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Violoncello and Piano
9 minutes
Naomi Niskala and
An-Lin Bardin


September 12, 2022

Naomi Niskala, piano

An-Lin Bardin, violoncello

Chapel Restoration

Susquehanna University

Selinsgrove, PA


Concepts of identity, place, and purpose are at the center of BREATH WATER SPIRIT.  Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, I have always associated my birthplace with a place of belonging and identity.

On January 17, 1893,  the United States of America aided in the overthrowing of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Some 94 years before my existence, these events marked a dismantling of Hawaiian identity. ʻŌlelo Hawai'i, the Hawaiian language, was systemically banned from being taught in schools and spoken in public. In addition, foreign and commercial interests had already disenfranchised native land ownership and voting rights. Hawaiians were faced with renouncing their Hawaiian identity, the Queen and Kingdom of Hawaii, for allegiance to a new foreign constitution. 

A Hawaiian renaissance awakened in the 1960s, a revival and reclaiming of the Hawaiian language and cultural practice by the descendants of lost generations. This movement and the propagation of indigenous knowledge and practice continue to live and breathe today, defying the near extinction of the culture. Identity to the Native Hawaiians is central to their fight for recognition and visibility in the domain of the United States of America today. 

As a composer who has found purpose in Pacific work, finding identity is a journey of embracing the culture and becoming aware and less ignorant of the history of my home. In June of 2022, I traveled to Hawaii Island (the Big Island). I attended a talk with John DeFries (President of the Hawaii Tourism Authority) at the Mauna Lani resort. DeFries touched upon many aspects of sustainable tourism, but what surprised me was his use of the words "Breath, Water, and Spirit." From the geothermal energy in volcanic power, sustainable agriculture, and land preservation to the telescopes on the Mauna (mountain); windows into stars, Hawai'i is the classroom for a renewable and sustainable world. DeFries posited ancient Polynesians would have recognized the island's life-giving properties, giving breath (Ha) through life-sustaining water (Wai) and the spirits ('i), and named this place Hawai'i. 

BREATH WATER SPIRIT is about identity; the name ancient Hawaiians gave their new home and the name of my home. The work is scored for piano and violoncello and was commissioned by Naomi Niskala and An-Lin Bardin. I hoped to capture this ancient natural spirit of the Hawaiian islands using the melodic contours of Hawaiian chant. These fragments of a chant undergo a tumultuous passage through time that implies, at the start, the undiscovered Hawai'i island, the arrival of the Hawaiians, the ancient battles for unification under Kamehameha I, through the overthrow, and beyond. 

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