Dawn Avery is a composer, cellist, vocalist, educator and nominated GRAMMY Award performer. One of our first commissions, Dawn’s Hi’iaka was composed for us in 2003. We recorded it for TULPE (Okenti Records), a CD of music by Dawn and Sarah Davol in 2008. You can visit our Video Room to see and hear how our recording was used to advertise a performance Dawn gave at the North Dakota Museum of Art. Just scroll down to the last video –– you’ll find it there!
Of Mohawk descent, Dawn seeks to create music that is healing, spiritual and restorative. Her exploration of sacred music led her to study the relationship between music and spirituality, especially in meditative practice. We hope you enjoy Suzanne’s interview.
SG: Who are your musical influences?
DA: I have been influenced by a variety of styles and composers:
Classical: Beethoven, Bach, Palestrina, Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Wuorinen, Cage, Varese.
World Music: polyrhythmic music of the BaAka and Shona in Central Africa, Maori chants, Haudenosaunee traditional song and dance music, Bulgarian Choirs, Native Contemporary of Joy Harjo, Shelley Morningsong, Johnny Whitehorse, Hawaiian by IZ.
Jazz: Coltrane, Davis, Monk, Holiday, my Dad (Chris Buckholz).
Rock: Hendrix, Sting, Pink Floyd, Indie Arie
Meditation: Deva Premal, Krishna Das, Tibetan Chant
SG: How does being a cellist influence your compositional process, if at all?
DA: I love doing both and I do compose a lot for cello because I know I can get performances! I love the sound of the cello as it is similar to the human voice. It can function as bass and support, it can be dramatically lyrical, it has passion and fire and can provide both driving and flowing accompaniment. It’s such a versatile instrument. Often I sit down at the cello, start to improvise and begin a piece. Composing keeps me fresh, and hopefully aware of what performers need and can do. It also informs my string writing and use of 20th century techniques such as col legno battuto ricocchet (batting the wood of the bow on the strings) to bring out sounds of the drum, or sul ponticello (playing on the bridge on the instrument) reminiscent of electric guitar.
SG: Hi’iaka was among one of our earliest commissions. We premiered it in New York at Merkin Concert Hall in 2003 and then it was released on your CD in 2008. Hi’iaka is the Hawaiian Goddess who restores life. Please tell us more about how this work relates to her and the restoration of life, and what inspired you to write this work for flute, viola and cello.
DA: The idea of restoring life, of restoration, is some of what I hope my music will bring to listeners – a sense of restoration, peace, letting go, a spiritual, somatic, or emotional experience beyond the notes. I also enjoy irony and pushing limits in some of my works, a push toward transformation or getting listeners to question their expectations – like embedding singers or percussionists throughout the audience to start playing as part of the piece, or asking the audience to be part of the chamber orchestra by adding a song or a sound or a rhythm.
I was delighted to compose a piece for Eight Strings & a Whistle. I not only love the name of the group, but I love what your group does musically, and who you are as people. This makes a difference in how music is performed and honored. Hi’iaka was inspired by a Hawaiian chant that I had been singing in my head. It is a naming chant, meaning that it restores life through the giving of new names. I enjoyed the theme and the flow of the chant. My piece is written out of respect for the music of the Hawaiian people, but beyond my having incorporated parts of the chant melody into it, it is not Hawaiian, but an original composition.
SG: In Hi’iaka, your use of extended techniques makes our instruments sound very much like folk instruments. For instance, you use col legno, the technique you mentioned earlier, in the cello to make it sound like a drum. How does this relate to your background in ethnomusicology?
DA: Largely out of an influence from my work with John Cage, I am particularly interested in soundscapes and textures. I remember standing listening to the sound of snowflakes with him, and trying to differentiate the sounds as they landed on different surfaces! This is deep listening.
As a Native woman, I am interested in the sounds and sensibilities of my culture and how they can be part of innovative, contemporary classical music. I also am interested in dispelling Native American stereotypes through various musical genres and like to incorporate political, social, cultural beliefs of my people. For me this involves breaking audience/ performer boundaries, such as inviting audience members to participate in singing and dancing a stomp dance in a circle around the chairs of the remaining audience members and chamber orchestra. Another approach involves planting singers and percussionists into the audience, so that as they are cued each becomes part of the piece on a different level (literally and figuratively). I also try to include the Kanienkeha language (Mohawk) in many of my pieces, because of the ancestral, powerful vibration of the words and its significance for revitalization. To me, all of this is restorative.
