Robert Kapilow thought he had his project in hand. For a symphony co-commissioned by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Kapilow was supplied with "this great story just begging to be set to music," as he refers to his initial concept. He read the late Stephen Ambrose's best-selling chronicle of the Lewis and Clark party's epic journey, Undaunted Courage. He read the remarkable journals that the explorers themselves compiled. He ascribed subject headings to selected entries. "I was well on my way into doing that piece of music," says Kapilow. "In fact, I had set several of the journal entries to music already."
Kapilow is one of the great communicators of the classical music business. His What Makes It Great? concerts offer hugely entertaining entryways into the classical repertoire. What makes these concerts work, in part, is the character of Kapilow himself‹connected, engaging, approachable, generous. He presents so well because he listens so well. He is keenly attuned to audience needs.
So it wasn't enough for Kapilow to do the written research for his new symphony. He needed to tramp around Lewis and Clark country, travel up and down the rivers, hike the trails. And he needed to talk to people, among them Robert Archibald, head of the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis and president of the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. Archibald told Kapilow about the formation of the Circle of Tribal Advisors, representatives of the 75 tribes that Lewis and Clark met on their journey. The Circle had become part of the bicentennial planning.
"At one time," Kapilow says, "it had been called the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Celebration. The first thing the tribal members told Bob was that if the word 'celebration' was used, they would not participate. They did not think this was anything to celebrate. Rather, it was the beginning of the worst experience of their history."
The late novelist John Gardner, who taught for many years at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, spoke of two classic narratives: the hero on the journey and the mysterious stranger. One gives the view from the ship; the other gives the view from the shore. Kapilow began to see his mission differently, in unnerving contrast to the heroic tale of "undaunted courage" and the valiant explorers of the Corps of Discovery, as the expedition party was named.
"Everybody was talking 'Corps of Discovery,'" recalls Kapilow, "but nothing was discovered. They had lived their lives here for thousands of years."
"They," of course, refers to the Native Americans, a people who would be decimated in the century that followed in the wake of Lewis and Clark's explorations.
Kapilow attended a meeting of the Circle of Tribal Advisors in Great Falls, Montana. It was there that he met Darrell Kipp, a Blackfeet Indian, the founder of a native-language immersion school in Montana, a Vietnam veteran, and a Harvard graduate.
Kapilow began to make visits to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana, attended another conference in Missoula, Montana ("Confluence of Cultures: Native Americans and the Expedition of Lewis and Clark"), and kept running into Kipp. At the same time, Kapilow was coming to realize that he wanted his symphony's choral libretto to be written by a Native American. "Every time I listened to Darrell Kipp talk he seemed like the right person. So I sat down and asked him‹at the time I had no idea he had an M.F.A. in poetry, or that he'd gone to Harvard‹and he said he would be happy to participate."
Because of the shift in narrative perspective that Kapilow had taken, he was terribly behind on his deadlines for the commissioned work. Before he could proceed with composing, however, he felt that he needed Kipp's libretto. Although Kipp had agreed to write the text, says Kapilow, "What I didn't know was that there was no way I was going to get anything from him unless I actually showed up there."
Kapilow returned to Montana, to the town of St. Mary's, near Glacier National Park, where Kipp lived during the summer. Kipp had no address, so Kapilow literally went knocking on doors in search of him. After finding him, the two spent five days and nights talking on Kipp's deck. Kapilow encouraged Kipp to talk about everything‹his life, his family, growing up‹for 14 hours a day. "We would walk through Glacier Park in the time in-between," the composer says.
After the five-day intensive, which Kapilow describes as a "post-graduate course in Native American history," he returned home to New Jersey, "still without a word written. Then five days later came this seven-page, single-spaced libretto."
Kapilow's point of view regarding the Lewis and Clark Expedition has changed many times since he began Summer Sun, Winter Moon, which will be premiered at Powell Symphony Hall, October 15-16. He admits that he began to dislike intensely the figures of Lewis and Clark, but he's come around to admiring their achievement and appreciating the complexity of the expedition's meaning, or meanings. "Darrell Kipp says, 'Lewis and Clark began a journey and it's really up to us to finish it.' That's how I feel," Kapilow says. "There's this contact between Native America and white America and the story goes on. It's still going on in the courts. It's still going on every day on the reservation. The seeds were planted back then but it's still in our hands to do something better with it. Because as Native Americans keep saying, 'We're still here.'"
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.