Exploring a Means of Musical Exchange in New Mexico – A Pilot Workshop


In October of 2019 a group from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland arrived in New Mexico for a pilot musical workshop and cultural exchange with the teachers and students of the St. Joseph Mission School in San Fidel, New Mexico.  The exchange was intended to result in a collaborative and engaged performance between indigenous musical traditions of northern Scandinavia and the Sámi people, and the local traditions of the St. Joseph School teachers and students, who largely live on the Acoma and Laguna Pueblos.  


L-R: Viivi; Nathan; Mr. Trujillo; Elsa; Scott; Tuovi; Erika; Ann; Mari; Hildá.
(Photo by Lucinda Trujillo)


The Finnish delegation included two music students from Taideyliopiston Sibelius-Akatemia - Viivi Maria Saarenkylä (accordion, voice, percussion) and Hildá Länsman (voice, percussion), who perform together in the group Vildá; one Sibelius music faculty member - Nathan Riki Thomson (acoustic bass, percussion); two Sibelius administrators – Tuovi Martinsen and Erika Sauer; the project’s visionary - Elsa Brule; and a documentary artist - Mari Keski-Korsu. I was invited to participate thanks to USC Thornton School of Music’s Mist Þorkelsdóttir, with hopes that USC students might be involved in such projects in future. The group was hosted by the Principal of the St. Joseph Mission School – Antonio Trujillo; and the school’s Librarian and Pueblo community elder - Ann Rose Ray.


Students of the St. Joseph Mission School heading to class (Photo by Mari Keski-Korsu)


The theme of the engagement was “Water” – a curriculum pivot point in the St. Joseph Mission School’s academic year. The theoretical grounding for the exchange was developed by Sibelius faculty member Nathan Riki Thomson loosely through the lens of ecomusicology. Discussions before the exchange led to a realization that the two communities had completely different cultural understandings of water– Finland and traditional Sámi land is literally covered in and surrounded by water in all of its physical forms, while in the Pueblos water is a scarce, precious and life-giving resource. In addition, the musical traditions of Scandinavia and the Sámi people had few overlaps with those of the Pueblo residents.


Joaquin Candelaria (left) and Fabian Cheresposy (right), students at the St. Joseph Mission School, take down the American flag at the end of a day. (Photo by Scott Spencer)


In The Air

Ecomusicology - a field in constant definition, redefinition, and exploration - is often presented as a philosophical, political and activist positioning or perspective, rather than the manifested actions of those theories (though its definition and range are the subject of constant debate).  As Aaron S. Allen has stated, “There is no one ecomusicology but many ecomusicologies constituting a dynamic field.” (Allen and Dawe, 1)  Allen, in the same publication, also discusses the etymology of the “-ology” of ecomusicology, with implications that “the study of” is often considered the basis for the field, rather than the “performance of,” (as he describes) the “coming together of music/sound studies with environmental/ecological studies and sciences.” (Allen and Dawe, 2). The classic role of the ecomusicologist has not been to undertake political acts of engagement, but rather to observe political acts and then imagine theoretic and political positionings. But in practice, as all musical acts are political, those musicians engaged in ecological activities in society function as engaged acoustic ecologists, or (dare I say) engaged ecomusicologists.  These two realms are inherently intertwined – one cannot simply call others to acoustic ecological arms and then sit back and observe. As Ana María Ochoa Gautier more eloquently states,

But the political is not only a form of “activism.” Narrowly framed as such, it has the potential to emerge as an “outside” of theory. This is actually a fundamental issue, since understanding “the political” as an outside of theory that only returns through appeals to activism depends in good measure on how sound/music–nature/culture relations are themselves conceived. (Gautier, 114)

Rather than delving into Gautier’s resulting (and fascinating and wholly applicable) discussion of acoustic multinaturalism, I’ll simply state that ecomusicological actions are inherently based on shared acoustic knowledge and cultural/worldly understandings. Such actions can take a wide variety of forms, including musical protests and interventions, violent ecological sonic acts such as many of the Extinction Rebellion protests (see Jack, 2020), and tamer (but still influential) academic awareness-raising multimedia public projects. Notable among this last category is the Field to Media project, in which researchers in multiple sites used video to amplify local activist engagement with the effects of climate change, “exploring the liminal space between ethnographic fieldwork, art, activism, and popular music.” (Pedelty, Dirksen, Hatfield, Pang, and Roy, 24). The salient examples are manifold, but the featured project in this article is a perfect token of ecomusicological type. As Allen has suggested, the field of ecomusicology “gained currency in the 2000s in American and Scandinavian academic circles” and it therefore seems apropos that the project in this feature brings together these players for discussion and collaboration.


