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This Navajo musician's song lasts four-and-a-half years

Delbert Anderson is a jazz musician from northern New Mexico.
Jeff Kearney
Delbert Anderson is a jazz musician from northern New Mexico.

In a small art gallery in the Navajo reservation border town of Farmington, New Mexico, five musicians gathered recently to perform a single note - a concert D.

Delbert Anderson, who is Navajo and plays jazz, led the group into the note, part of the performance of a piece he wrote and calls "The Long Walk."

"Let's get ready, 1, 2, 3, and..."

For about thirty seconds the musicians played the D note on trumpets, a trombone, and a flute. Anderson asked the small audience listening to reflect during the performance on the history of the Long Walk of the Navajo. That was the forced removal of the people who call themselves Dine, and are indigenous to a huge swath of what is now New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

After the note - silence, for a few seconds before the musicians and audience talk about the experience. But the next note won't be played for weeks.

The performance is 1,674 days long – which mirrors the length of the actual Long Walk of the Navajo.

"You have a contemporary composition that's accommodating something that happened a little over 150 years ago," Anderson said. "You're creating this sort of gap between the two times of old and new."

Jennifer Denetdale, who is also Navajo and teaches Native American studies at the University of New Mexico says the federal government's intention with the Long Walk was, "to remove [the Navajo] as obstacles. Navajo people were imagined as savages and threats to American occupation of the southwest.

"Kit Carson and his men had destroyed their cornfields and slaughtered their sheep," Denetdale said. "And so they were starving. Navajo people were literally like nekkid, except for a piece of cloth covering their private parts, and they were hungry. And then they were organized into caravans, force marched."

Delbert Anderson plans to, with other musicians, perform a single note once every month or two over the next fifty months, with weeks of silence between each note.

"When I played that concert D on my trombone, I just felt echoes of like generations of ancestors," said Sam Bader, who is Native Hawaiian and played trombone in tonight's performance.

"It was spiritually very grounding. I really felt it in the silence after I played. I had to close my eyes and just kind of sit and think with it for a little bit," said Bader.

Anderson says he was inspired by avant-garde 20th-century composer John Cage, famous for his use of silence. One Cage piece currently underway is supposed to last more than six centuries.

"It's like 600 years long, and I thought, whoa, that's pretty cool," Anderson said. "I want to do a piece that's long but within someone's lifetime."

The most recent note in Anderson's Long Walk was played in February; the next is planned for April. The 50th and final note will take place on June 1st, 2028. In the intervening time, musicians will play several dozen additional notes. Between each of those notes, there are periods of silence – Anderson's hope is that the long silences remind audience members of the deprivations and uncertainties Navajo people faced during the Long Walk in the 1860s.

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Clark Adomaitis