Rob Kapilow

An opera by Rob Kapilow and Darrell Kipp A re-blog from prairiemary.blogspot.com Sunday, July 13, 2008

It’s North American Indian Days in Browning and stuff is happening all over the place. They tell me the parade had fewer horses but the campground had more lodges. At Cuts Wood School, the Piegan Institute was celebrating the premier of a video/DVD about the creation of a symphony and libretto relating to Lewis & Clark. It was an open house event with local and out-of-town people wandering around eating Indian tacos and fresh strawberries. It was low-key but not a minor event.

I figure it all started with the high school English teachers: Darrell’s English teacher in Browning, Mrs. Holloway, had to leave and to lighten the moving load gave a box of classics from her personal library to Darrell. Already a leader among his classmates because of high energy and a kind of inner authenticity, Darrell sat down that summer and read all the books. Somehow he felt he was entitled to their world. Later at Harvard in a sociology program for Indians, he had a black professor who was a profound influence. The man said to go ahead and deal with white people, but to set his own terms of engagement, right down to the placement of the chairs in the room. If they put him in an uncomfortable chair with the light in his eyes, he should not make a fuss, but simply stand up, claim a better chair and move it where it ought to be. Eventually, when Darrell was asked to teach at a local college that was not keeping up with its own agenda, he was assigned a classroom full of broken desks. He simply carried them to the nearest exit and threw them out of the building.

At Goddard College they taught him that poetry was what he said it was and that language was precious because that’s where one’s world really lives. When Piegan Institute started a Blackfeet Immersion School (now doing business as “Cuts Wood” — a reference to an old story about a “least-of-these” boy with a secret helper he had acquired through kindness), these things came together. When Darrell was asked to participate in the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial — after raising hell about Indians being left out — he did it on his own terms: a play presented by Cuts Wood Blackfeet kids in their own language about Lewis & Co. shooting Blackfeet kids in a dawn scramble over weapons — the only Indians killed on the expedition.

Rob Kapilow comes from the opposite end of the spectrum: the rarefied levels of symphonic composers on the East Coast: Jewish, super-gifted, part of the tradition of sticking up for underdogs, and well-subsidized. Part of his gift is a constantly seeking curiosity, so when he was commissioned to write a symphony about L&C, he went looking for a “way in” that wouldn’t be like all the other buckskin and black powder cliches. He was in Missoula for the L&C commotion, attended the Cuts Wood School production, and knew he had his pigeon. His only problem was convincing Darrell he, Kapilow, really COULD compose a symphony if Darrell would write the libretto.

From Darrell’s end, people from back East or even Europe are constantly visiting Browning, fawning on the beautiful kids, insisting on how much they LOOOOOve Blackfeet, and declaring they will drop by to learn to speak Blackfeet themselves some afternoon when it’s convenient. They are tolerated because many of them are rich and smart enough to write checks. Anyway, Kapilow swept all that aside and simply arrived and talked and bombarded Darrell with ideas and lived at his house and ate all the cold breakfast cereal in the middle of the night for energy while he continued to develop the music. Pretty soon Darrell caught fire.

The massive Blackfeet and the compact composer found their common ground in stories: if something interesting happens, says Kapilow, no matter how slight, three days later Darrell would have embroidered it into a meaningful tale full of jokes and drama. And Kapilow is also just like that. Hugo Perez, a Cuban who lives in Brooklyn, adds his own droll sense of irony in this movie about the creation of a symphony, exploding all the pomposity about Indians and L&C with goofy old movie gags. Like, a greenhorn standing in a clearing wearing a tall silk opera hat which Indians are using as a target, solemnly removes one arrow after another, wondering where they’re coming from. When Darrell says he refuses to write “Tonto-speak”, we get a clip of corny sign language from an Italian Hollywood Indian and then a Kapilow-type orchestra playing the William Tell Overture.

The symphony originally premiered in St. Louis, anchor-point for the L&C festivities, and — as Darrell was quick to note — he was probably the only Indian there, as either musician or audience. At a second event in Helena, at least the audience included lots of Indians. Maybe someday there will be an NA classical symphony and choir to present this performance. (The Browning school orchestra was once QUITE capable of presenting such music.)

Yesterday was cool, breezy, and bright. A changing crew of kids moved the furniture, set the tables, signed in late-comers, pointed out the restrooms and kept them supplied. Bill Grant, architect, beamed as his building embraced everyone in just the way he designed it to do. Sun shone through the “dream moth” window on the west side of the big room that often hosts Blackfeet ceremonies. And here we all sat, Kipp and Kapilow, Perez and his crew, little kids and big kids, grannies and professors, renegades and chiefs, on the other side of town from the Pow-Wow, talking about the dark side of L&C — turning it inside out. No longer men going into the unknown. Now “men are coming, men are coming” into a known and beloved world about to be destroyed by that discovering team. Every hardship Jefferson’s party endured was a step closer to confinement on reservations for the Indians.

But this premiere was not a grim event. Larry Reevis came rushing through in pursuit of his latest brainstorm: a map of the traditional camping spots in the Great Circle over at the Pow-wow, which he was handing out on paper as well as selling t-shirts with the map on the back. (“I’m lookin’ for the Makes Cold Weather family! Lemme check yer t-shirt!”) A puppy invited himself in to survey the floor for scraps. A Canadian old-timer, named Heavy Head and wearing rancher’s garb, sang “The Lord’s Prayer” in Blackfeet while accompanying himself on the drum. (He got the idea from a Navajo.) Cyn Kipp, who has been fighting for good health, came in an eye-dazzling Kee-pi-tah-ki outfit with rhinestone bracelets and cinched her bright red calico Mother Hubbard with the traditional wide leather belt.

I have no idea what the Easterners thought. But the locals thought it was a good feed and an impressive movie about something they didn’t quite understand, not being really “up” on classical symphony. But that’s kind of how it usually is. Anyway, this is only a beginning. The movie will be on PBS in the fall, then on DVD. The CD of the symphony will soon be on the market. In the meantime — Google around and see what you can find. You might be surprised. Kapilow is drawn to every computer keyboard he passes. The tall aristocratic woman who is the producer of all this carries her own elegant white MAC laptop. (Cuts Wood is a wireless hotspot.) Perez and his photographers, inconspicuous alert young men with pockets full of tiny communication devices, were living parallel lives, partly with us and partly with the huge electronic, satellite-supported, webwork around the planet. A solid Southerner from North Carolina, a school principal, took careful notes. I think he understood that we were going back to the future.



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Mary Strachan Scriver

Mary Strachan Scriver


Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.