October 20, 2006

Smears and Jeers, Jests and Sneers
by Brent Michael Davids, 10/20/06

After the recent smear campaign by Mr. David Yeagley, I will post corrections to the misinformation I have recently seen posted. I must admit at one time I considered Mr. Yeagley a colleague and a friend. But somewhere along the way something changed and he did what seems like a 180-degree turn. I don’t suspect he’d ever admit to being a friend in the past, but he actually once wrote a letter of support for me, when I was working on an opera that was being rejected by an opera company. Hold that thought, while I correct a few faulty assumptions, and I’ll return to the opera issue later.

“I shall address the blogspot "Bald Beagle.com" first. Bald Beagle is the work of homosexual Brent Michael Davids. Brent is a master of illusion and usurpation of language. (DY)”
While I claim nothing with respect to any lampoon site, I did contribute some particular musical and historical knowledge to several sites regarding synthetic scales and the development of triadic harmony. I will take credit for that. In college, I studied the writings of Nicolas Slonimsky at the request of my then-mentor, professor Paul O. Steg, at Northern illinois University. I was 19 years old. I became rather proficient at creating alternative tonal structures and have since created a new tonal structure for nearly every composition I’ve created. To create a new tonal structure is rather commonplace for modern composers, even uneventful, and any composer resting his or her laurels on their discovering some “new system of harmonic organization” is mostly exaggerating a minor accomplishment.
“Brent suffers from tinnitus, a terrible ringing in the ear, and even wrote a quartet illustrating it. (That's his idea of music.) Whatever sympathy is due, he obstructs it with perversion. He also suffers from homosexuality, and the distortions of reality attendant thereunto” (DY).
I do suffer from a ringing in my ear, and did write “Tinnitus Quartet,” a work about this affliction. What Mr. Yeagley fails to mention however, is that the work is a popular one, receiving domestic and international premieres, several positive reviews by established reviewers, and received standing applause at its Lincoln Center premiere. To corroborate this, just search out the New York Times review. If music is a matter of taste for American and international audiences, it seems the “Tinnitus Quartet” tastes good.

The homosexuality charge is perplexing, because on its surface it seems intended to be a negative dig, but — in reality — it is not. If I were gay, I’d probably be celebrating it, not denigrating it. Many of our best artists, including pianists and composers, were and are gay. Liberace could play rings around most any DMA-accredited pianist today, and one of our premiere devoutly-patriotic “American” composers was Leonard Bernstein. Both gay. Rather than mischaracterizing music “as bad” if it’s from a gay person, has anyone ever asked an alternative question? Maybe there is something about being gay that makes for creating higher quality music? Why spin this question in such a negative way?
“He had what appeared to be genuine creative talent in the beginning. (He tries to tell everyone he is "young," but he's nearly 50.) Alas, he has turned out to be an illusionist, in every way. He has ripped off all the honors by using the "Indian" image and manipulating it. He has absorbed much interest from foundations, national organizations, etc.” (DY).
I took my first paid commission at 18, though I do consider those first 11 years as student years. Those earlier years I mostly learned from copying others. I was what you might call a stylist in those days, able to imitate almost any composer. I later developed my own more personal traits as I matured in composition, both in skill and creative initiative. Today, I maintain that any competent composer can create a well-crafted work, but it is the exceptional composer who can create a meaningful one. I won’t write a work unless it is of the latter variety.

