Lee: Visions of Cahokia Premieres

On January 28 and 29 2023, the St. Louis Symphony premieres James Lee III’s newest orchestral work Visions of Cahokia. Commissioned by the orchestra, the 13-minute work is scored for: 2 flutes; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 4 horns; 3 trumpets; 2 trombones; bass trombone; tuba; timpani; 3 percussion; harp and strings. Stéphane Denève conducts both concerts at Powell Hall.

Stéphane Denève; photo: Jessica Griffin

Visions of Cahokia,” Lee shares, “is inspired by the ancient city of Cahokia that was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture.” Cahokia is the historic pre-Columbian, Mississippian culture of a Native American civilization that flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. He continues. “It was located near St. Louis, MO and Collinsville, IL, in St. Clair County, IL. Various American Indian tribes settled in Cahokia and it became a major religious center of Mississippian culture. This city was a metropolis, which was larger than major European cities, including London. At one point, there were about 30,000 inhabitants in the metro-Cahokia area. The center of the city included a Grand Plaza of 50 acres, which is about the size of 28 football fields. The city began around 600 A.D. and reached its peak around 1300 A.D., which was followed by a mysterious decline during which the city was abandoned. Various Mississippian tribes that settled in Cahokia included the Alabama, Apalachee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Missouria, Natchez, Osage, Seminole, and Tunica-Biloxi. The society was stratified and included an elite class, a large labor force for construction needs, and slaves. The large labor force and slaves helped to create the large earthen structures called mounds, in which Monk’s Mound [a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Collinsville, IL] is probably the most famous and the largest.”

Monk’s Mound, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Lee adds, “I have structured this work in three movements, in which the second and third movements incorporate American Indian words as its title. The first movement, ‘Cahokia’s Dawn’ is a brief depiction of various tribes’ initial journey toward Cahokia. A ostinato type figure in the sleigh bells and bass drum is accompanied by the harp and clarinet solo of the ‘singers’ among the tribes as they contemplate settling at what would later be known as Cahokia. As the music continues, it reaches a climatic arrival point in which the orchestral texture is decidedly denser, which depicts the growing and bustling population. Various vocal expressions of joy are depicted in the woodwind instruments, which is a counterpoint to the sheer force of the brass instruments’ presence as the violin melodies continue to ascend to the heights of the mounds at the site. The second movement, ‘Na Yimmi,’ is a Choctaw Indian word that means ‘faith.’ The fact that Cahokia was a major religious center of Mississippian culture inspired this movement with [its] initial ascending flute melodies depicting the earnestness of the individual who worships Chihowa, the Choctaw Indian word for God. The calmness of most of the movement suggests an attitude of humility, sincerity, and prayer among the worshippers. In the third movement, the word ‘Chukoshkomo,’ is a Chickasaw Indian word for play, game, or frolic. The beginning of the last movement seeks to depict various instances of a Pow-Wow ceremony involving feasting, singing, and dancing. As the movement progressed, I also tried to musically depict various individuals playing the game called Chunkey. The excitement and density of the piece continues to the very last bar of the music, which celebrates this Mississippian cultural community at the height of its existence before the mysterious decline and abandonment of the city.”

More Lee news: Also happening at the end of the month is soloist Anthony McGill’s January 29 and 30 performances of Lee’s solo clarinet work Principal Brothers No. 3. Lee composed the piece for McGill; and, it will be featured as part of Linton Chamber Music’s “Quintessential Clarinet” concerts in Cincinnati, OH.