Jim Henry has yet to visit New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, the hallowed, high-desert landscape once home to ancestral Pueblo tribes. But the choral director has already fallen in love with the place, as have his music students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
That’s due to a new symphony inspired by Chaco from local composer Gary Gackstatter, who is a music professor at St. Louis Community College-Meramec. On Monday, April 23, about 200 singers and instrumentalists from UMSL and from STLCC will perform the symphony during a free concert at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.
“When I [first] played this piece for my students, they just could not wait to get on the stage,” Henry told host Don Marsh this week on St. Louis on the Air.
Gackstatter, who also joined the conversation along with renowned Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai, said that the piece, titled “Symphony Chaco: A Journey of the Spirit,” is meant to be “of” the canyon rather than simply about it.
“[Chaco’s] been a muse for me for many years,” Gackstatter explained. “Everybody that goes out there, they say they feel something, there’s something out there. And it just kept pulling me back and pulling me back. There is something out there, and it has sparked many people’s creativity, because that’s what it is – a giant act of creativity.”
A place of spiritual significance, it’s a barren landscape now compared to the vibrant center of activity it was centuries ago.
“There’s these huge great houses that they built a thousand years ago,” he said. “But there’s no trees, there’s no water, there’s no shelter – there’s nothing. It’s a very quiet place. The indigenous people, the Pueblo people, they believe those spirits are still out there.”
Gackstatter added that his decades-long interest in Native American thought and music stems from what the culture has to offer “about how we treat each other and treat the earth.”
Nakai, the featured performer in the upcoming show, grew up about 70 miles away from Chaco in a contemporary tribal community.
“Gary did a whole lot of interviews and research about what was going on at that place, in its own time, and then how we see it today,” Nakai said of the process that led to Gackstatter’s composition. He described it as a story of “how people survive and change over time.”
The segment included a sample of Nakai’s own music, which is reflective of the activity in the high desert surrounding morning prayer.
Take a listen:
What: Symphony Chaco: A Journey of the Spirit
When: 7:30 p.m. April 23, 2018
Where: Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center (1 University Blvd., St. Louis MO 63121)
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