Cherokee Chamber Singers perform at BMCM+AC

STILL HERE: “It didn’t seem right to not use this as an opportunity for the kids to say what they wanted to say,” explains composer William Brittelle, who was commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra to compose a piece of music in the Cherokee language, to be performed by the Cherokee Chamber Singers alongside the orchestra. “They were extremely eloquent and focused on what they wanted to do.” Photo by Scott McKie Brings Plenty / Cherokee One Feather

“William Brittelle is a genius,” says Michael Yannette, director of the Cherokee Chamber Singers, speaking about the composer whose music his group is preparing to perform. “He’s going to hate that I said that, but it’s true.”

Yannette and Brittelle met after the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra commissioned the latter to compose a piece of music in the Cherokee language, to be performed by the Cherokee Chamber Singers alongside the orchestra. Yannette imagined that the finished product would feature some interweaving of traditional Cherokee melodies with a variety of contemporary classical forms. But the piece that Brittelle landed on — which the Cherokee Chamber Singers will perform at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center on Thursday, Nov. 21 — is a far cry from what Yannette had envisioned.

Brittelle spent three years visiting Yannette and his students in Cherokee, collecting notes and impressions, exploring the community and its stories. Then he wove these impressions together with the musical styles, ideas and experiences the singers wanted to share. To collect their perspectives, he handed out a questionnaire and spent weeks at a time talking to the students about what he and they had in mind.

He was impressed by the singers’ shared concern that people outside the Cherokee community don’t seem to know much about Cherokee culture. It was clear they wanted to communicate that there are native people and cultures still around and thriving in the 21st century. So the piece they landed on captured in its title and text a statement based on that shared concern: “Si Otsedoha (We’re Still Here).”

As he composed, Brittelle made changes to the score where it didn’t feel right to the singers and continued tweaking it until it felt like a balanced collaboration between the composer and performers. Though he admits this isn’t his typical process, he felt it was important to get it right, whatever it took. Brittelle says he told the singers his goal was “to give voice to concerns or perspectives that you feel like otherwise you haven’t been able to express.

“We knew they were going to be performing in front of thousands of people,” he adds, “all throughout North Carolina and in some pretty big venues. It didn’t seem right to not use this as an opportunity for the kids to say what they wanted to say. They were extremely eloquent and focused on what they wanted to do. So my role was essentially to support the development of that text and then to set that text to music in collaboration with them. I talked to them a lot about music that they listen to and what resonated with them. The [resulting piece of] music itself is not, I would say, overtly classical. It’s sort of a reflection of the musical world that they are collectively interested in.”

At the Black Mountain Museum + Arts Center, Yannette will accompany his chorus on piano and provide a bit of background discussion about how the piece came to fruition. To hear him tell it, it was a yearslong process of building trust and relationships, watching Brittelle slowly, carefully, mindfully learn about the people whose world he was attempting to capture in song.

“The fact that we were even in the same room with William Brittelle has been kind of an amazing thing,” Yannette says, “much less [that we’ve] been fortunate enough to create this amazing work of art.”

Yannette adds that his students “are guarded, in general, [around] people who are outsiders to the community. It takes a little bit for them to weed out whether you’re a sincere person or not. [But with Brittelle,] I just felt really relaxed with him. He spent time here. He spent weeks here and hung out with my kids. He really wanted to do it right, and he really explored Cherokee culture from all angles.

“He was so respectful and honoring of the community and my kids and whatever they felt. … It’s pretty unflinching, you know, it’s the whole story [of the Cherokee people]. But there was never a moment when Bill said, ‘No, I think that’s a little too much.’ It was just the truth, and the kids were stating it clearly. … If it came from the kids, there was never a moment when he turned his back on it.”

WHO: Cherokee Chamber Singers perform “Si Otsedoha (We’re Still Here)” by William Brittelle
WHERE: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 120 College St., blackmountaincollege.org
WHEN: Thursday, Nov. 21, 7 .m. $10 BMCM+AC members and students with ID/$15 nonmembers

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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