When Jacqueline Wilson takes the stage Saturday night at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art, she will be one of 13 Indigenous women musicians performing original scores written specifically for each of them by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Raven Chacon.
“This is so unique that I will be standing up there with 12 other Native women representing the first Indigenous Pulitzer Prize winner in music in the history of the award,” said Wilson, a bassoonist and assistant professor of music at Washington State University. “It is by far the most special thing I’ve ever been a part of. I’m really proud of it.”
Wilson and her fellow musicians will be performing a series of 13 lithographs collectively known as “For Zitkála-Šá.” A Yankton Dakota composer and musician, Zitkála-Šá lived from 1876 to 1938 and wrote the libretto and songs for The Sun Dance Opera (1913), the first American Indian opera.
Chacon wrote the graphic scores that make up “For Zitkála-Šá” specifically for Wilson and the other contemporary American Indian, First Nations, and Mestiza women performers.
He envisions each piece as a portrait of the woman who is performing it and how they navigate the twenty-first century.
Wilson’s piece was finished in 2019, and she performs it regularly, but Saturday night’s show will be the first time “For Zitkála-Šá” will be performed as a set by all the women for whom they were composed.
“The scores are very much reflective of the lived experience of the women for whom they were written,” Wilson said. “Mine is written specifically for a woodwind and it is titled ‘For Jaqueline Wilson.’”
Wilson’s road to the Whitney Museum’s biennial celebration Saturday night started in high school when her band director put a bassoon into her hands in the hope that it would help Wilson get scholarship opportunities to help pay for college.
“I knew that I wanted to go to college but needed some way to fund that, so going into my junior year, my band director had the inspiration that starting to play the bassoon could be a fresh start for me,” Wilson said. “So, I decided to try it out and immediately had a new seriousness and focus. It was exactly what I needed, and I became fascinated with the instrument.”
Wilson’s woodwind career took on a life of its own after she got into college and started receiving one-on-one private instruction. Over the years, she has performed across the country as an active soloist and chamber musician. She is also extremely passionate about teaching and regularly presents recitals, masterclasses, and clinics nationwide.
“I have always felt compelled to pay it forward in terms of the one-on-one mentorship that music instruction uniquely provides, so ultimately I decided to pursue collegiate teaching,” Wilson said. “It has been the best of both worlds where I can have the bassoon and performing be the center of my universe, but I still get to be the mentor I needed at a young age.”
Wilson (Yakama) said it wasn’t until she was well into her academic career that she really started to focus on Native American representation in her field.
“The amount of Indigenous people in classical music, especially Native American people in classical music, is relatively very small,” Wilson said. “It’s interesting because we all pretty much know each other. It’s a group with a lot of comradery. And there are a lot of opportunities to collaborate. So, I have really made it my research focus to commission and premiere the works of Native composers.”
Towards that goal, Wilson has spent the last several years working on a soon-to-be released album that consists entirely of works for the bassoon by Native composers. She delved through university archives across the country to find some of the musical scores included in her album that were written by Native composers whose work has long gone unnoticed. She also used her grant funding to commission several original pieces by contemporary Native musicians and reworked several other musical scores for the bassoon that were originally written for other instruments.
“Collecting and recording the works on my album so they can be heard, in many cases for the first time beyond my live performances, is something that I am really excited about,” Wilson said. “When I was coming up as a student, there wasn’t the current discussion we are having of racial representation in music, or you would have non-Native composers culturally misappropriating the works of Native composers.”
Chacon is one of the many Native composers who will be featured on Wilson’s album when it is released, hopefully by the end of the year.
“Whether you are a musician, composer or just a fan of music, you will inevitably be inspired by his works,” Wilson said. “They are something that just needs to be heard.”