Think Out Loud

New music honors Celilo Falls

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
June 2, 2022 12:01 a.m. Updated: June 9, 2022 9:37 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, June 2

Cherokee photographer Joe Cantrell has taken pictures that will be projected behind the orchestra when they play "Celilo Falls: We Were There."

Cherokee photographer Joe Cantrell has taken pictures that will be projected behind the orchestra when they play "Celilo Falls: We Were There."

courtesy of Joe Cantrell

This month, the Portland Chamber Orchestra will premiere a new work by composer Nancy Ives called “Celilo Falls: We Were There.” The piece features poems by Shoshone-Bannock poet Ed Edmo and projected photographic images by Cherokee photographer Joe Cantrell. The entire experience attempts to capture what it was like for Native Americans who lost their homes and livelihoods when the Dalles Dam flooded Celilo Falls in 1957. Ives, Edmo and Cantrell join us to talk about the new work.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. This weekend, the Portland Chamber Orchestra will have the world premiere of a new work by the Portland composer Nancy Ives, who is also the principal cello of the Oregon Symphony. It’s called “Celilo Falls: We Were There.” It’s focused on the experiences of members of Northwest tribes who lost their homes, their culture, and their livelihoods when the Dalles Dam flooded Celilo Falls 65 years ago. But it isn’t just work for the orchestra. It includes poems and narration by Ed Edmo, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, as well as projected photographs by Joe Cantrell, a member of the Cherokee Nation. Nancy Ives, Ed Edmo and Joe Cantrell all join me now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Nancy Ives: Thank you.

Ed Edmo: Thank you, Dave

Dave Miller: Nancy Ives, what was your starting point for this piece?

Nancy Ives: Well, it started almost three years ago when Yaacov Bergman, who is the music director of Portland Chamber Orchestra, but also the Siletz Bay Music Festival. We had lunch together after he heard a piece of mine that I played at that festival and he wanted to commission me. And he also shared his dream, really, of finding a way to honor the Siletz people after whom the festival is, after all, named. I didn’t really see how I could do that, but I certainly resonated with the idea. That fall, back in town, I talked to my friend Joe Cantrell, who also resonated with the idea, and ultimately introduced me to Ed, and I had already been thinking about what happened at Celilo Falls. And I had my own feelings about it, but it wasn’t my story to tell. Well it’s Ed’s story to tell and he tells it so beautifully in his poetry, that basically it sort of took off. Yaacov loved it, he took it to PCO, the board and they also loved it. We all shared the goal of using the power of music to bring people together in a shared emotional experience. We wanted to use that to create a wider awareness and understanding of what Celilo Falls was and what it meant to our native neighbors whose ancestors had lived and fished there for at least 10,000 years and they are still here, but I think so many people just don’t know about it at all and don’t realize that the repercussions of that event 65 years ago are very much alive for our native friends and neighbors.

Dave Miller: Ed Edmo, how did you feel at the beginning of this process when you heard that a white person was maybe going to be composing music about a sacred site that had been inundated by white people? As she said at the beginning, she didn’t feel like this was her story to tell. I’m wondering if at the beginning you felt the same way?

Ed Edmo: I was kind of leery because, what’s a white person doing, speaking for us, even through music. But Joe Cantrell introduced me to her and George Cherokee, we go to the same church, Great Spirit Church. So we have a connection because the Cherokees live, meet up there on the second Saturday each month. So I have a connection with them.

Dave Miller: He vouched for her and that and that meant something.

Ed Edmo: Yeah.

Dave Miller: Joe Cantrell, why did you want to be a part of this project?

Joe Cantrell: I didn’t think, it never occurred to me that I had a choice. I’m, I am, the two put it colloquially, I’m the Indian who knows people in the symphony and vice versa. And so I considered it a privilege. It’s the Cherokee obligation to serve others called God Aggie. And that’s what we are, that’s what we do. That’s how I get pleasure, is from being of service.

Dave Miller: What did you do early on to help provide Nancy more of a way to understand Celilo Falls.?

Joe Cantrell: I’ve been visiting the Yakimas over on the Washington side of the river for about the last year. And I told a good friend there, a very wise woman about Nancy and about the symphony and she said you need to bring her here. We were on the Klickitat River where it tumbles off the mountain and she said there was no mistaking, I needed to bring her there. So I called Nancy and we were there the next day.

