Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

May 25, 2010

Making mound music

Band honors ancient history with help from composer

Mike James
The Independent

SUMMIT — The composition Boyd County Middle School band members will be performing Thursday prompts them to think about more than the notes they’re playing.

The piece, commissioned for the band and written by Chicago composer Timothy Loest, is titled “Stone Serpent Mound” and was inspired by a prehistoric earthen effigy on property in Catlettsburg owned by Marathon Petroleum.

It incorporates properties of Native American music like beating drums and jingling bells, according to Loest’s notes.

“It makes me wonder what were people thinking about when they made it and what the mound looks like,” said Heaven Wheeler, a trombonist in the band.

That and other questions were in Loest’s mind when he wrote the piece, according to his notes: “When was it made? And for what reason was it constructed? Was it a monument? Did it somehow play a part in ritualistic or ceremonial life?”

The band commissioned the work as part of a year-long Kentucky history unit that was a collaboration among the teachers in the school’s related arts department, band director Annie Johnson said.

During discussions with Loest, they talked about the Indian mounds located here and there in the region, including Central Park.

From that, Loest found an article on the Stone Serpent Mound published in an archaeological journal.

That started him thinking about native culture and music, and from there he wrote the piece.

The composition opens with an incantation of flutes and goes into a ceremonial dance, Johnson said. Listeners then will hear sections with some interesting sounds, such as rattles and hisses, that the students find very entertaining to make, she said.

The overall tone of the piece recognizes the cultural and religious sensibilities that native people put into their earthworks.

No information is readily available on the mound’s origin. Notes provided by Marathon Petroleum say nothing is known about its builders.

The notes describe it as a stone effigy with a “well-defined serpent outline, strikingly bifurcated tail, and associated stone ring, which may represent an egg.”

Marathon won’t divulge the exact location, but the mound is near the Big Sandy River.

Johnson believes the piece could be a springboard for educators in other parts of the country to teach about Kentucky, Appalachia, and native history.

That would be in line with her own approach, in which she uses music from the Orient, Africa and Europe as a jumping-off point for discussions of other countries and cultures.

The band will perform “Stone Serpent Mound” at 7 p.m. Thursday at the middle school.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or at (606) 326-2652.