R. Carlos Nakai won over his Flagstaff audience on February 7 with a beautiful performance of The Two World Symphony by James DeMars. Nakai performed with the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra in a program that explored different views of America, including Milhaud’s Creation of the World and Dvorak’s New World Symphony. While these latter pieces include many jazz, blues, spirituals and folk music motifs to which we are more accustomed in classical music — these pieces have been around a while — the Two World Symphony is groundbreaking, placing the Native American flute and Native American musical themes at the forefront of symphonic tradition, where they are likely to take their place in the standard repertoire.
In a pre-concert lecture, FSO’s conductor and artistic director Randall Fleischer said of this piece, “The spirit and newness of it will impress you.” Certainly, this was true. But the beauty of this seemingly strange combination —the flute and the orchestra—was simply stunning. These “two worlds” complement each other well.
Against the full sound of the orchestra, Nakai’s amplified flute reverberated through the hall with chilling magnificence, evoking powerful images and powerful emotion, particularly in the first movement, “Spirit Call: paint for us the times to come.” The second movement, “Lake that Speaks: trembling of beings and things,” is intended to evoke the forest and waters of Minnesota, and it does so beautifully. Here, the orchestra and flute are layered. The orchestral background glitters with ethereal harmonics and percussive remarks, created by a variety of unusual percussive devices—the bowed vibraphone, cymbals, rainstick, and prayer stones struck together—while the flute dances above. The third movement, “Crow Smoke: shaping worlds as fire burns,” is dramatic and rousing, and again, the interplay between orchestra and flute is seemless and perfect.
But if this performance brings together two musical worlds, so does the flute itself. While the origin of the flute is still unknown, Nakai believes that it may have been introduced to Native peoples in the 14th century by European instrument makers, who came to America in search of wood to make organ pipes, to which the Native American flute bears a striking resemblance.
From that point, said Nakai, Indigenous peoples made it their own.
Nakai himself has experience in both Native and classical musical traditions. Nakai became interested in music, he said, in the fourth grade, listening to his first record which had arrived by mail to his home on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. The music was Tchaikovsky, and after listening to it, Nakai said, he thought that the trumpet must be the most important instrument in the world.
“That’s before I knew about this,” he said, holding up the flute.
Nakai studied with the classical masters, schooled in the European tradition on both trumpet and cornet. That career was brought short, however, when a military traffic accident ruined the musculature on one side of his face. When he returned home, he said, he began looking for a Native American flute, an instrument he had only heard about.
“Several people outside of the culture were trying to ‘save’ it,” he said. “But I said, ‘It is our turn to do our own thing.’”
Today, Nakai is credited with the revival of the flute and is himself the pre-eminent Native flutist, an accolade that is rightly earned and a fact that he proved again last Wednesday night.