James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) penned his famous "The Last of the Mohicans" in 1826, setting the stage for numerous films and adaptations. Although a rebellious youth, Cooper married and lived an agrarian life till his writing career proved successful enough to cease farming.
Cooper's story takes place during the French and British war of 1757 (The Seven Years War). Two Mohicans, Uncas and his father Chingachgook, befriend Hawkeye and some English colonists including Cora and Alice Munro, the daughters of a British Colonel. In the original story, an Iroquois guide named Magua (meaning "Bear" in Algonkian) kills the younger Mohican, leaving the old man to be the final member of the Mohican race.
Being a legitimate writer, anyone might assume that Cooper would get the rightful facts -- but he did not. With his mainstream acceptance and downright gullible popularity, Cooper's DEAD "Mohicans" have overshadowed the REAL Mohicans, who remain quite alive! I'm no Cooper literary critic, but apparently Mark Twain had something to say about it:
"Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig... If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper's proudest creations in the way of 'situations' suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting gift. Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly."
While Twain's 1895 essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (excerpted above) critiques Cooper's literary skills, it is the last band of Mohicans living today that takes issue with his subject matter. With only a hairbreadth appreciation for the lives of American Indians, Cooper had no clue who he was writing about, nor the effect his work would have on his living subjects. Unknowingly, Cooper even confused the Algonkian-speaking Mohicans with the Pequot-speaking Mohegans, two differing tribes.
So, after hearing jokes such as "Oh ... are you the second-to-the-last of the Mohicans?" and variations ad-nauseam, I decided to compose my own story, "The Last of James Fenimore Cooper." Not to be over-shadowed by ridiculously bad spin-offs however, my version is different. "The Last of James Fenimore Cooper" combines the plot of Cooper's original story with that of a much older Mohican story about the Snow Monster of the North. In my version, Cooper is a character in his own story and becomes transformed -- his brainless deed forgiven. "The Last of James Fenimore Cooper" is an act of forgiveness and transformation by someone who daily walks through the eclipse of his statue, blasting sunlight through the dark silhouette. What would I tell Cooper if I met him today? "Obviously, the best way to know ABOUT Mohicans is to KNOW a Mohican -- better luck next time!" I therefore dedicate this work to the surviving Mohicans, the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribal Community, and to our perseverance, longevity, humor and unique way of life. "The Last of James Fenimore Cooper" was commissioned for the Miro Quartet by the Caramoor International Music Festival for A String Quartet Library for the 21st Century, and is published by Blue Butterfly Group.
Mohican tales, set to strings
By JOHN AIELLO
FOR THE JOURNAL NEWS
Mark Twain would have loved Friday night's concert of strings and narration in the enchanting Spanish Courtyard at Caramoor in Katonah. After all, there was a quartet by his contemporary, Brahms, some Haydn and, best of all, a raucous, knee-slapping lampoon of James Fenimore Cooper, author of "The Last of the Mohicans,'' whom Twain was notorious for despising.
The featured performance was the world premiere of "The Last of James Fenimore Cooper,'' a touche by composer Brent Michael Davids, commissioned by Caramoor for the Miro String Quartet.
Davids, a member of the Mohican Nation, explained that his narration would combine plot material from Cooper's novel, as well as a Mohican tale about a snow monster and appearances by Cooper himself.
Davids began the piece with a "Bird's Roar'' by whirling a strung whistle to twittering effect. The quartet followed with a syncopated rhythm-chorale that quickly gave way to cascades of melodic triplets coursing down through the group's registers.
A very dramatic start. In fact, very melodramatic. But that's exactly what Davids intended. He is rubbing Cooper's nose in it with this work, all the stereotypes of "injuns'' the novel put forth, all the Hollywood cliches that followed.
As the narration began, the strings underscored every emotion of the text with appropriately nervous tremolos, swooning glissandos and pizzicato moments of mock panic that might have served as the sound track to a silent movie.
The audience loved it, laughing out loud at times, particularly when the string players unexpectedly broke into what sounded like a rain dance, singing "Hey ya, hi ya, hey!'' or when snippets of "One little, two little, three little Indians" brazenly accentuated the narrative.
But this piece was more than just great satire and slapstick ? in fact, much more. From start to finish, the string writing was wildly inventive, beautifully melodic and rhythmically surprising.
Cellist Joshua Gindele lent rich luxury to a recurring low-register melody, playing it with a wide, resonant vibrato and pitch-perfect slides, while violinists David Ching and Sandy Yamamoto created an atmospheric effect of ultra-sonic harmonics and bow scratchings that sounded like a radio caught between stations in the distance.
Mirroring his text, Davids showed great word-painting skills, making the strings bristle with the cold, or melt down in a group slide that seemed bottomless during a particularly calamitous turn in the story. Thematically, a rolling six-note figure resonated through the entire piece, building and returning, played sometimes by the entire quartet or, finally, spun out in an effortless three-measure flourish by Ching.
The piece concluded with Cooper being redeemed and forgiven through an outlandish and hilarious series of plot twists.
Then, in a bittersweet coda, Davids sang a final, mock Indian-style farewell while the strings played with complete sincerity beneath him... .
Contact comoser to schedule performances in your area: http://www.brentmichaeldavids.com/
Composer, Performing Artist, Producer, Publisher, Satirist, Writer
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Last of the Mohicans - Suite
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