Nancy Ives leads the cello section of the Oregon Symphony, plays contemporary chamber music with FearNoMusic and Portland Cello Project, and is one of Oregon’s most prominent and accomplished classical musicians. She also teaches at Lewis & Clark College and recently embarked on a burgeoning second career as a composer. But she never expected researching her next musical project would lead her to the Columbia Gorge, sprawled face down on a rock outcropping above the rushing waters of the Klickitat River.
But the Yakama Nation woman who’d invited Ives to her family fishing grounds insisted.
“Listen to the river,” Martha Cloud told Ives. “The river will tell you the sound.”
This weekend and next, that sound will emerge when Portland Chamber Orchestra plays Ives’ new composition for chamber orchestra, Celilo Falls: We Were There, in a multimedia performance that also includes original poetry and narration by renowned writer Ed Edmo and projected imagery by photographer Joe Cantrell. A corresponding art exhibition, Celilo – Never Silenced, at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton, featuring work by Cantrell, Edmo, and a dozen other Indigenous artists, is on view through Sunday, June 5.
The project originated in 2019, not at Celilo’s flooded falls in the Columbia River Gorge, but at the Oregon coast, when PCO music director Yaacov Bergman heard a new solo cello composition by Ives performed at the Siletz Bay Music Festival, which he also directs. “Yaki”, as he’s universally known, had been looking for a new festival work honoring the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz. Impressed, he offered Ives the commission.
Writing a big orchestral piece was a terrific opportunity for an emerging composer, but Ives hesitated. Neither born in Oregon nor of Native American heritage, she worried that “it wasn’t my story to tell,” she remembers.
So she reached out to her friend Joe Cantrell, a well-known Cherokee photographer, activist, and frequent ArtsWatch contributor who would become the project’s linchpin. Cantrell in turn introduced her and Bergman to Edmo, a Shoshone-Bannock poet, playwright, performer, traditional storyteller, tour guide, and teacher.
Ives worried that Edmo might be wary of outsiders trying to take on a Native subject in music, but his friend Cantrell vouched for her. And he was impressed by both their sincere interest and their respective track records. Ives and Bergman “are both professionals with years of experience,” Edmo says. “Nancy showed real sincerity. I trusted their work.”
Edmo saw the project as a way to bring his work and Native history to broader audiences. The story he wanted to tell wasn’t about the Siletz, but about Celilo Falls, one of the world’s largest waterfalls and a natural wonder which, for thousands of years, had been a trading center for Indigenous communities from throughout the Northwest — “the great mart of the West,” Cantrell calls it. As a child, Edmo watched as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed construction on the Dalles Dam in 1957, inundating Celilo Falls with the Columbia River, destroying Indigenous communities’ traditional salmon fishing grounds, and dispossessing local Indigenous communities of their livelihoods and ancient cultural home.
Edmo offered to contribute some of his writings on the subject to the project. He says he’s not averse to using “the white man’s tools” — from the internet to video projections to symphony orchestra — to tell his people’s story. “That’s what tools are for,” he says. “Cultures change, and we have to adapt.”
For her part, although Ives was outraged about the injustices perpetrated on Native people and culture at Celilo, she still fretted about whether she, as a non-Native composer, was the right choice to create the music. Finally, she decided that if Native artists Edmo and Cantrell welcomed her as collaborators, she’d be comfortable working with them as a team, “literally amplifying the voices of people from marginalized groups” such as Oregon’s indigenous inhabitants, she says. “The opportunity to work with Ed’s poems was so compelling. What I’m doing is in service to Joe’s vision and Ed’s story and all the eloquent things he has to say.”
There has been something sometimes it is a song sometimes a whisper sometimes it appears to be an animal then other times weeping I hear it there has been something that has disappeared from my mother earth I'm not sure what it was but sometimes at night I can hear it in the wind or it comes to me in my dreams like the smell of salmon cooking – From "These Few Words of Mine" by Ed Edmo ©Ed Edmo
After their first meeting at a local deli, the four became “like family,” Cantrell says. “Early on, I established that [Ives and Bergman] were coming into this with the deepest respect and a sincere desire to honor and revive the memory of this incredible hub that was Celilo,” he says.
They quickly agreed on which poems and recollections that Edmo would share during the performance and that would inspire Ives’s music. She began researching Celilo’s history, but Cantrell thought Ives would also need more personal exposure to the subject. That’s how she found herself lying facedown on a rock above a rushing river.
