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An Interview With Composer Rob Kapilow on Summer Sun, Winter Moon

Rob Kapilow, the composer featured in the documentary Summer Sun, Winter Moon to air January 31st on SundayArts, was commissioned by the St. Louis and Kansas City Symphonies and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra to compose a symphonic work with a specific theme: a reflection of the enduring legacy of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Seeking to collaborate with Blackfeet tribal member Darrell Robes Kipp, the innovative artist delved into a sharply alternative – and controversial – avenue of perspective, that of the indigenous storyteller’s view “from the river bank, not the boat.” Summer Sun, Winter Moon documents the collaboration to create this cross cultural piece project that brings a Native perspective on American history to light.

In connection with the January 31st airing of the documentary, Kapilow recently answered a number of questions for SundayArts via email about his creative process and his journey with Summer Sun, Winter Moon

At the beginning of the documentary Darrell calls you a good Blackfoot. What is your relationship Native American tribes? Would you say that your creative collaboration created a kind of tribal bond?

I believe that relationships are with individuals and not groups. Before this project I had not a single relationship with a Native American. Over the course of this project and since its completion, I have developed hundreds of relationships with individual Native Americans of many different tribes–obviously the largest number within the Blackfoot community. I have become aware of a group of people, and a wide range of issues that I had previously never been aware of before, and developed extremely deep relationships with many different individuals and a sympathy for them and their issues I would not have thought possible. I have also developed a much greater comfort level in my dealings with all tribes and a sensitivity to the kinds of issues that can arise in these encounters that has deepened these relationships. I would not claim that I have a relationship with Native American tribes but the creative collaboration and the time I spent in the Native American world allowed me to connect with an enormous number of people and issues in the tribal world.

What was the impetus to document the creative process behind the commissioned musical composition?

From my side, the impetus came first from my own shock at how ignorant I was of the people and issues I was encountering as I entered the Native American world, and the hope that some of the amazing experiences I was having might be shared with others, and open up some of this world to them. I also believed profoundly that the tribal world had an important story to tell that we needed to hear–not only about Lewis and Clark but about their side of the American experience–and the more I learned, the more valuable it thought it might be to have this information shared with others. I also believe deeply in this kind of collaborative experience with people from completely different walks of life–“crossing the divide” experiences–and I hoped that by documenting this process, others might be inspired to try to create similar projects.

What was the most unexpected creative development you had when working on this piece?

The entire project grew out of a completely unexpected creative development- turning the original project 180 degrees on its head. From looking at Lewis and Clark’s journey from their point of view, to looking at it from the Native American point of view. From the banks of the river not the boat.

Were there any places where you and Darrell came into creative conflict? How did you resolve any differences?

The only difficulties were in getting him to actually finally write the libretto! Discovering what we in fact wanted to say require endless discussion but not what I would call conflict. Just extensive searching for what we really wanted to get across. Once he handed me the libretto I was thrilled, and he had no problems with me editing his original draft.

What difficulties did you encounter teaching the Blackfoot language to the chorus?

There were difficulties of pronunciation with all of the Indian words in the piece–not only Blackfoot–but the bigger difficulty was getting them to commit to the Plains Indian kind of intense delivery in the opening movement. It is a whole different style of singing that is quite different from standard choral production. However, once they got the idea of what I was looking for, they were quite thrilled to throw themselves into it. Opening up a new way of singing and watching the choruses take it on was quite a thrilling experience.

Has anything happened with the project since the completion of the documentary? How has the project continued to evolve?

The Summer Sun, Winter Moon project is evolving at community-specific and broader levels. A particular ‘dream’ for all involved: to have the full Helena Symphony Orchestra (which appears in the film), together with all involved in the project, travel to the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, MT and perform/celebrate SSWM for the community that is the ‘heart and soul’ of the project.

On a broader level, an educational outreach initiative is the long term planned next step, built around the core concept of ‘Bridging the Divide’ and encouraging ‘cross cultural understanding.’ DVD distribution and licensing to other platforms is in the works.

The 200+ PBS airings to date have prompted a compelling influx of responses: from traditional urban symphony-goers who would like to buy a full recording of the SSWM symphony; to radio stations in geographically remote US/ Canadian communities responding to the questions raised and asking for more; to a range of teachers who would like to use it; to teach multiple lessons to scholars at Harvard who will write an analysis.

We’re honored that over the coming months, there are invitations to screen the film and engage in dialogue from a range of dynamic entities: Washington DC Congressional Committees; the Missouri Historical Society The Heard Museum in Phoenix; tribal nations; and urban community schools of the arts.

Watch Summer Sun, Winter Moon this weekend on SundayArts:

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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