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Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, November 2009

Mark Grey (b. 1967) is relatively new to composing but has a solid résumé in what has become an allied field: sound design. After studying music at San Jose State University, majoring in composition and electro-acoustics, he began a career that has included collaboration with major West-Coast composers such as John Adams and Steve Reich…he also collaborated in the production of the elaborate and heart-breaking audio track of names, messages, and remembrances for Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls and the sound installations for its performance. Grey’s parallel composing career has produced works for the Kronos Quartet and for violinist Leila Josefowicz, among others. It also resulted in two orchestral works for the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra.

Enemy Slayer was written during Grey’s Music Alive residency with that orchestra as part of their 60th anniversary celebration in 2007. The text is by Diné (Navajo) poet and Arizona State University professor of English Laura Tohe. It is the story of the healing of a Diné war veteran suffering from the trauma of combat after his return from a foreign war, most likely in the Middle East, though this is not explicit. It follows the outline of an ancient Navajo healing ritual, rooted in Navajo mythology, for the reintegration of warriors into oneness with themselves, their community, and a peaceful life. The language is direct, often quite beautiful, or decidedly unsettling: “Mothers’ hopes wrapped in bloodied rags/the children lay like broken toys spilled on the streets/Red rags. Limbs and dreams rearranged by war/a sister recoils.”

It is powerful stuff, much of it unforgettable once read…Mark Grey’s score is far from negligible. It is well crafted, most effective in atmospheric moments such as the lovely prelude with the flute duet and several of the choral sections…the performance itself is good. Scott Hendricks makes much of the possibilities the role offers with his resonant baritone and intense characterization. The 140-voice chorus is fine…conductor Michael Christie paces the work with conviction and the orchestra plays well up to their reputation as a fine provincial orchestra. The sound provided by Meyer Sound, a California-based audio company more associated with theater and rock-concert sound production (and Mark Grey), has great bass and percussion impact…this work does offer something important. On one level about a Navajo creation myth, Enemy Slayer is much more a statement on the crushing effect of war on many veterans and the spiritual healing that many need upon their return. The words are Navajo. The ritual of healing, the Anaa’jí, is Navajo, but the cries of pain are universal, as is the need of understanding and support of those who fight the monsters in our world. That the Navajo traditions include such a ritual suggests that we could benefit from greater sharing of their wisdom. If Enemy Slayer, as the Music Alive endorsement suggests, has begun a bridge between Western and Native American cultures, it has served a great purpose…that is enough to recommend it. Hózhô náhásdlîî dooleeã: Let peace prevail.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, October 2009

I have a more than musical reason for taking an interest in this work, and in music of a Native American origin. My daughter is descended, through her mother’s family, from the Cherokee Nation. Their branch of the Nation no longer exists, and thus their way of life is lost to us. For these reasons I welcome any work of art which celebrates the Native American or is conceived by a Native American. Here was a chance for Naxos to give us a recording of Louis Ballard’s magnificent Suite for orchestra, Incident at Wounded Knee (1974). It deserves a wider audience than it has so far achieved. But I digress.

Enemy Slayer is the first oratorio based on the creation story of the Navajo. The story concerns the twins Monster Slayer and Child Born for Water who (as Marley Shebala’s notes tell us) went to war against the monsters who threatened their people. After destroying all the monsters the twins returned home but started having nightmares, smelling the blood of the monsters and screaming in horror. They wanted to be alone, lost their appetites, became depressed, angry, violent, and thought of suicide. Today we would say that they were suffering post–traumatic stress disorder. Thus the Navajo people created the Anaa’jí (Enemy Way), one of the most sacred of the Navajo ceremonies and one which is still in use to cleanse and heal warriors returning from today’s wars.

Composer Grey, his librettist Laura Tohe (an award winning Navajo poet) and photographer Deborah O’Grady said that they wanted this work to be a bridge between the Navajo and non–Navajo worlds. To this end Tohe’s libretto is based on the idea of the Anaa’jí—to quote it would be sacrilegious—and, according to the notes (on which I have drawn very closely at times), she gave shape to Grey’s visionary concept. In Enemy Slayer we follow the trials and tribulations of Seeker, a man suffering battle fatigue. He goes through the vicissitudes suffered by the twins, and sings of his feelings; the chorus, variously representing his parents, grandparents, ancestors and the Holy Ones respond to his dilemma.

