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The Song of Blue Water

Composer, John Michael Luther, Reflects on Native American Culture


Last updated 3/31/2015 at 8:05pm

Brian Nixon

In 2006, John Michael Luther received a request from Doyle Prehiem (center) to write an original composition for the Sangre de Cristo Chorale. Native flutist, Ronald Roybal (right), first proposed the theme of "The Song of Blue Water." John and Ronald were discussing various topics for a new composition, when Mr. Roybal said, 'You should write a piece about Esther Martinez. She's a storyteller from the San Juan Pueblo. She recently died in a tragic car accident, the result of a drunk driver.'" That's how John came to write this composition.

BERNILILLO, NEW MEXICO-In an email composer John Michael Luther sent to me, he mentioned that his new home he recently moved into sits near-or on-an ancient Native American pueblo.

Luther wrote, "We live on the ancient site of the Santiago Pueblo dating back at least 500 years. I have been told that our home is possibly the sight of Coronado's location when he lived in the Pueblo. Coronado's group campsite was on HWY 528, just a mile away from our home. Our cul-de-sac was the site of the pueblo's plaza. We have hosted lectures in our home by historian, writer, and professor, Dennis Herrick. We have unearthed numerous potsherds, with beautiful designs, in our grounds."

As I drove into the neighborhood I looked around at the rows of homes. The first thought that came to my mind was: if this is an ancient site, what a pity homes have been built over it, as beautiful as the homes are.

Yet this is life in New Mexico-a convergence of cultures, history, and ancient cities. As sad as it sounds, new civilizations will at times consume the old.

John and his wife, Jean, greeted me at the front door, welcoming me to the neighborhood.

The first words after our greeting were concerning the history of the area. John pointed out that many artifacts have been found in his neighborhood. Jean stated that the ancient Kiva (ceremonial hall) might have been located in an empty lot across the street from their house. John then pointed towards his backyard, stating, "At the top of the hill begins the Sandia Pueblo Reservation. We can only go as far as our fence. Beyond that it is off limits. I have a feeling there are many artifacts laying around."

As we walked in their home, past paintings by the Spanish artist, Alvar, John took me to his office where he showed me some potsherds (ancient pottery) that have been located nearby. I take them in my hand. Many were painted with a black strip. Beautiful examples, I thought.

I told John and Jean about a recent article in El Palacio magazine ( by archeologist, Dr. Matthew Schmader. Entitled, Tracking Coronado In the Rio Grande Valley, Dr. Schmader wrote about his excavation at a location named Piedras Marcadas in the heart of Albuquerque. Dr. Schmader's theory is that Spanish had their initial battle along the Rio Grande with the Pueblo Indians at this spot, pointing out that there is some debate as to the exact site where the Conquistadors fought and camped. John, Jean, and I discussed the various theories.

As you can tell by this narrative, music is not the only interest of John Michael Luther. As a matter of fact, one can say that Luther is a man with varied interests: history, music, culture, and the arts among them.

But I wasn't at this home to discuss the ancient Pueblos sites-as fascinating as they are; rather, I was there to discuss his music, a particular piece that highlights Native culture. The work is called The Song of Blue Water.

I asked John how he came to write the piece.

"In 2006 I received a request from Doyle Prehiem to write an original composition for the Sangre de Cristo Chorale. Native flutist, Ronald Roybal ( ), first proposed the theme of The Song of Blue Water. John and Ronald were discussing various topics for a new composition, when Mr. Roybal said, 'You should write a piece about Esther Martinez. She's a storyteller from the San Juan Pueblo (now called Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo). She recently died in a tragic car accident, the result of a drunk driver.'"

The program notes of the composition performance give more details about the composition, stating, "The Song of Blue Water is a celebration of the life of Esther Martinez, a Tewa storyteller and linguist from Ohkay Owingeh. On September 16th, 2006 Martinez was returning home from Washington, D.C, where she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by National Endowment of the Arts and was unfortunately killed in an automobile accident. In December 2006, US H.R. 4766, the Esther Martinez native American Language Preservation Act was signed into law."

