MIT classical composer releases series of Choctaw-inspired piano pieces

By Shelia Kirven
February 1, 2022

Choctaw classical composer Dr. Charles Shadle is proud to announce the release of his original series of piano pieces entitled Choctaw Animals.

Shadle worked with the Choctaw Nation to ensure that the information about the pieces was respectful to the Choctaw people. “We wanted to make sure that we had gotten that right, that it was not only respectful of Choctaw people but helped to put information out in a broad community because the news story was shared all over the world. So, people could understand that Choctaw people are still here, we’re doing really well, and we have a vast amount to contribute to our modern culture.”

Shadle was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma. His mother’s family owned a large ranch near Atoka, and his father was a pharmacist who had a drug store in Tishomingo. The family lived in Tishomingo until Shadle was five when they moved to Colorado, where he grew up. Summers and holidays were spent in Oklahoma visiting family.

He went to the University of Colorado as an undergraduate, Tulane University in New Orleans for his masters and then received his doctorate in Composition and Theory from Brandeis University. He stayed in Boston and has spent primarily his entire career at MIT, where he teaches composition, music theory and music history. He serves as a Senior Lecturer in Music and as Theory Coordinator.

“It’s very interesting to be a composer, to be a creative artist, and to also be a teacher. I find that’s a really useful combination because it’s a lot of extraordinary energy students have ,and being a part of helping them unleash their own creativity, in fact, does the same thing for myself, and that always feels like an important thing to me.” He talks about his profession and his hobby being the same thing. “Composing is fun to me.”

Shadle’s works take many forms; five operas, four symphonies, numerous pieces of chamber music, many songs and choral music, both sacred and secular, make up his catalog.

When he was a child, Shadle started taking piano lessons. He would play what he was learning for the family when he came to Oklahoma. His great-aunt, Florence Neal, gave him a music book at the age of 10 that her great-grandmother, Sophia Krebs Paffon, brought from Mississippi over the Trail of Tears.

“It would look very much like the modern Choctaw hymnal looks like with many of the same songs.” Shadle said he knew even then it was something special. It has always been in the background of his music-making, and these days is more in the foreground.

“She probably wasn’t able to bring some other things to make room for that. It provides a model for me that the arts have been incredibly important to Choctaw people as long as there have been Choctaw people,” Shadle explained. He still has the book he was given and says, “it’s a thing to be treasured.” Music runs deep in his blood.

One of Shadle’s aunts even played for silent movies as a teenager during the years of the first world war. The three biggest Choctaw pieces of Shadle’s are pieces for small ensembles. According to Shadle, they were all written for a famous ensemble in London, England, called Lontona.

“I had this sense that I have this set of three big, very complicated, admittedly, and very sophisticated pieces, pieces that only could be played by very skilled professional musicians,” explained Shadle. “I thought, ‘I want to have some pieces that actually could be heard in the Choctaw Nation where you wouldn’t have to go to a concert hall to hear them, where most people who could play the piano, even small kids, could just sit down and play these pieces. That was the idea behind the Choctaw Animals.”

The three earlier pieces were entitled Limestone Gap, Red Cedar and The Old Place from his Oklahoma Choctaw Cycle.

“I was very pleased with these pieces, and they are very important to me, but I was just kind of sorry that they weren’t what most Choctaw people would have a chance to experience. With the Choctaw Animals, they’re much shorter, they’re much simpler, they’re much more accessible and easier and can be played at home if they own a keyboard or piano.”

Shadle also took melodic elements that were based on having done some study of traditional Choctaw social dance music.

“While I don’t use any of those actual melodies, I was extracting principles that were related to them, and so I hope in some way they feel Choctaw, not only in terms of the titles of the pieces which are in Choctaw but also that there are elements of Choctaw music-making of earlier traditions that you can hear from some extent in those pieces,” said Shadle.

According to Shadle, representing the Choctaw Nation is important to him.

“I really, very much want to sort of serve as a gateway, a sort of conduit for young Choctaw musicians so that they realize that there is a place for them in the world of classical music, that they would be welcome, that they would find a comfortable home there where they could do their best work if that is the direction that their work takes them,” Shadle said.

He recently did a series of interviews about his work and life as a Choctaw composer of contemporary classical music for KHFM National Public Radio, New Mexico.

In his interview, he talked about how he has been taught his whole life to be proud of his Choctaw heritage. “I have gradually noticed, over time, that some of my pieces come from a specifically Choctaw place,” said Shadle. “I am Choctaw, so in some sense all my music is also Choctaw, but I do recognize that some pieces are explicitly so, while others are implicitly so.”

The MIT Symphony Orchestra, under Music Director, Adam Boyles, will give the premiere performance of Shadle’s Fourth Symphony in April of this year.

Listen and download free sheet music for Choctaw Animals.