Mr. Trujillo, Principal of the St. Joseph Mission School, dancing with his students.
(Photo by Mari Keski-Korsu)


On the Ground

The St. Joseph Mission school serves roughly 60 students from pre-kindergarten to 8th grade from the neighboring Laguna and Acoma Pueblos. Principal Antonio Trujillo had formerly served as Franciscan priest for the San José de Laguna Mission Church in the Laguna Pueblo and the San Estévan Mission Church in the Acoma Pueblo, and remains a beloved fixture in the community. The school is Catholic, and is the case with many of the local religious institutions, it is integrated with local beliefs and practices in a variety of fascinating ways.


Workshoping sounds and performativity with the students of the St. Joseph School. (Photo by Mari Keski-Korsu)


Our first day in San Fidel was spent meeting the group, honing plans, and eventually touring the school and meeting the staff and students. The day’s workshops brought together the children of the St. Joseph school with Hildá and Viivi, with facilitation by Nathan.  We all assisted in the workshops and split up to lead breakout sessions with the older students to develop spoken word and multimedia pieces.


Workshop with Finnish musicians and students of the St. Joseph School. (Photo by Scott Spencer and Mari Keski-Korsu)


Hildá presented to the students traditional songs and vocal styles from Samí land, which reaches across the Nordic countries and parts of Northern Russia, and Viivi accompanied on accordion. The collaboration brought together traditional Sámi melodies (including joik) with engaged songwriting, and choreography which drew on the ideas of the students in the development of lyrics, melodies, rhythms, musical textures and spoken word pieces, which all contributed to the resulting performance that evening. 


Marae, Mason, Josiah, Jonathan, Manuel, and Emma performing a song for family members.
(Photo by Mari Keski-Korsu)


The students performed their creations to the parents and community that evening. The overarching theme was “Water” – which supported the school’s curriculum for the academic year and engaged issues common to both the Pueblos and Finland. Roughly 100 attendees came to the evening event, which was also the capacity of the room.


Hildá Länsman arriving at St. Margaret Mary Mission Chapel, uphill from the settlement at Paraje.
(Photo by Mari Keski-Korsu)


On the following day, the delegation accompanied the school to local Feast Day events.  Ann Rose Ray taught us important aspects of Feast Day culture and traditions – including a strict ban on recording of any kind during sacred events, and how to behave when invited to someone’s house for a meal (it is appropriate to bring water as a gift to the host, and it is considered rude to refuse a meal). She also introduced us to the community elders outside the featured chapel.


The St. Margaret Mary Mission Chapel is uphill from the settlement at Paraje – about seven miles west of the Laguna Pueblo.  The settlement holds a feast day each year on October 17th in honor of the chapel’s enshrined saint. The day started with a traditional Catholic mass, which was infused with local traditions including traditional drumming and song in both English and Keres Pueblo.  The mass included formal statements from the Pueblo’s Governor, Wilfred Herrera, Jr., and members of his Council and War Chiefs. At the end of the service, the Council and clergy removed the ceremonial canes and statue of St. Margaret Mary from the church, and paraded them down to a temporary shrine on the pueblo’s main plaza.  The St. Joseph students sat on the edge of the plaza, and our delegation was asked to meet the Governor and his Council in the shrine. 


Wilfred Herrera, Jr., Governor of the Pueblo of Laguna with ceremonial canes.
(Published at https://www.lagunapueblo-nsn.gov/Govenors_Office.aspx Photo courtesy of Shannon Stevens)


Mr. Trujillo introduced us to the Governor and Council members. Our delegation explained our project, and presented a few gifts from Finland.  Hildá brought formal greetings from the Sámi people and offered a traditional gift made of reindeer from her family’s herd. We then had a highly emotional moment in which Gov. Herrera welcomed us, conveyed formal greetings to the Sámi people, presented to us knowledge and words of advice for the project, ourselves and the larger world, and generously invited us to feast in his home. Hildá was then embraced by a number of the teachers and students, and then slowly returned to the plaza. Dancing started in the plaza immediately after we exited.  As there is a strict ban on documenting ceremonies in any form, I will not describe the events, but will mention that the feast day is a moment for the community to gather in celebration and open their homes, and for families to return to the Pueblo. The Pueblos host ten or so feast days each year, and this was the final one of the feast season. These events usually bring many of the younger members of the community back from the cities, and this year was noted as a year when a great number had returned and taken part in ceremonies.