As for the “young composer” claim, that first appeared in an older bio written by the Library of Congress. I was invited to perform on their collection of American Indian flutes. They allowed me access to the flutes, of which only about 40% were in any working condition. The bio stuck with me, as other venues copied and used it, and it has become a familiar joke for those who know me. How many composers can turn 47 and still be a “young” composer [laugh, laugh]. Recently however, the bio written for the NEA’s program “American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius” changed that wording to “youthful composer,” which — in reference to the previous bio — has transformed into a new incarnation of an older tease — I can no longer be a "young" composer [laugh, laugh]. For corroboration again, I will photograph the original poster, now hanging on my studio wall.. It reads:
“Concerts from the Library of Congress. Coolidge Auditorium, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. Flute Making and the Craft of the Composer. Thurs., Feb. 26, 1998, at Noon. Brent Michael Davids. A noontime lecture-demonstration introducing listeners to a young Native American composer whose music moves between the worlds of the Kronos String Quartet, the National Symphony Orechestra and Native American Song. Mr. Davids, a member of the Mohican Nation, is an internationally recognized composer and flutemaker who will demonstrate his galss flutes in this Coolidge Auditorium session, which is open to the Library of Congress staff...”
Incidentally, it might be interesting for you to know, that myself and others such as R. Carlos Nakai and Vincent Redhouse have been performing classical music on Indian flutes for a very long time. Any composer claiming to be the “first” to be creating classical concert music for Indian flute, would have to reconcile that fact with a work called “Why the Duck Has A Short Tail,” composed by Dr. Louis W. Ballard. It was commissioned and premiered by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in 1961, and featured a solo Indian flute with the orchestra. Lou once faxed me a copy of the printed program.
“He has usurped every word and term from the field of classical music, and written works exploiting the time-honored value of these terms. He cannot write in form, in content, or in valid expression. He loves terms like ‘symphony,’ ‘opera,’ ‘quartet,’ but in no way remotely assimilates the meaning of these terms in his ‘music’.” (DY).
It is widely held that buttressing music’s form and construction is the providence of theorists, not composers. Today, composers are free to use older forms or invent new ones, such as Mr. Yeagley inventing his "new tonality." Composers break the rules, where theorists codify them. As I have stated, nearly every work I create has its own tonal structure and its own form, which may or may not be related to previous forms. If music is a matter of taste, perhaps some composers prefer to re-use older structures, while other composers prefer to invent their own. Though skilled in the so-called “time-honored” methods as a former stylist, I am of the latter variety that prefers more creativity and exploring new ideas.
“Brent procured for himself the opportunity to write the music for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian. The music was so perfectly horrible that it was rejected, along with him. He was later invited to participate in the "Native Classical" program this month, of course, but he wisely declined. He would probably have embarrassed everyone. He's basically a clown. Intentionally and philosophically. A "magic" Indian, and one who has about run out of tricks” (DY).
I did successfully compose music for the opening of the NMAI, but the work has not yet been performed. “We the People” has been rescheduled for a performance in 2008 though, so better late than never. The commissioner's reason for the cancellation, however, was insufficient time to rehearse the work, even though I did deliver the work two weeks earlier than the due date, a date suggested by the commissioning party. In other words, I wrote something more difficult than they originally expected, and they decided they would rather not perform the work unless it was fully rehearsed. For corroboration, I submit a photo of the letter I received regarding this issue that clearly states:
“Thank you for your timely delivery of the scores and parts for WE THE PEOPLE. The concept for your work is truly compelling, and the scores themselves are impressive indeed. I have noticed, however, that the choral parts for the most part are considerably more difficult than I had anticipated from our conversation last spring. In addition, the fact that the chorus sings on every page of a 27-minute score is daunting at best in terms of the sheer quantity of music to be learned... After full reflection and study, however, I now realize that we simply do not have the requisite rehearsal time to bring full justice to WE THE PEOPLE by November 7th... I can tell you that it breaks my heart to tell you this.”
