Music in the American Wild Celebrates Missouri Bicentennial

American Wild Ensemble frequently performs in state and national parks, including this June 2016 concert in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

American Wild Ensemble frequently performs in state and national parks, including this June 2016 concert in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. (photo by Geoff Sheil)

A tour of new works by Missouri composers includes August concert at Bruce Watkins Center

Aug. 10, 1821, Missouri became the 24th state of the United States of America. Throughout 2021, organizations across the state are honoring this 200th anniversary, the history, heritage and communities and what that legacy means for the future. 

Music in the American Wild, based in Springfield, Mo., takes part in this celebration with a tour of new works by Missouri composers, exploring different facets of Missouri experience. The project, Missouri Music at 200, is an officially endorsed bicentennial program by the State Historical Society of Missouri, but it’s about more than just statehood.   

“When we learned that the bicentennial was coming up, our first thought was celebration, but I think very quickly we realized our program was more about reflecting,” said Emlyn Johnson, co-director and flutist. “Of course, it is a milestone . . . but we are focusing on the idea of reflection and response to not only thinking about Missouri statehood, but thinking about the history of this region, the land, the people who have been here over time.” 

Music in the American Wild co-directors Emlyn Johnson and Daniel Ketter
Music in the American Wild co-directors Emlyn Johnson and Daniel Ketter (photo by Blair Hornbuckle)

Co-directors Johnson and Daniel Ketter (a cellist) moved to Springfield, Mo., in 2018, from Rochester, N.Y., and are on the faculty at Missouri State University. Though he grew up in Prairie Village, Kan., Ketter has close ties to Missouri, going back generations (both his mother and father are originally from Missouri). “When I think about Missouri, I think about my family, I think about the beautiful landscape and this fascinating complex history.”

“Missouri has a very rich musical history, when you think of jazz, blues, old time music, popular traditions,” said Johnson. “Alongside those robust popular traditions, it’s really been kind of incredible how our arena of music — contemporary classical music — is also happening in Missouri, all around the state in different places.” 

Music in the American Wild started in 2016 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service. 

The group performs as the American Wild Ensemble (AWE), with a unique instrumentation (violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, horn and percussion), and the performers come from all over the United States. They commission new work for each project, each concert tailored to support the mission of their partnering organizations. 

“It’s really important to us that our performance accomplishes a goal beyond just presenting the music,” said Ketter. They’ve performed at museums and historical sites, national and state parks, educational and community centers, and other non-traditional venues, such as mountains, caves, forests and lava fields.

“We enjoy (these experiences because we) engage with people about the things that are around them, that they care about, that are a part of their life,” said Ketter. 

KC Concert Features Marcus Lewis and Glenn North Collaboration

Here in Kansas City, they’ll present an outdoor concert at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center Aug. 6. 

For this project, the ensemble commissioned six musical works, each by a composer with Missouri ties, exploring a variety of perspectives from Missouri’s cultural heritage. 

“I had a vague sense of the history of jazz in Kansas City, the blues in St. Louis, the history of Ozark folk tradition,” said Johnson, “but coming here, I have realized how alive those traditions are, how deeply seated, and what a community there is around keeping those traditions alive, preserving them, developing them, thinking about them in a really personal way.” 

One of those people is Kansas City composer, trombonist, educator and bandleader Marcus Lewis. 

For this project, Lewis collaborates with poet Glenn North, executive director at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center and the first poet laureate of the 18th & Vine District. Music and spoken word will be performed together, though they each can serve as stand-alone pieces, too.

“I’ve always wanted to work with Glenn, and this is a very unexpected way,” said Lewis. “I didn’t think I was going to be ever working with Glenn on a classical chamber ensemble piece,” he laughed.

At North’s suggestion, the concert will take place in the park just outside of the Cultural Center, drawing attention to an underutilized and underfunded area of the city. 

Lewis has training in both jazz and classical music, and he combines those skills in what will be AWE’s first foray into the “jazz realm.” Writing jazz-inspired music for non-jazz players was an interesting challenge, said Lewis, who used conceptual elements, such as jazz harmonies and rhythms, and evokes jazz’s iconic element, collective improvisation. 

The work is in three parts, examining significant perspectives of life in Missouri, inspired by the Native American experience, the river and the Black experience. It takes the listener on a journey, said Lewis. “I think that’s really important if we are talking about Missouri as a place and its different times in history.” 

Other composers were also inspired by journeys. 

Composer Barbara Harbach, professor emerita from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, lived in Missouri for 16 years. She sought out a unique story with a strong Missouri heroine for this project and wrote “Following the Sacred Sun” about a young Osage woman, Mi-Ho’n-Go (Sacred Sun), who traveled to France during the 1820s. When she finally arrived back in Missouri, her people had been moved to the Oklahoma Territory. She died in St. Louis around the age of 27. 

Also in June 2016, the ensemble performed at Purchase Knob in the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Also in June 2016, the ensemble performed at Purchase Knob in the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (photo by Geoff Sheil)

“The goal is to recognize Sacred Sun as seen through the empathetic eyes and heart of a composer who lives over 200 years later and admires Sacred Sun’s strength and courage to embark on a journey which today would be analogous to traveling to a nearby moon or planet,” wrote Harbach in an email.

Other composers discovered ties between Missouri’s history and their own lived experience. Ingrid Stölzel, a professor at the University of Kansas, grew up in Germany but lived nearly 30 years in Missouri. She was inspired by the history of the German immigrant population that settled along the Missouri River during the 19th century and based her work on the tradition of “Auswanderungslied” (Song of Emigration), which romanticized pioneer life in the United States.

“It is my hope that this composition serves as a reminder of the many invaluable contributions immigrants from all walks of life have and continue to contribute to the tapestry that is the United States of America and the State of Missouri,” wrote Stölzel in an email.

The project also includes work by Stefan Freund, Mike Murray and Chris Stark, each examining specific music traditions of Missouri: old time fiddle music, folk music, and blues and rock in homage to Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry. 

“It’s been really interesting to see how this program has formed these natural pairs that are allowing us to engage with different Missouri cultural traditions, historic eras and stories,” said Johnson.

Poets Will Also Take Part

The program also includes poetry by Missouri writers. Along with North’s work, Music in the American Wild commissioned new work by Karen Craigo, Missouri poet laureate, and will include readings from Alice Azure’s work. 

As they planned the project, they worked closely with Missouri Humanities Council’s Native American Heritage Program to develop and respectfully incorporate land acknowledgments into their programs, honoring the people who lived and cared for the land — the Osage, Kiikaapoi and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, among others — before it became what is now known as Missouri. 

Along with the music and people who shaped the region, the group also learned about the natural history and wildlifeof the state. 

“Even though I’m not from Missouri, these conversations have made me feel much more connected to the state and make me feel much more at home here,” said Johnson. 

Along with the in-person concerts in August, AWE will have virtual events throughout the fall. 

“We are really trying to create a program that has many entry points,” said Johnson, “that will welcome many voices and perspectives, and hopefully engage people in some interesting thoughts and conversations.” 

Music in the American Wild’s “Missouri Music at 200” is partially funded by Missouri State University and the Missouri Humanities Council. For full tour details visit www.musicintheamericanwild.com/missouri-2021.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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