Enemy Way inspires musical collaboration
By Marley Shebala
(Special to the Times - Deborah O'Grady)
WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 26, 2007
An oratorio is a musical arrangement for voices and orchestra that tells a sacred story without costumes, scenery, or dramatic action. Handel's "Messiah," the biblical account of Jesus' birth set to music, is history's most celebrated oratorio.
"Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio" was composed by Mark Grey with libretto by Laura Tohe. It will be performed Feb. 7 and 9 in Phoenix Symphony Hall as part of the symphony's 60th anniversary celebration.
Grey, who lives in San Francisco, is a composer and sound designer whose works have been performed in some of the world's most famous concert halls. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2003.
He said when the Phoenix Symphony first asked him to create an oratorio, he knew he wanted to compose one that was unique to the Southwest and was never done before, which drew him to Navajo creation stories.
As a youth, he became familiar with some Navajo creation stories through annual visits to his grandmother's home in Yuma, Ariz., he said.
"Later in life, I looked back at those stories in a new way, a more mature way," Grey recalled. "I began to realize and understand more of the metaphors and symbolism and places that the creation story was talking about, like Dinétah and Canyon de Chelly."
But he admits that he will never fully understand the stories because he's not Navajo.
Grey perceived that the stories could generate some "colorful ideas and a spiritual path" for his vision, which after a year-and-a-half of research evolved into a performance piece that combines the music of Western society, contemporary art, and themes from an indigenous culture with ancient roots in the region.
A way with words
Most oratorios are based on the Bible but in choosing a Navajo theme, Grey knew he had to find someone grounded in the culture to write the libretto, or lyrics.
He got on the Internet and googled "Navajo poets," repeatedly coming across the name of Laura Tohe.
An award-winning poet with several volumes of poetry in print, Tohe has had previous experience seeing her words translated into other art forms. "Making Friends with Water" (Nosila Press, 1989) formed the basis for dance and music by The Moving Company, a modern dance group based at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.
Tohe's memoir of boarding school, "No Parole Today" (West End Press, 1999), won the Wordcraft Circle award for best poetry book in 1999. This year "Tséyi'/Deep in the Rock: Reflections on Canyon de Chelly" (UA Press Suntracks, 2005) won the Arizona Book Awards prize for best book. It was Southwest Book of the Year in 2005.
What caught Grey's attention, he said, was Tohe's sensitivity to the Navajo language, her "writing language, how she blends (Navajo) tradition with contemporary in a very beautiful way, which is what this piece really needed. That grounding. The calling of the earth.
"And she has that in her prose, the way she writes, speaks and lives," Grey said. "The minute I read her work, I knew she was the right person for this project."
Tohe, who is Tsé Nahabilnii (Sleepy Rock Clan), born for T—d’ch'’i'nii (Bitter Water Clan), is from Crystal, N.M., and currently is an associate professor of English at Arizona State University.
In a recent telephone interview, she laughed as she admitted that she had to consult a dictionary to find out what an "oratorio" was.
"I've never done this before but in a way, it was like writing poetry," she said. "Writing poetry is like writing music. There are similar tempos and rhythms."
Grey composed 230 pages of music for the Enemy Way oratorio, which consists of a baritone soloist, a 160-member chorus, and an 80-piece symphony.
As Tohe talked about her lyrics for "Enemy Slayer," she emphasized that Grey's oratorio is not a performance of the Enemy Way ceremony.
Grey, in a separate interview, said when he asked Tohe to write the libretto he was sensitive about not giving away the "secrets" of Navajo oral tradition, which is why he asked her to produce a libretto from a "Navajo eye."
Story of Seeker
"Enemy Slayer" is the story of Seeker, a Navajo veteran returning from Iraq, which has a political and social context shared around the world, Grey said.
"We're still in a war and we're going to be in a war for many, many years unfortunately," he said. "And we have to find a way to heal, not just ourselves and family, but with other cultures overseas."
Tohe, who created the character, said Seeker is a young Navajo man who goes to war and experiences bloodshed, violence and killing.
When Seeker returns home he's happy at first but eventually "all those monsters - turmoil, violence - start to come back to him and he has to deal with that," she said.
Seeker's extended family believes in Navajo ceremonies and he eventually returns to those teachings - "the corn pollen way of life," Tohe said. "That is what the story is about."
The Navajo oratorio is "loosely based" on the Navajo Twin Heroes, for whom the Holy Ones created the first 'Anaa'j’ ceremony, she said. The ceremony focuses on the impact of war on a warrior and restoring harmony both inside the person and with the surrounding world.
Tohe added that she chose the name "Seeker" because the young man is "seeking balance, some way to restore himself."
Grey observed that the Navajo way of healing, unlike so many other religions, is "so peaceful and bound to earth, sky and world. And it has a message of hope and peace."
"Enemy Slayer" retains the essence of the Twin Heroes while moving that story into a contemporary setting, Grey explained.
To emphasize this, the singers will appear onstage against a backdrop of photographs by Deborah O'Grady, a California-based photographer whose work has received worldwide renown.
Grey said he recruited O'Grady because she specializes in landscape photography.
"I don't know of any project like this," O'Grady said. "It's very new for me. And the part's that's new to me is that instead of hanging my photos on wall, they'll be put into this sophisticated computer program so my photos become animated. The pictures melt into each other."
O'Grady believes that her obsession with landscapes grew from her annual summer visits to her maternal grandmother's house in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, where she "lived outdoors, lived in nature, helped on the farm, hiked and learned about plants."
She said that when Grey and Tohe asked her to be part of the production, she started learning as much as she could about Navajo culture.
"I learned that landscape is sacred and an important element," O'Grady said. "I share that sense that all things are sacred. So this was a chance to express that and my admiration and respect for that worldview. And to do it without invading what is personal and sacred."
Grey said another reason he wanted to compose a Navajo oratorio was "to enlighten the non-Navajo community" and create a bridge for people, both Navajo and non-Navajo, who have never before been to the symphony or heard of an oratorio.
The oratorio reaches beyond the story of one person, he said.
"It's more about the social impact that the work has on contemporary life that we all live in and that the differences of people shouldn't matter," Grey said. "We are all in the same place, and of the earth and our surroundings."
To introduce its new oratorio to those unfamiliar with symphony or unfamiliar with Navajo culture, the Phoenix Symphony is sponsoring a series of workshops next week. (See separate story)
In addition, a special preview will be held for high school and college students on Feb. 5, 2008, while the production is in final rehearsals.
Information: David Nischwitz, 602-495-1117, ext. 319 or email@example.com.