The Canadian Art Song Project welcomes Marion Newman and Ian Cusson for a compelling discussion

Robert Rowat · CBC Music · Posted: Sep 26, 2019 6:00 AM ET

Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman performs with Gordon Gerrard at the piano. (Chris Graham)

Conversations with CASP is the podcast of the Canadian Art Song Project, an organization dedicated to creating and celebrating Canadian art song, and its latest episode takes a close look at the appropriation of Indigenous story and song in Canadian art music.

“I had a lot of questions about appropriation of Indigenous culture in Canadian art song,” says Lawrence Wiliford, co-artistic director of CASP and host of this podcast episode. “There were certain things that I knew were not OK, but other things on which I needed some guidance. Who better to talk to than my friends/colleagues who live and breathe these questions now?”

So, Wiliford invited mezzo-soprano Marion Newman and composer Ian Cusson to the Conversations with CASP studio.

Newman belongs to the Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations and has, among other things, premiered a number of works focusing on Indigenous experiences. Cusson, who’s of Métis and French-Canadian heritage, composes art song, opera and orchestral music that explores the Canadian Aboriginal experience.

Listen to Wiliford’s discussion with Newman and Cusson on the new episode of Conversations with CASP, below, and scroll down for our Q&A with Wiliford, who explains how producing this podcast episode opened his eyes, reflects on the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and points to some composers who are actively and respectfully engaging with Indigenous culture nowadays.

What prompted you to devote an episode of Conversations with CASP to the topic of Indigenous appropriation?

I have been thinking about how I, as an artist of settler heritage, can better engage with the Truth and Reconciliation process. I thought about how to program music that might wrestle with these issues, but quickly realized that art music is very problematic when it comes to appropriation of Indigenous song and story. I then thought that it might be best to begin a real conversation about this with musicians who know a lot more about this than I — and open it up to the other people who were thinking about this.

In the podcast, Newman says that Indigenous storytelling has finally begun merging with classical music in the last three years. What do you think has been the catalyst for this?

With the public funding for new artistic creations to celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary of Canadian Confederation (2017), there was a deliberate emphasis to engage with Indigenous culture and artists. In addition, with the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls as well as the 2018 release of the findings by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there has been an additional desire by many arts institutions to engage with Indigenous artists in an equitable and collaborative way in telling their stories.

Cusson was recently commissioned to compose a new aria for Harry Somers’ 1967 opera Louis Riel. Why is this significant?

Composer Ian Cusson has received the Chalmers Professional Development Grant and the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation Award. (John Arano)

It is significant for a number of reasons, but it is also controversial in some circles. Somers’ opera Louis Rielincludes an aria (“Kuyas”) based on a Nisga’a lim’ooy̓, or funeral dirge. This song was recorded and transcribed by Marius Barbeau and Ernest MacMillan in 1927 and subsequently published. As I understand it, according to Nisga’a law this song should only be sung by a specific person under specific circumstances within the culture, and since realizing that the opera incorporated the tune (not out of any malice), the work has become very controversial and problematic.

Ian was asked to compose a new aria to replace “Kuyas,” providing the opportunity to both preserve the opera and return “Kuyas” to the Nisga’a people. However, the song still exists in other published forms – like MacMillan’s “A Spirit Song,” from Three Indian Songs of the West Coast.

At one point in the episode, MacMillan’s “A Spirit Song,” performed by Jon Vickers and Richard Woitach, comes under scrutiny. Could you describe your guests’ reaction?

Both Ian and Marion knew that this song was going to be referenced, but when placing the song in its context – overt appropriation, racist/exoticized musical figures, with an English text (translation?) by a strong advocate of Indigenous assimilation through the residential school system (which he oversaw), and performed by two of Canada’s celebrated musicians – I think they both felt free to express aloud just how strange and horrible it was to hear. It was uncomfortable for all of us because it is a beautiful performance, but: Just. So. Wrong. 

Is there grey area when it comes to performing art song that appropriates Indigenous culture?

I do not approach this subject as an authority, so I do my very best not to drive the conversation, but open it up to others who have something to say about it. This is an issue that all artists and those who love music must think through and decide for themselves. [But] what I think, after dwelling on this for a bit, is that out of respect for this moment in time, musicians and artists should only perform music that has been composed and created in consultation with the communities who hold these songs and stories. This may mean shelving all works in which material was used without direct permission from those communities. I am now even of the opinion that “Land of the Silver Birch” should probably be taken out of circulation.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned during your conversation with Newman and Cusson?

I learned a lot preparing for the conversation — about my family history, about what it means to start to acknowledge one’s own privilege in society (in this case, as a person of settler heritage) and how important it is to realize that ambivalence and ignorance can hurt others. In the conversation, I was reminded and humbled by how amazing both Marion and Ian are.

Which composers and artists are getting it right today, when it comes to representing Indigenous voices in Canadian art song? 

We share some examples in the podcast, but I think the best place to go for guidance on Indigenous voices in art song right now are Indigenous singers and composers. Check out Ian Cusson, Andrew Balfour, Barbara Croall. There are more, but in general, art song has not been a priority for composers (of any heritage) in Canada. If someone loves a work by a non-Indigenous composer that deals with Indigenous content, look into how that content was shared/developed/incorporated.  

What do you hope listeners will take away from this episode of Conversations with CASP?

I hope this episode gives our audience a space to question how Indigenous cultures have been used in Canadian art. This topic hasn’t really been grappled with in art music to the extent that I think it needs to be. Maybe the questions raised here will give other artists, teachers and the general public a new perspective when considering issues surrounding appropriation of Indigenous culture in art music. Working on this episode certainly opened my eyes.

Subscribe to Conversations with the Canadian Art Song Project on Podomatic, or search for it on your favourite streaming service, and watch for the Nov. 1 release of Summer Night, a new album devoted to the songs of Healey Willan, performed by Peter Barrett, Martha Guth, Allyson McHardy and Helen Becqué.