As for the recent NMAI concert, I declined to participate because I objected to those persons involved who seem to grossly distort and mischaracterize American Indians in their professional public lives. To corroborate this fact, one need only contact the NMAI and ask why Brent declined to attend. I may be a young, excuse me, youthful composer, but I have a strong sense of responsibility for being American Indian that is more important than being a composer. I also believe that one cannot separate the music from the music maker, nor separate the composition from the composer. Such abstract “art” music is a myth, brought about by conceptual compartmentalization. Music cannot be orphaned from its maker. I do not take music at face value without considering the source. Though I respect most of the composers and musicians who participated at the NMAI concert, I could not in good conscious condone, by my own participation, the anti-Indian practices of some who might later falsely claim to be good role models for Indian music and Indian youth. I would rather choose to be absent from such a public forum, than mistaken for a supporter of those laboring for the denigration of Indian people.
“The Comanche Nation College (not really a college yet, but, we're trying) is having its third annual film festival, featuring Indians in film. They invited some 15 persons across the country. Low and behold, they invited Brent Michael Davids... I sent them two links in which Brent really lampoons the Comanche Nation. I said, "This is not a person you want to honor or associate with in any way." Turns out, he had already declined the invitation. It is a good thing, for him” (DY).
The folks at CNC are really nice. If I even suspected that Yeagley was an acknowledged and CNC-approved champion of their institution I might have second thoughts about participating there. But again, Mr. Yeagley labors under false assumptions. I was invited to teach a workshop at next year’s CNC film festival (2007), and have tentatively accepted. I was told that this year’s festival (2006) was quickly approaching, making it difficult to secure my workshop fee and arrange for travel. So I instead offered them a free screening of my “Last of the Mohicans” film (1920, b/w), which they immediately accepted into this year’s festival. If I lived in that area, CNC seems like a place where I might consider teaching myself. Instead of flying me in to teach a workshop, perhaps Mr. Yeagley should teach a workshop there. Has CNC ever asked him? I have no clue, but apparently in Comanche country I am an acceptable clinician and worthy of an invitation.
And taking a silent film track (Last of the Mohicans), and sitting down at a computerized piano keyboard and creating unbelievably boring noise for an hour (and a half?) isn't writing film music. It doesn't mean you're a "film" composer, that you've published any score for a movie, or that you've been hired to write the music to a film. See what I mean by "stretching" the truth? Brent is a great stretcher. A seventh grader could do what Brent did with an electronic keyboard. I've heard this sound track. Brent forced an audience of composers to listen to it in St. Paul. It was agonal. I told him to quit this nonsense, sit down and write a four voice fugue! He needs to recover his skills as a composers. I think he had skills in the beginning. Now he just writes intolerable noise. This is tragic, really” (DY).
As I stated earlier, some composers are devotees of the older forms, and others are not. I am the latter. I have experience and training from my stylist days, but why would I desire to write a four voice fugue? Another consideration is that some composers actually compose using so-called “noise,” such a Raven Chacon, a composer he seemed to rather admire at the NMAI concert:
“There were others, such as Raven Chacon (Navajo), the ‘contemporary’ (i.e., truly ‘far out’) composer, who is quite unique. (In fact, earlier in the month, he was featured separately at the NMAI.)” (DY).
But more to the point, I do have professional film soundtrack credits. Should anyone desire corroboration simply search for “The World of American Indian Dance” (NBC) and “Dreamkeeper” (ABC/Hallmark), both available through online vendors. I was recently hired to score “Bright Circle,” a film about the Indian athletes from Carlisle Indian Boarding School and their modern-day counterparts. The director sent it to the Sundance film festival recently, and is waiting to see if it will be accepted for screening. I was officially hired and was paid for creating these scores, and they indeed qualify as professional activities. There is no truth stretching from me, but I would probably not make the same declaration for my accuser.
He [Brent Michael Davids] is talented. No question about it. Just a moral failure, that's all. That can destroy everything in one's life, as it is doing in Brent's...There are many, many things I could reveal about Brent, but, it would hurt some innocent people. I'm not sure what to do about all this just yet. I may not have to do anything... Evil always destroys itself in the end. Brent has lived on grants for nearly 30 years. He knows that business. And it all happens on paper. Never mind the quality of the music. One grant snowballs into another. It's all about what looks good on the application. This is part of the reason I have never applied for a musical grant or "commission." It engenders poor quality "art." (DY).
I would question what "moral failure" is being implied, since my career has obviously been a successful one. My life is not being destroyed, it seems to be growing though one cannot predict anything with absolute certainty. Given my amiable and friendly acceptance by many professional colleagues and venues, I would assert that I am not evil, and am not in a position to hurt innocent people by any innuendo Mr. Yeagley might assume. While it is a fact I have garnered many grants in my career, I have in fact earned the majority of my modest income by way of commissioning, not that it really matters much.

