The Cultural Cost of Celebrating Katherine Hoover

Hi! I’m Ariel Wang, and I’ve been a musician since I was about three years old. I have studied countless pieces of music since then, but only as I grew older have I recognized the cultural appropriation hidden in many of them. Since denouncing these pieces would mean uprooting their contributions to classical music history as well as much of classical music culture, I hope to do my part in fostering equitable and inclusive representation in classical music in this column, by re-examining these pieces within the context of this conversation, and raising awareness to this cause. Here’s a link of me playing Winter Spirits.

Learning new music—something I’ve been doing for 15 years—should feel mundane. Last year, however, I began working on a flute solo, “Winter Spirits,” by the late American composer Katherine Hoover, which sparked a new line of thought that challenged aspects of classical music I had previously accepted.

“Winter Spirits” is influenced by Native American music, a hallmark of many Hoover compositions. Specifically, it is inspired by Native American artist Marie Buchfink’s print “of a Native American flute player; from his flute rises a cloud of kachinas and totem spirits.”

Hoover’s most famous composition is another solo flute piece, “Kokopeli,” inspired by the Hopi tribe of the American Southwest. She writes in the program notes: “He is said to have led the migrations through the mountains and deserts, the sound of his flute echoing through the great canyons and cliffs. In this piece, I have tried to capture some of this sense of spaciousness, and of the Hopi’s deep kinship with this land.”

Despite her extensive experience with Native American culture, Hoover is a white woman. Growing up in West Virginia and Philadelphia, she studied flute and composition quite traditionally with prominent classical musicians such as flutist William Kincaid. It follows that she found successes within the traditional Western classical music world.

Her compositions are the only representation of Native American sounds in standard, widely-performed classical flute repertoire, and they are celebrated for it. But classical musicians end up celebrating her, and the Indigenous sounds and stories that define her most famous works, lose their significance, get lost in translation, and become only her accessory. Flutist Nina Perlove describes, “Katherine is a storyteller, and the stories she recounts are ancient whisperings that resonate with a primal sense of mythological archetypes.” She fails to note that the stories Hoover tells are not hers. Is it okay that she is simply drawing influence from Native American stories, or is she exploiting them? Should we continue to celebrate her music? Three points complicate this answer.

First, the classical flute is modernizing. More and more contemporary composers adopt “extended techniques,” especially those that capitalize on the flute’s proximity to the human voice, such as flutter tonguing, jet whistles, or atypical air sounds like moaning or whispering into the flute. Hoover is a pioneer of these techniques, deviating from classical norms, and one of the few women who do.

Secondly, Hoover does play a part in sharing and educating her audience about the Native American stories she draws inspiration from. Decorating her scores, which are published by her own company, Papagena Press, are images of Native American art and patterns, and the back always contains a short passage describing the story and how she was influenced by it.

Third, it is hard to replace Hoover with Native American composers, as Hoover wrote her pieces for the Western silver flute. However, most flute pieces written by Native American composers so far are specified for the Native American wooden flute, a completely different instrument most classical musicians do not play (But there have been musicians who have sought to bridge this gap: R. Carlos Nakai, 11-time Grammy nominee and “the premier Native American flutist,” for example, whose collaborative album “Spirit Horses” with Native American composer James DeMars, “Colors Fall” features a duet between the Native American flute and the Western silver flute).

Lauding composers for using sounds from minority cultures, especially to denote an “exotic” theme, is far from uncommon in classical music. Rejecting Hoover’s work would thus have to follow with a complete overhaul of classical music culture, and a rejection of many classical music giants who have done the same thing. Is that what needs to be done to foster equitable and inclusive representation? Or should this art be appreciated regardless?

Despite Hoover’s work overshadowing actual Native American traditions, it has also—far more than those past composers’ works—brought awareness to them and promoted an appreciation for them, as she carefully credits and specifies the stories that inspired her. Hoover does not characterize her compositions as a monolithic representation of Native American music—the audience does. The burden falls on us to stop ignoring this conversation, and when enjoying her pieces, address the controversy, specifically recognize their Native American influences (not reducing them to “mythological archetypes”), and give credit where credit’s due.