SG: You spend a lot of time performing Native American Music. Can you tell us a bit about what led you in this direction and how it has influenced your approach to composing?
DA: I am of Kanienkeha, Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) descent and my Indian name is Ieriho:kwats, meaning she goes to her roots to learn. I wear the turtle clan. I did not grow up on a reserve, but I have gone back to my culture to study with elders. Learning my language, songs, dances and ceremonies has been an important part of my life.
I teach a Native Composer Project Residency program on several reserves. It’s a culture-based residency program where students write a traditional style women’s song in Mohawk (which most of the students do not know), and then perform and record the song. In some of the residency programs, the students have used that material to write pop arrangements, and compose string quartets. A CD of the original works written by students on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Ontario, Canada is coming out this summer and will be used to help raise funds for language revitalization programs. My own recent CD, OUR FIRE, incorporates Mohawk language as I sing about contemporary Native American issues.
I have also commissioned several Native composers to write new works for solo cello (or with percussion, voice, piano) through the North American Indian Cello Project (NAICP) and have performed these works at Montgomery College in Maryland and at the North Dakota Museum of Art, among others. There is a movement of fascinating and talented Classical Native composers (Navajo, Mohican, Echota Tsalagi, Annishnabe, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cree) on whom I am currently writing my doctoral dissertation in ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland. More information about this can be found on my web site: http://www.dawnavery.com/naicp/intro.php
SG: Please elaborate on your meditative practice and the sessions you lead.
DA: I have been leading meditation groups for over 25 years and teach at the Esalen Institute and Omega Institute with Dr. Rick Jarow. Our workshops involve the teaching and practice of manifestation techniques used toward fulfilling our rightful, purposeful place in the world. Using world music, movement and meditation practices, their work employs the chakra system as a starting point for healing and transformation. I also lead a regular meditation group in Maryland.
SG: What are our thoughts on New Music in general?
DA: I was truly privileged to work with some of New York’s greatest composers: John Cage, Charles Wuorinen, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, Linda Bouchard and Chen Yi. I have also had the opportunity to perform and premiere works with groups such as the New Music Consort, The Group for Contemporary Music, Musician’s Accord and Composer’s Concordance. It was an amazing way to learn especially from an experiential level. Innovative expression is important to the survival, growth and success of every culture. Being in the United States, I take our legacy for freedom of expression and the pursuit of happiness seriously and truly appreciate seeing others in all fields doing the same –– whether it be designing portable structures for the homeless, water filtration systems, new works of public art, environmentally friendly schools, new socially-conscious curriculum, or composing new symphonies. There is a spiritual component to my work as I have studied with some great healers and led meditation groups for almost 30 years. As a Native woman, I try to contribute in a small way to the healing that our land and its people’s need through creative musical expression.
Dawn’s compositions span from orchestral to chamber music and are frequently based on indigenous themes. She has been granted awards from the American Dance Festival at Duke University, New York University, Meet the Composer, the Maryland Flute Association and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County. Additionally, Dawn is a recipient of the Expressive Collaboration Award from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Dawn is a Professor of Music at Montgomery College in Maryland, where she also produces an annual World Arts Festival. She was recognized as Maryland Professor of the Year by Council for Advancement and Support of Education, CASE, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in November, 2011. Her latest CD entitled OUR FIRE: Native American Contemporary Songs was produced by GRAMMY Award winning artist, Larry Mitchell. Another CD entitled RAPIDLY APPROACHING ECSTASY, featuring music for meditation, yoga, and ecstatic dance, is scheduled to be released this Fall.
Dawn has performed at the Montreux, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Banlieu Bleu Jazz Festivals in Europe. She has also performed at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, as well as on many of New York’s thriving downtown music stages, such as the Knitting Factory, La Mama and Thread Waxing Space. Working with musical luminaries from Luciano Pavarotti to Sting, Dawn spent years honing her musical talents, collaborating and performing with John Cage, Glen Velez, Joanne Shenandoah, Ron Warren, Amadou Kouyate, David Darling, Ustad Sultan Kahn, Sussan Deyhim, Karsh Kale, Baba Olatunji, Reza Derakshani, John Cale, and Mischa Maisky. You can read more about Dawn and her projects and recordings at http://www.dawnavery.com/