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St. Louis Symphony will summon sounds of ‘Cahokia’ with world premiere by James Lee III

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Baltimore-based composer James Lee III gives background on his piece to be premiered by the St. Louis Symphonic Orchestra, “Visions of Cahokia,” on Wednesday while next to music director Stéphane Denève at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

As composer James Lee III climbed the many steps of Monks Mound at the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site in Collinsville one day in November 2021, he heard music in his head.

It was the percussive opening to what would become “Visions of Cahokia,” a new orchestral piece inspired by the site, which once housed the largest Native American settlement in North America.

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra commissioned the piece and performs the world premiere at Powell Hall this weekend. The ascending notes — and volume — of its first movement conjures both the act of walking up the many steps of Monks Mound and the determination of Indigenous people in North America to build a thriving community.

“Visions of Cahokia” is Lee’s latest effort to engage with Native American culture. In the flute concerto “Niiji Memories,” one movement is inspired by a Chocktaw honor song and another summons the energy of a Native American Ghost Dance. Lee also has incorporated African American spirituals in his work, sometimes calling attention to similarities he sees between Native American and African American musical traditions.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Symphonic Orchestra violinist Hannah Ji rehearses James Lee III’s “Visions of Cahokia” ahead of its world premiere on Wednesday at Powell Hall.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Lee about his urge to juxtapose elements from different cultures in his work.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: How were you inspired to write a piece about the Cahokia Mounds?

James Lee III: I guess it was my natural progression in looking at certain aspects of Native American history and finding out about Cahokia. I have friends from various parts of Central and South America, and I was always interested in what I saw, especially in Peru with Machu Picchu and hearing about these ancient ruins there in Mexico and parts of Central America. But I didn't hear as much about North American ruins of Native American history. And then somehow through my reading and searching, I found out about Cahokia Mounds, and I thought it would be the natural way of expressing for me would be through an orchestra piece.

Goodwin: So sometimes you might write for a smaller ensemble.

Lee: Exactly.

Goodwin: But this topic made you think: I need a whole orchestra.

Lee: And I’ve wanted to do it for so long that I almost gave in and decided to write it for a piano trio. But I rejected that idea and thought, I really want an orchestra. Let’s be patient, and one day it will happen.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Baltimore-based composer James Lee III looks over his score as the St. Louis Symphonic Orchestra rehearses “Visions of Cahokia" on Wednesday at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

Goodwin: How is “Visions of Cahokia” structured?

Lee: It's in three movements. The first movement is actually the beginning, kind of the dawn, the idea of moving towards wanting to create this kind of mega city. And it starts with the percussion. So the sleigh bell, there is a bass drum, and as they're playing, there's always this prominent rhythm. The harp is also playing with this ascending line, kind of giving this little glimpse of light in this city that's going to be built. And actually the texture gets a little more thick, and the notes are climbing so that you have this impression that you are ascending the mountain itself.

Goodwin: That sense of climbing the stairs.

Lee: Right. But then the second movement is called “Na Yimmi,” which is a Choctaw word for faith — because Cahokia was also a religious center, and I wanted to highlight that aspect of the culture and the history of the city. That movement is much more calm, as if people are singing out to God.

The third movement is called “Chukoshkomo,” which is a Chickasaw word. That movement is more playful. I tried to evoke the idea of chunkey, this game they would play at Cahokia. There was a disk and they would roll it on the ground and then throw some kind of stick towards it to try to see who could get closer to that particular disc before the disc just fell flat.

And then it's a full powwow celebration, where the sound gets thicker and thicker until the end, with this big explosion of sound.

Goodwin: What draws you to bring in elements like this to your compositions?

Lee: I think the days of writing a symphony or a concerto just for the fact of it seem to have been long gone a long time ago. If we want to connect with audiences and people who are interested in the music, a lot of times there is an interest in a kind of story that we might tell or something that could resonate with audience members.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Baltimore-based composer James Lee III and St. Louis Symphonic Orchestra music director Stéphane Denève go over notes on Lee’s “Visions of Cahokia,” on Wednesday during a rehearsal ahead of the piece’s world premiere at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

Goodwin: Have you been in touch with Native people in the area here? Is anyone playing on the piece from that community, or part of the process in any way?

Lee: No. It's been all either from what I've read or from what I've listened to online. I have such a schedule that I am usually pressed for time to work on a lot of different pieces that I do my own independent research. I kind of limit the time I'm in extra discussions with others.

Goodwin: Is there a historical relationship between the music of Native Americans and African Americans?

Lee: Yeah. It's interesting that when Antonín Dvořák was in the United States, and when he was advocating [in the 1890s] for American composers to incorporate music of Negro American composers and Native Americans, he actually thought that much of the music sounds the same. And I'm thinking that’s probably because of the similar scale structure, in terms of pentatonicism or minor scales. That kind of pathos that you really hear in terms of the kind of depth and the sadness that you might hear in some of those minor scales that are incorporated in both musical traditions.

In my flute concerto “Niiji Memories,” in the third movement, I wrote a piece that would convey the idea of the Native American Ghost Dance, and I juxtaposed that with the Holy Ghost dances in Black churches.

Goodwin: What’s the connection there?

Lee: In the Ghost Dance, just looking at their movements, it reminded me so much of watching earlier hip-hop artists, or people in African American Holiness or Pentecostal churches in the praise breaks. Especially the Sioux Indian tribe. I saw a video from either the Library of Congress or some older source, and the dances look so similar.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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