When he wrote the work Grey was composer in residence for the Phoenix Symphony and the organisation obviously wanted to give their man the best they could offer for what could possibly be his magnum opus. So what did Grey deliver? This almost 70 minute oratorio is written in a very conventional voice, there’s nothing here which would scare the horses, and there’s no real high point which stands head and shoulders above the rest. There are also some very obvious and embarrassingly twee sections, such as the sound of battle at the end of the third (of five) sections. The material is generally unmemorable, and far too slight to sustain 70 minutes of music, and although the work has pretensions to be Epic, it simply fails to satisfy in such a way. Most importantly, there is no feeling of Native Americana! Only the words give it the cachet of being married to the great Navajo tradition. The scoring is brilliant, and well thought out. It’s very colourful and direct—the language is easy on the ear…the soloist the performance seems totally committed and the recording is excellent…

Uncle Dave Lewis, April 2009

Advertised as “the first-ever oratorio to be founded on an indigenous creation story”—and it may well be so—Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio was commissioned from composer Mark Grey by the Phoenix Symphony as part of its longstanding effort to bring a little of the American Southwest into its concert halls and to bridge the gap between Native American and Western cultures. After all, you can’t play Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite every time you want to have a taste of home in concert halls in Phoenix, and the region is rich with lore, tradition, and captivating landscapes; the very stuff great classical compositions are often made of. Grey’s fulfillment of his year-long tenure as the Phoenix Symphony’s composer-in-residence went well beyond the usual call of duty; a 70-minute oratorio for baritone soloists—Scott Hendricks, in this instance—full orchestra and a chorus of 140 voices. Enemy Slayer is based on a creation story of the Diné or, as familiarly known, Navajo people, and its libretto was written by Diné poet Laura Tohe.

“Enemy Slayer” deals with the evolution behind the sacred ceremony called Anaa’ji, or Enemy Way, which remains a vital part of the Diné liturgy. Tohe’s libretto does not deal directly with the ceremony itself, but she and Grey have fashioned something that is like a long, sacred ceremony out of the legend, a part of Diné lore that is more or less a matter of public record already. One thing that is immediately apparent upon listening to this is the enormous amount of respect that Grey and Tohe regard for the tradition that they are paying homage to; there is nothing in this music that brings to mind phrases like “string quartet on Indian themes” or other trite concoctions on Native American melody that used to be the rule in classical concert music of such kind. Tohe and Grey are interested in the content of the source, and that is what is delivered in a massive, solemn, and moving result. Grey’s music is often slow in tempo and dense in texture, but it still delivers the sense of violence that is at the core of the legend it portrays. A sound designer who has worked with John Adams, Grey knows the value of a good recording, and percussive effects pack a punch; the recording is big, spacious, and captures all of the details of the orchestration and chorus in spite of the size of the forces involved. About the only thing one could comment about is that Hendricks seems a bit far forward upon his first entrance. He has a big bullhorn of a voice, which is exactly what the role he’s playing needs; however, it seems a little strong at first in regard to the background, though it comfortably settles in as events move along. The huge chorus is splendid, and the Phoenix Symphony’s Michael Christie seems determined that this is not going to be a typical, dutiful realization of a commission; Enemy Slayer is an event that has a special significance to the community to which it belongs, and its various parts are kept scrupulously in check and delivered with absolute seriousness of purpose.

Enemy Slayer is a landmark piece in the history of the often corrosive collision of Native America and the concert hall; this one, though, doesn’t hurt, and it may well go a long way toward building a bridge between these cultures. From the standpoint of Western music, however, Enemy Slayer is a revelatory and utterly different musical experience in the realm of oratorio—an admirable achievement indeed.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

‘War injures everyone it touches and leaves scars on the victors just as much as the vanquished’. Enemy Slayer tells of the Navajo Indians language of healing. I do not pretend to understand the inner meaning of the beliefs of these indigenous North American people, but here the composer, Mark Grey, attempts to bridge the gap between the Navajo people and the rest of the world. The oratorio is based on one man who returns from war so mentally scared that he can no longer become part of them, and all their entreaties fail, as he sees no point in living with the guilt of killing others on his mind. Of course many Americans have that guilt feeling of atrocities their forefathers committed against peaceful Indians and the land they stole from them. So any score couched in these terms will awaken those memories. It is set as a prologue and four scenes for baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra, the work fashioned in a modern tonality with colourful orchestral scoring. The story encompasses many dramatic moments, mixed with the peace that those around him try to create. It will have a ready impact on those close to its scenario, and does not make any exorbitant demands on the performers. This recording derived from two concert performances is obviously a well-prepared and deeply felt experience from all of the Phoenix musicians. Sound quality is outstanding. 

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