James Lee III studied at the University of Michigan, where his teachers included Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom and Bright Sheng. After completing his doctoral studies in 2005, Lee joined the faculty of Morgan State University in Baltimore, a historically Black college with an exceptional music program. He wrote the following note about Visions of Cahokia, commissioned and premiered by the St. Louis Symphony conducted by Stéphane Denève.
Visions of Cahokia is inspired by the ancient city of Cahokia that was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture. At one point, there were about 30,000 inhabitants, and the center of the city included a Grand Plaza of 50 acres. The city began around 600 A.D. and reached its peak around 1300 A.D. Various Mississippian tribes that settled in Cahokia included the Alabama, Apalachee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Missouria, Natchez, Osage, Seminole and Tunica-Biloxi.
I have structured this work in three movements, in which the second and third movements incorporate American Indian words as its title. The first movement, Cahokia’s Dawn, is a brief depiction of various tribes’ initial journey toward Cahokia. The second movement, Na Yimmi, is a Choctaw Indian word that means “faith.” The calmness of most of the movement suggests an attitude of humility, sincerity and prayer among the worshippers. In the third movement, the word Chukoshkomo is a Chickasaw Indian word for play, game or frolic. The excitement and density of the music celebrates this Mississippian cultural community at the height of its existence before the mysterious decline and abandonment of the city.
— James Lee III