Cahokia was inspired by the rise and fall of a complex prehistoric Native American chiefdom located at what we know today as the Cakokia Mounds. When I first experienced these stunning man-made landforms in person I was amazed that such substantial remnants of human history existed in the United States. I was filled with a sense of discovery. They are situated just east of St. Louis, Missouri near the small Illinois town of Collinsville. This great civilization at its peak about one thousand years ago boasted a population larger than that of contemporary London. This ancient city however was only inhabited for approximately 700 years between about 700 AD and 1400 AD. Though the fate of the city is still uncertain speculation points to the depletion of natural resources, climate change, disease, and warring political powers as probable contributors to Cahokia’s decline.
Cahokia encapsulates the city’s rise and fall through a symmetrical formal construction illuminating the civilization’s humble beginnings from which blossomed bustling prosperity through building and expansion only to decline to the point of disappearance due to the seemingly ever-present human issues of outstripped resources, uncontained disease, and corrupted political power. The sweeping harp gesture that opens the piece is re-iterated several times and the rather thinly scored opening betrays an emerging metropolis. This music flows gently into repetitive wind and string oscillations over lightly pulsing percussion patterns. The stability of this music gives way to the relentlessly driving rhythms of the fast-paced, crowded, and powerful city. But when power and expansion trump the citizen’s well being the driving rhythms are suddenly cut away and a howling cello snaps Cahokia into decline. The initial harp gesture returns in the final section but this time it is turned upside-down.
First written in 2009, Cahokia was commissioned and premiered by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra in celebration of their 50th Anniversary season. The piece was revised in 2014.
Instrumentation: 3(III=fl/picc).3(III=ob/eh).3(III=cl.bcl).3(III=bn/cbn) / 220.127.116.11 / tmp.3perc.hp / strings
Percussion 1: Glockenspiel, Triangle, Tubular bells
Percussion 2: Snare drum, Tam tam, Wood block
Percussion 3: Bass drum, Tambourine, Tenor drum
Duration: 7 minutes
Date: 2014, 2009