When Cloud, who’d been teaching Cantrell about the Lyle Yakama salmon culture, heard that his friend Nancy Ives was composing a piece about Celilo Falls, she told him to bring Ives there, so the river would become part of her. The next day, Cantrell and Ives arrived at the Klickitat Falls traditional dipnetting area.
“We kept hearing this hollow ‘tok’ sound,” Cantrell remembers. “It was the salmon hitting their heads on the rocks” as they flexed their bodies to leap up the falls.
Cantrell took her to She Who Watches, the ancient Klickitat County petroglyph and pictograph that Indigenous Americans, who regard it as sacred ground, called Tsagiglalal.
As Cantrell describes it, Cloud then took Ives to a solid basalt promontory about 12 feet above where the Klickitat River collided hard with the rock. She had the composer/cellist lie face down, hands at her sides, face and forehead pressed against the rock to become part of the vibrations, “the energy that exists there and brings the salmon,” Cantrell says. Moved to tears, Ives lay there, unmoving for a time with Cloud sitting a few yards upstream.
“[Cloud] just knew what I needed as a composer,” Ives recalls. “It was a spiritual experience.”
Cantrell had watched several fishermen work hours the previous day without catching a single fish, nor had anyone caught a salmon that day, but as Ives arose from the rock, a fisherman dipped his net between Martha and her, and immediately twisted as a big, resplendent silver salmon hit his net.
Cantrell took it as a good omen.
“I carry this reverence for the old ones, the spirits,” he said. “I keep looking for them to send signs of yes or no,” whether to go ahead with the project. “Every single sign has been ‘yes,’” he said. “And not only ‘yes,’ but ‘hell yes!’”
From the River to the Stage — and Screen
Keeping in mind that audiences for this music might not be as acquainted with some of the thornier sounds that have spiced some of her earlier work, Ives says she chose a more consonant style than usual, with some Coplandish colors.
“I wanted it to be music that Ed and Joe would like,” she explains.
Having once worked on a project involving early 20th century music by non-Native composers that incorporated — critics said appropriated — Indian music, “I was leery of co-opting actual [Native] tunes or themes,” she explained. Instead, she let Edmo’s texts and Cantrell’s images guide her music — melancholy and turbulent in “Celilo Fisherman,” exalted in “Grandfather Storyteller,” angry in “Celilo Blues.”
Nevertheless, “I do hear Native music and themes in it,” Cantrell said. “I hear an Indian drum that has traditionally sounded like a heartbeat. I have worked closely enough with her to know she’s completely intuitive. Ultimately art is a mixture of everything you bring to it.”
Ives acknowledges that she’s likely absorbed by osmosis influences from the people and places Cantrell introduced her to. The inner rhythms of the waterfalls, the percussive flopping of salmon heads striking rocks, even the wind eventually made their way into her 11-movement, 45-minute composition.
Ives first composed versions of the music for her solo cello and voice, which she performed last week on All Classical Portland’s radio show Thursdays@3 last week and will again at an August festival. Those cello/voice versions provided “seedlings” for some of the orchestral music Portland Chamber Orchestra will play this month. The Siletz Bay Music Festival Orchestra performed one movement, “N’Chewana,” at a concert last fall.
For his projected imagery showing Celilo’s geologic and human history, Cantrell said he’s using stacked focus microphotography (using technology modified from spy satellite software) to illuminate pictographical patterns that resemble human figures, shining out from rocks found near She Who Watches and other areas. “It’s my way of giving the old ones their voices back,” he says. “I’m pulling up some of those figures and making them rhyme more with Nancy’s music and Ed’s poetry. My images are my form of music.”
In performance, Ives’s new composition supplies a sonic evocation of the place and people Edmo and Cantrell illuminate in their respective art forms, a musical connection between Cantrell’s imagery and Edmo’s stories. “I wanted to incorporate the two poles from my collaborators — the timelessness and universality Joe is focused on, and the very personal story that Ed is sharing,” she explains. “The music I wrote lives in both those realms. I can’t imagine a better medium to unite them.”
- Portland Chamber Orchestra performs Celilo Falls: We Were There at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4, Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, Beaverton. 2 p.m. Sunday, June 5, St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, Portland; 2 p.m. Saturday, June 11, Granada Theatre, The Dalles. Tickets: portlandchamberorchestra.org or 503-771-3250.