John Michael Luther was interested in Ronald's suggestion and fascinated by the life of Esther Martinez. Shortly after the meeting with Mr. Roybal, John went to a local bookshop and picked up her book, My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez (University of Illinois Press). As he read about her life, he learned that Esther's Tewa name-P'oe Tsawa-was translated as Blue Water. An idea took root. The name of the composition was birthed.

Later, to gain further inspiration, John and Jean headed to the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. As he was wandering around the San Juan Church, he began talking with the locals. He told them that he was a composer, writing a composition about Esther Martinez. "Esther," the person asked? Her family lives right around the corner," they said. "And it looks like they are home." The locals walked John and Jean to the family home. It was here John met the family and learned more about Esther.

Concerning the process of the composition, Luther sought the actual words of Esther as inspiration. Luther states, "After the suggestion of Ronald Royal about the subject of Esther Martinez, and after speaking to Josafine Binford, Esther's daughter, and reading Esther's book, I sat quietly in my office on the second floor of my home in Santa Fe. As I rested, I gleaned from the pages of her work, allowing her stories and songs to guide my composition."

As I listen to the piece with John Michael Luther-as sung by the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, I was struck by the mystery of the composition-an almost medieval quality of the singing. The choir opens up with the word, "Water". Written for 8 vocal parts, the composition is an interplay of vocals, native flute, Native flute and percussion instruments.

I turn my attention to the composition, asking about the work.

Luther replies, "The opening of the piece begins with the Native flute. It's entitled, 'The Call.' Using Native flute is common to indigenous music, calling everyone to a gathering. The Native flute was chosen as a unifying device thoughout the work and represents the 'spirit' of Esther."

How did you incorporate the Tewa language in this piece?" I continue.

"As I read Esther's words in her book, I realized that in the next section of the piece Esther would need to speak to us about her early life and also her role as a storyteller in the Tewa tradition. I decided to tell this story in the Tewa language as well as English. Singing in Tewa was a challenge not only in devising a phonetic inscription of the language but actually singing in authentic Tewa sounds. I have had previous study in descriptive linguistics and because of this I felt confident in my task. Because much of Esther's storytelling was performed by the use of her creative Tewa songs, I felt responsible to include one of them in this work. I selected her song, 'The Lullaby of the Deer.' I also used chant in the music lines of the male singers replicating the chanting and dancing I had witnessed at the Pueblo. At the very climax of this piece, 'The Lullaby', the chanting of the men, and the Native percussion and bells were all used as a great catalyst to illustrate the magnificent character and spirit of Esther."

"As you just mentioned, you include Native stories and folk narratives in your composition. You reference one concerning a deer. Can you tell us a little about this?" I ask?

"The Lullaby of the Deer is sung by ladies in my composition. It tells the story about a native baby who is taken away by deer, raised on deer milk and, as an adult, becomes their leader and helps them survive."

"What was your intention of the piece?" I ask. "Was there an overriding philosophy of the composition?"

"My whole philosophy of composition is that of a journey. It must begin, continue and complete that journey and the listener must experience that journey with you as a composer. That was my goal here."

Was there a particular 'architecture,' of the composition, an overriding structure to the piece, I inquire?

"The architecture of The Song of Blue Water is best described as an 'arch form.' It begins quietly, grows in intensity, decreases in intensity and ends quietly. In a symbolic form, we invite the words of Esther to join us. She speaks through her words, telling us her life story. The choir bids her farewell by singing her name in Tewa, each group of the choir repeating her name. The Native flute and drum end the journey."

After our conversation, John's wife, Jean, made us a wonderful lunch-continuing our journey together. We kept up our conversation on a host of topics, yet my mind continued to wander back to the The Song of Blue Water.

Just like the parcel of land John Michal Luther's home resides on-a confluence of ancient land and modern houses-so too is his piece, The Song of Blue Water: a conjoining of cultures, musical motifs, and mysterious choral tonalities. The Song of Blue Water is a composition that melds a distinctly American form of classical music, making the music of John Michael Luther a unique voice in the enchantment of the desert Southwest.


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