Dave Miller: And where did you go?

Joe Cantrell: Up the Klickitat from Lyle, Washington across the river to the Yakima fishing grounds over there on the Falls.


Dave Miller: Nancy, what do you remember from that day?

Nancy Ives: Well it was, it was an amazing day. Martha Cloud, that was Joe’s friend, seemed to understand completely, exactly what I needed. She just basically told me what to do and I did it and it was amazing. She had me lie face down on the rocks right next to the falls on the Klickitat so that I could feel and hear the sound which, and I had a like a spiritual epiphany. I wept, actually. It was really powerful. She, we went and saw She Who Watches, which is a sacred site that overlooks where the falls was. She said you need to go talk to her and ask her what you need to do. I mean she just, I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it. It was a very powerful day. I am so grateful to her.

Dave Miller: Is it possible to, to put into words, the ways in which that visit, at that time and even hearing or feeling the vibrations from another, from an existing falls, how that made its way into what you actually wrote?

Nancy Ives: Well, I can try. It confirmed a lot of what I was going for but I already had Ed’s words and Joe’s. Joe had been sharing images with me and also his perspective. I mean, this whole project, I’m realizing, has been my two collaborators representing two poles, the timelessness and universality that Joe has focused on and the very personal story that Ed shares and the music lives in both of these realms. And of course music is the perfect medium for that. So that structure was already starting to really take form. And then there’s just, I mean, your question was perfect because how do you put it into words? Well, that’s why we have music, because there are those things that we just can’t put into words. There are details. I realized that the white noise of the falls had a rhythmic structure and I tried to build that into a few places. It’s the kind of thing you won’t really hear, but it’s like a 4-3 ratio. So it’s not a symmetrical whosh, whosh, whosh, whosh, it’s like 1234,123,1234,123. So I can put that in. And I think the important thing about that kind of thing is that that depth of thought went into it, not necessarily if anyone hears it and goes, oh, waterfalls have a 4-3 ratio because I don’t think that will necessarily come across.

Dave Miller: And it happens beneath thought too. It’s just, it’s the feel in terms of the audience.

Nancy Ives: Absolutely.

Dave Miller: I want to remind folks we’re talking right now with Nancy Ives, Principal Cello of Oregon Symphony, the composer of ‘Celilo Falls: We Were There’. Ed Edmo is a writer, a poet and a playwright. Joe Cantrell is a photographer and the three of them together all helped create this new symphonic work called ‘Celilo Falls: We Were There’. The world premiere is this Saturday at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton. There’s also going to be a performance this Sunday at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Portland and next Sunday, June 11th at the Granada Theater, I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly, in the Dalles. Ed Edmo, Nancy has mentioned that this is your very personal memories and stories are embedded in the work. I was hoping you could read us part of that part of your reminiscences about your childhood near Celilo Falls, from one of the later movements from this piece.