The delegation had also been invited to the house of Rebecca Ann Ray, the Reading Specialist for the St. Joseph School, for a meal and socializing. Our delegation was afforded humbling hospitality and familiarity - I’m sure in part because we had been working with the school in the previous days. The impact of the events and community on Hildá was tremendous - she had mentioned earlier that much of her Sámi identity and traditions had to be kept relatively secret from her parallel religious traditions, and she was overwhelmed by her experience on the plaza, in which both traditional and religious activities were syncretic, public and encouraged.  She and Ann embraced and talked about the role of rituals in society for a long time, and the musicians were greeted warmly by members of the community throughout the day.


Participants visiting the San José de Laguna Mission Church.
(Photo by Ann Rose Ray)


After a massive meal in Mrs. Ray’s house, Mr. Trujillo brought us to his old parish, the San José de Laguna Mission Church in the Laguna Pueblo, which had been built in 1699. Ann Rose Ray, who had also worked there as an administrator, told us about the history of the mission, the traditional aspects incorporated into the design, decorations and services themselves, and the ongoing cooperation between the church and the community to have parallel aspects of society and ritual honored, maintained, and celebrated. We left with a greater understanding of the traditional aspects of the community, the fascinating integration inherent in the church and community, and the history and people of the area. 


Participants on a tour of the Indian Arts Research Center at Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research. (Photo by Scott Spencer)


The following day, we traveled to the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe and met with Elysia Poon, Director of SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center.  We toured the ceramics and textiles archives, and learned about the programs that SAR undertakes – both within the community and in cooperation with academic projects. We discussed our project and the possibility of holding future workshops at SAR with some of their Fellows to develop curricula for the project, and/or hold teacher training workshops on site.  We also met with Jordan Young, Executive Director of the Women’s International Study Center at Santa Fe’s Acequia Madre House. Among other programs, the House hosts visiting musicians, researchers and writers for a Fellows-in-Residence program. Ms. Young suggested ways in which the Acequia Madre House might intersect with our project.


Fundamental to any successful cultural exchange is an inherent fairness and equality of exchange among participants, as well as partnerships with local figures and institutions. This pilot project was very successful in part because it encouraged an equal exchange of learning and discovery, and placed visiting participants into the community’s local events as collaborators and friends.  Learned from this undertaking is that projects such as this benefit from preparatory partnerships with local institutions and teachers, shared interests or curriculum, ongoing musical partnerships and introductions to and support from the local community. Sadly, as the current COVID-19 pandemic is curtailing travel and disproportionately impacting native communities, this and all such projects will be on hold for the moment, with high hopes that they may return in future. The Navajo Nation is currently experiencing low rates of Covid infection, and future plans for ecomusicological partnerships are pending.


A view of the Mt. Taylor mesa south of San Fidel, NM (Photo by: Scott Spencer)


Scott B. Spencer is an Assistant Professor of Musicology (World Music) at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. www.scottbspencer.com

Taideyliopiston Sibelius-Akatemia, Helsinki, Finland
St. Joseph Mission School, San Fidel, NM
USC Thornton School of Music, Los Angeles, CA
Photo credits marked. Permissions granted from photographers; permissions for publication of student’s images on file with the St. Joseph Mission School



Allen, Aaron S, and Kevin Dawe. Current Directions in Ecomusicology: Music, Culture, Nature. London: Routledge, 2016.


Gautier, Ana María Ochoa. “Acoustic Multinaturalism, the Value of Nature, and the Nature of Music in Ecomusicology.” Boundary 2 43, no. 1 (2016): 107–141. 


Grove Music Online, s.v. “Ecomusicology,” by Aaron S. Allen, accessed May 28, 2021, www.oxfordmusiconline.com/.


Jack, Max Z. “Atmospheres of Love and Rage: On the Extinction Rebellion Climate Protests.” SEM Student News 15, no. 2 (2020).


Pedelty, Mark, Rebecca Dirksen, Tara Hatfield, Yan Pang, and Elja Roy. “Field to Media: Applied Ecomusicology in the Anthropocene.” Popular Music 39, no. 1 (2020): 22–42.

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