Composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, introduces his work Chokfi’ as a “character sketch” of the “complicated and diabolical personality” of Chokfi’, the rabbit trickster of Southeast American Indian folklore. Like most trickster characters, explains Tate, Chokfi’ is “here to challenge us in many, and possibly unwanted, annoying ways.” Originally a commission from the Oklahoma Youth Orchestras, the work introduces a variety of potentially challenging techniques that may be new to younger musicians, while celebrating indigenous culture.
The seven-minute work opens with a dramatic rhythmic mixed-meter invocation in the tom-toms, gradually expanding through the entire orchestra. From within this dense, exciting texture, the second violins introduce the work’s first melodic theme. Waves of upper and lower string crescendi are interrupted by a striking field drum rim shot, likely one of the character’s trickster moments, giving way to a pizzicato section underlying a soaring melody in the first violins. The ensemble meets on unison Cs, which as they cascade down through the registers create a link to a frenetic chromatic violin ostinato. The low strings get a turn at the simple, hymn-like melody here, leading to a pensive section in which the scalar melody returns to the violins, floating over a rumble of open string arpeggiations. A replete chorale precedes the explosive finale, a reprise of the highly energetic opening, soliciting rhythmic accuracy and confidence from the entire ensemble.
In this performance, the Seattle Pacific University Orchestra executes Chokfi’ with striking aplomb and sensitivity under Christopher Hanson’s deft leadership. He conducts with verve and precision, invoking both the work’s excitement and sense of fun as well as more nostalgic qualities. While a few moments betray some inconsistencies in intonation, particularly in unisons, this performance is quite a reliable guide and enticing sample for those interested in performing this work. The video presentation is perhaps slightly too casual in style, but seems to seek to reveal the “real” of the performance, with several cuts to students working in the editing room. Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate opens the video with an introduction in Chickasaw language, before describing his work and the meaning behind it.
As an educational work, Chokfi’ sets up young musicians and their mentors for success in a few different ways. Formally, Tate organizes the sections clearly and distinctly; this allows for rehearsal in smaller, more digestible portions. Transitions are thoughtful and effective. Different instrumental sections are highlighted throughout. Technically, student musicians are rarely, if ever, left alone to decipher and master new performance practices, building agency and familiarity with various styles. For instance, the low strings and percussion are instructed to “[f]reely arpeggiate up and down the designated open strings and toms. The overall ensemble effect is to be a soft but full wash of sound.” This invites students to engage in some degree of improvisation while supporting them in this sound exploration by lowering the stakes. The opening, which is revisited at the end, makes use of somewhat challenging mixed meters; this cunning compositional trick makes it possible for youth ensembles to perform these sections successfully and with confidence while not fatiguing themselves for the duration of the work (the rest of which is mostly in 3/4 and 4/4).
Chokfi’: Sarcasm is a charming, well-conceived work made up of thought-provoking and variegated materials. The Seattle Pacific University Orchestra’s presentation highlights an energetic and exuberant performance, which, combined with Tate’s approachable commentary, should serve to capture the imaginations of many youth orchestra conductors and lend this work a long future life.