Ed Edmo: I was raised at Celilo Falls. It’s the sound of fun and it really hurt my heart bad. I said, how could something so beautiful, so big, disappear? What I miss most. What I miss most is the mist from Celilo Falls on a spring shine day, I would stand on the east side of Celilo Falls to watch my relatives fish. It would be a light breeze pushing the mist softly on my youthful cheeks. I saw my grandpa fish. My dad fished, my cousins fished. Even my elder brother fished on scaffolds over the thunder of the river for hours, pulling King Salmon out of the water with nets, strike them on the head so they wouldn’t suffer. Now I tell legends I learned l from my dad who’s Shoshone Bannock, legends from his elders. My family was raised poor in a house Dad built out of railroad ties, two rooms, and a wood stove in the kitchen. I would say it was an outhouse. The outhouse was really stinky in the hot summer time. I was afraid the ugly spider would climb up the hole and bite me in my ass. Didn’t have people, we didn’t have what people have today in their houses. Ipads, cell phones, not even electricity or running water. My dad would tell me legends at bedtime to put me to sleep. I had felt bad for that trickster Old Man Coyote because it seemed like he was always in trouble, just like me. In the wintertime, it was cold. There’s no heating in the house, watching my dad get out of bed and crack, at butt crack early, cross crawl across the floor to our bedroom to pass upright piano. My brother’s bed. Dad would crawl into the kitchen in long johns, take a wooden match, open the wood stove oven, light the fire to get some heat. I thought to myself boy, when I grow up, I want to be as strong as my dad. Nowadays I walk over to the wall, pull my bathrobe tight around me and turn up the thermostat. We raise chickens and rabbits to eat. During the fishing season, we ate a lot of salmon. Dad also brought home some Lamprey Eel. They looked like great snakes. I’m gonna cut them three, four inches long. We put them in the oven to bake, the pan underneath the catch of grease that cooked out of them. Someone told me that eel oil was good for healing cuts. I haven’t tried that yet. Hopefully I will someday. I remember there was Grandpa Joseph Cook brought some bear meat from Mount Adams. There was a big bone sticking out, a large pot on a rickety table. I remember that the taste was really gamey. In my memory, I can still see the large bone sticking out of that pound pot. Sometimes we ran out of food and had to go to the mission house to eat. When I was a little kid, I hated it because mom and my grandma would sit and talk, sing hymns, pray, sing or I was really hungry. I wanted to eat. I remember one time in particular, the women were singing a long, long, long, long hymn and I pulled the chair over to the stove, pulled out the bacon, and began eating it. When the missionary got done crying, she found what I was doing, she got a shocked look on his face, on her face. Oh, I was saving that from my dog, Rags as part of, that’s true. This is the one that is on about the Regional Theater and it’s in the art show. There’s been something, there has been something, sometimes a song, sometimes the whisper, sometimes it appears to be the animal. Other times weeping, I hear it. There’s been something that disappeared from my Mother Earth. I’m not sure what it was, but sometimes at night I could hear it in the wind or it comes to me in my dreams like the smell of salmon cooking.

Dave Miller: That’s the writer, poet and playwright. Ed Edmo giving us a poem and reminiscences of his childhood at Celilo Falls. Both of those pieces are included as texts, as a part of the new works ‘Celilo Falls: We Were There’ music written by Nancy Ives and Joe Cantrell, as I mentioned is a photographer and there are going to be projected photographs as a part of this multimedia work as well. Joe, how did you think about embedding images in this work?

Joe Cantrell: It’s completely subjective. I was really moved a number of years ago, being with the pictographs on the cliffs down in Southern Utah. And I realized they had put them up where dinosaur bones were eroding out of the cliff.

And I had this epiphany that those pictographs were of the rock. They weren’t just on the rock. They were of the rock. They had become the rock. And that raised me to a level of consciousness that I employ now using modified spy satellite software to find pictographs that have been invisible perhaps for 5000 years, to give the old ones their voices back and I hope we have the ears to listen.

Dave Miller: So, and the pictographs that you found or created images of for this performance, they are from the Columbia River Basin or from Utah?

Joe Cantrell: From the Columbia River Basin. I may harken back to Utah for a few of them. I found Kokopelli which is much more common in the Anasazi Pueblo areas, but I found one at She Who Watches recently. So, and we know that Celilo was a major cultural and trading point for the entire western part of the continent. It was huge and even more so after horses came in.

Dave Miller: Nancy. I’ve noted that this is going to be the world premiere of the full piece on Saturday night. But last fall you did have a performance of just the first movement as part of the Siletz Bay Music Festival. I want to just give folks a sense for a part of it from the middle of the piece. Let’s have a listen.

Music playing…

Dave Miller: Nancy, what are you most looking forward to at the premiere on Saturday night?

Nancy Ives: Oh man. Well, of course hearing the whole thing is, it’s been 2.5 years getting cooked up and it’s just gonna be amazing. But I have, I’m looking forward to, PCO has been really great about agreeing to something that Ed asked for, which was to make it free for tribal members to attend one or more of the performances. And I’m really excited for that. I hope I get a chance to meet some of the tribal elders and I’ve actually started to dare to dream that people will feel like there’s more seen and understood, because I can’t imagine having your community go through something like that and feel like the rest of the world doesn’t care.

Dave Miller: Nancy Ives, Ed Edmo and Joe Cantrell, thanks very much. Nancy Ives is the composer of ‘Celilo Falls: We Were There’.  Ed Edmo contributed poetry and prose to it. Joe Cantrell contributed photographs.

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