck and linked by the freewheeling “Exchange.”
As with “Exchange,” Giteck’s two pieces reflect the creation of relationships, of mutual offering, during this project.
“The first, ‘Meeting,’ represents two cultures approaching, coming toward each other,” she says. “In the second, there are glimpses of the collective exchange between us.”
“During the treaty era, the violations of the treaties, the Boldt Decision, (which denied landless tribes federal recognition and treaty rights) there has been distrust in Native Americans’ relationship to the arts community,” says Swil Kanim. “I believe being present for one another as artists, with a willingness to tell the truth in each other’s presence, is the way for cultures to bridge gaps.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org