If music is a matter of taste, there are composers creating works the public readily buys, and composers who are composing in ways not as commercially accepted. Commissions help commercially viable composers to work, while grants help avant-garde composers to work. It is a good system, though I think the current political climate is forcing both to dry up. When the rich rule, tax havens normally used to encourage regranting programs for composers are reduced or eliminated through inequitable tax cuts to the wealthy (poor people pay a higher % of the overall taxes, while rich people avoid paying any taxes at all). To the point, grants and commissions both encourage good art, not discourage it, and I place much confidence in a professional composer to create quality and meaningful work. I have no desire to slit my wrists or denounce my professionalism simply to engender some vague so-called “quality” art. A fair marketplace can encourage quality music, but the so-called free market works to suppress it.

Okay, the question of opera. I once started the process of an opera with an opera company, with that company’s financial director volunteering as the librettist. The opera was Native themed, and after a trial period I decided I would rather work with an Indian librettist, and suggested one. A new concept was developed, altering the plot of the story. Where the original story emphasized how the non-Indian town folk helped save the nearby Indians, the new version emphasized how the Indians survived despite many attempts to wipe them out.

In the new treatment, the roles played by the non-Indian town folk were 90% eliminated. The opera company responded by indicating that the music was not good, but the new librettist felt the music was fine and it was the company’s way of backing out of the new treatment without looking anti-Indian. To the librettist it seemed like the company was attempting to “save face” by blaming the music instead of the new story. I asked friends for letters of support to keep the project alive, but it was ultimately canceled. Mr. Yeagley was one of those supporters who wrote on my behalf:

“I think your music will be a great success -- in the popular mode. I think you have created a mode of expression that will carry the classical "Indian" image to the American public. Your use of hallmark Indian intervals and phrases is unmistakable; when combined with your modified rhythmical impusles, this mode is new, creative, yet "traditional." When we're talking about Indians, "traditional" is an important word, as all Indians know. So, you have, as always, displayed innovation when expressing traditional concepts, values, images, and impressions. Your Standing Bear [opera] music will be a great success as a piece music theatre, a broadway musical, folk musical, or a TV script. I think it will appeal to both Indians and White people -- musically! No small accomplishment. I really don't think that HAS been done yet. You are superbly accurate. Wow. I think your Standing bear will be a smashing success. Just watch!! This project, I think will be more popular than anything you have done. It will be repeated! That is what I predict. This may be your first REAL success” (David Yeagley, November 2000)
The interesting unknown part of this issue, musically, is that the music I had originally conceived for the opera was given new life by a chorus in San Francisco, who decided to record the work. I created a new name for the work, reworked it for chorus, and added an ending one might characterize as three distinctly different songs being sung, simultaneously, over and against each other in a synchronized union. Unlike writing a multi-voice fugue, where one is dealing with a unified set of parameters, this music was dealing with three very divergent sets of parameters, all gracefully coexisting in a tonal system of my own design. If one should wonder if I do indeed possess the skills I claim, one should study the final movements of “The Un-Covered Wagon” for corroboration. It is released on Teldec, and was part of a collection of choral music, “Our American Journey,” and was nominated for a Grammy award in 2003 in the Classical Crossover category. To the point, there was nothing wrong with the music.

But this question does raise other issues about operas and Indians. In my opera project, I was attempting to create an all Indian opera, that is, an opera where composer, librettist, singers and musicians were all Native. I am still interested in pursuing this idea, and may reinvest myself toward another incarnation of the opera for radio. I have a strong desire to promote Native people in something like an all Indian opera project.

However, any claims associated to me about creating the “first” Indian opera are false and misleading. If one wanted to claim being the “first” Indian to compose an opera, your name would have to be Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, Zitkala-a (Red Bird), who was a concert violinist and composer. Zitkala-a, together with another composer William Hansen, wrote the opera “Sun Dance” in 1913. The pivotal opera is most likely the earliest opera composed by an American Indian — some 87 years before Mr. Yeagley wrote his. In addition it should be noted that the first opera was composed by an Indian WOMAN composer.

My overall point is this: in today’s media frenzy many “taking points” of misinformation, riddled with false assertions and skewed assumptions, make their way around the world in a flash. For some artists, composers and musicians, becoming a voice against such misinformation is distasteful for its almost certain “backwash.” Such musicians may inactively stand on the sidelines while the situation remains unchecked.

Contrarily, my own feelings are that public perceptions and policy go hand in hand, and one cannot separate the creation from the creator. One cannot objectify a person’s activities to be separated away from the person — creating music IS political. For those musicians wishing to simply avoid the distasteful backwash, there sometimes comes the adage that music is not political, and musicians should not be involved politically. I could not disagree more strongely.

When misinformation and false assertions are left unchecked, it affects Indian life in real ways. For example, there are direct causes and consequences visible in Mr. Yeagley’s life, from his DMA in piano performance to his seeming, though unearned, popularity as an all-around expert in other areas such as history or psychiatry. His achievements in piano, however, do not necessarily support his observations in these other areas. Yet, it seems propping himself up as a "doctor" in one field has led to his creating a Comanche sage persona to further his quite oppressive vision of America.

Why should any Indian musician sideline themselves while another Indian grabs the megaphone and starts clamoring for the nuking of civilians in Lebanon, deporting innocent Muslims, or falsifying facts against his fellow Natives. In my view, Indian musicians and composers ought to be speaking up and defending the truth, not simply watching as if it could never affect them. If you are an Indian musician, you are not immune from what is happening here.

As for Mr. Yeagley, any American Indian composer claiming to have written the first Indian opera 87 years after the first Indian opera was written, obviously, is not accounting for the facts and not telling the truth. Any American Indian composer claiming to have written the first classical American Indian flute music, other than Louis W. Ballard, would have to explain why the commonly-accepted history tells an alternative story.

Much misinformation is being published and republished, and is being fabricated by Mr. Yeagley, and by others who would unquestioningly support his misleading and oppressive assertions. My purpose here was to conscientiously and directly, insofar as possible, correct the record by presenting the facts as I know them. I care little whether I am personally slandered or maligned by those wishing to mischaracterize me; I care a great deal for the general welfare of Indian people and our youth being encouraged and supported in positive ways. We have a common responsibility to counteract these oppressive publications with the truth. If you have made it this far into the text, I thank you for your time, effort and kind consideration. — Brent Michael Davids

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