March 6, 2023
By D.T. Baker, Musicologist
When Cris Derksen was asked to curate a program for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra as part of its New Music concerts, she was pretty sure about a couple of things she wanted going in. But she’s smart enough to allow for the unexpected to creep in, too.
She knew she wanted to present music by Indigenous composers. Being one herself (her father’s family represent a long line of chiefs from North Tall Cree Reserve), as well as a cellist (with a performance degree from the University of British Columbia), Ms. Derksen has been creating “classical” music with an Indigenous identity quite naturally. But she was delighted that the program she has helped create, which will be performed by the ESO on April 20, ended up being entirely by composers from western Canada.
“Sonny-Ray (Rider) is Blackfoot, from around Calgary, Jessica McMann is also from Calgary, and Andrew Balfour is originally from Winnipeg,” she notes. “That’s super important to me to continue to open the doors for Indigenous folks in the classical field.”
Derksen herself grew up in Edmonton, and her introduction to western art music was through her schooling – and her mother’s sacrifice. “It started with the Edmonton Public Schools String Program, actually,” she recalls. “It was 300 dollars for me to have a cello, go to lessons and orchestra group lessons. It started when I was 10, and the piece of paper said: ‘Does your son or daughter want to play the violin, viola, cello, or bass?’ And I wanted to play the bass – but my mom’s car was too small, so we ended up with the cello,” she adds, laughing. “My musical journey started before that. My mom got me a piano when I was five. She gave up her car fund to get me a piano. So, by the time I was 10, she had gotten the car – but it was too small.”
Composing for Derksen came naturally after that. She has received commissions from a number of Canadian organizations and is currently an Artistic Advisor to the Calgary Philharmonic. But she’s very much a creator, not only of her place, but of her time. “When I play, and I’ll do this at the concert, I use effects on my cello: some guitar effects, some loops,” she says. “I got my degree in 2007, and promptly went off touring the world with Tanya Tagaq, and that was completely improvised – 100 per cent different from what I’m going to do here. We need notes on the page, both for the orchestra and for the folks that will be coming here.”
The concert Derksen has helped bring into being needed a title, and she chose to name it after a work she had already composed. But “Love is a Battle Field” is a unique title for the show. “It came from a commission, again, from the Calgary Phil,” she explains. “I was working with Tom Jackson, and he had four different themes, and my theme was love. And I just sort of liked the image of ‘Love is a Battle Field.’ In my opinion, nobody wins in war, and when you’re fighting with your partner, nobody wins. I think the win is the staying together. So, I really just liked the image of that, so that’s what I flew with.”
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Resident Conductor Cosette Justo-Valdés will conduct the concert, which, depending on how you look at it, seems to present a bit of a contradiction. After all, what speaks to western colonial thinking more than the European formality of western art music? Derksen is both gracious and pragmatic about that, especially as it pertains to the number of Indigenous composers who are finding a place in the concert hall.
“There are quite a few of us now working in the field, and I think if we think about classical music as a tool for expression and take it away from its history – music is music, and notes are notes, and anyone can write them, right?” she posits. “And also, I think everyone has a story to tell. So, I think it’s taken a little bit of time for Indigenous folks to get to the education level to be writing the music that we are now, but it’s a big growing field. I’m a big fan of making the orchestra look more like Canada, and this is, in my opinion, a great way to do it.”
Love is a Battle Field takes place on Thursday, April 20 at 7:30 PM. Get your tickets here.
Love is a Battle Field
Thursday, April 20, 2023 ● 7:30 PM