In the fall of 2019 Canadian Art Song Project released our podcast discussion with composer Ian Cusson and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman about the appropriation of First Nations, Inuit and Métis songs and stories in Canadian art song and chamber music.
At the time, I believed it to be a topic that needed to be challenged and explored institutionally but also at the grass roots level of music making – in the practice room, studio and concert stage. Raising the questions around how to approach the canon of existing repertoire that contains appropriated content is something that still has not entirely been answered, though there does now seem to be a general consensus not to perform repertoire devoid of collaborative involvement by Indigenous and Métis peoples.
However, looking at the past is only part of the conversation that is being had now around Indigenous peoples and newly composed Canadian art music. We are culturally at a moment where significant attention is being given to racialized artists. Students, teachers, performers and consumers of all kinds of music are wanting to inquire about the composers who can give voice to the diverse experiences within our society.
This summer (2020) I posted about what I was able to find out about Canadian Black composers of art song. I thought it was important to use this same space to highlight active Indigenous composers of art song / vocal music.
I want to be clear that I do not think of myself or Canadian Art Song Project as arbiters of who is, or who is not a composer. Writing music rooted in or in dialogue with a Classical tradition implies having access to institutions and education that have been established by a systemically discriminatory colonial system. However, for the sake of beginning this conversation and in hope of being a resource for potential artistic allies of Indigenous writers of music and song, I would like to suggest exploring the music of the individuals below.
I initially reached out to Marion Newman and Ian Cusson again as well as Rebecca Hass and Rebecca Cuddy, and we shared thoughts on who might be among this community of composers and song writers:
Andrew Balfour is a prominent Winnipeg composer of Cree descent. Though he has no works for solo voice (to my knowledge) at this time, his choral and instrumental works are widely known and he has been commissioned by symphonies and choral ensembles across Canada.
A proud member of the Manitoba Métis Federation, Elliot Britton completed his PhD in music research and composition at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University under the supervision of Prof. Sean Ferguson. Dr. Britton is co-director of Manitoba’s Cluster New Music and Integrated Arts Festival and continues to produce music for a variety of labels, companies and music houses. His upcoming projects include a commission from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra titled “Heirloom Bison Culture” as well as a collaboration with Red Sky Dance Company and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
T. Patrick Carrabré is a Canadian composer of Métis heritage living in Vancouver. His best known works include Inuit Games, for throat singers (katajjak) and orchestra, which was a recommended work at the International Rostrum of Composers (2003), Sonata No. 1, The Penitent, for violin and piano, and From the Dark Reaches, which were nominated for JUNO awards (in the category of Best Classical Composition). A Hammer For Your Thoughts… won a Western Canadian Music Award (Best Classical Composition). Commissioners have included pianists Megumi Masaki, Janina Fialkowska, and Alexander Tselyakov, the Gryphon Trio, the Winnipeg Singers, cellists Caroline Stinson and Shauna Rolston, as well as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition.
Odawa First Nation composer Barbara Croall is a very well established classically-trained composer with music degrees and diplomas from Centre Acanthes (France), the Musikhochschule in Munich (Germany), The Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto), and the University of Toronto. She has had commissions and performances from leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists across Canada, the US, the UK, Europe, Latin America and Asia. As a musician Barbara also plays, performs, and composes on the pipigwan and for voice in the traditional Anishinaabe way.
At 16, Gregory Borton, a young Métis (Abenaki) composer, has already achieved a success with the premiere of his Sinfonia Fantasia at the Boris Brott Music Festival in 2020. His music can be found at musescore and although he does not appear to have any vocal works at the moment, it will be exciting to see where his future takes him.
Ian Cusson is of Métis and French-Canadian descent. His work explores Canadian Indigenous experience including the history of the Métis people, the hybridity of mixed-racial identity, and the intersection of Western and Indigenous cultures. He has had vocal works commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company and the NACO among others and he has recently been announced as a 2020-21 faculty member of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity
Spy Dénommé-Welch (Anishnaabe) is a multi-disciplinary scholar, composer, producer, and librettist/playwright. He wrote and co-composed the Dora Mavor Moore-nominated opera Giiwedin. Spy is Artistic Director of Unsettled Scores, an Associate Composer with the Canadian Music Centre, a member of the Canadian League of Composers and the Playwrights Guild of Canada, and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University.
Deantha Edmunds is an Inuk classical singer and composer who is currently composing a collection of songs that reflect her Inuk and Newfoundland heritages. Her most recent recording, My Beautiful Home is available through Spotify and other streaming services.
Sonny-Ray Day Rider is a contemporary indigenous composer and pianist studying music at the University of Lethbridge’s faculty of Fine Arts. He is a Blackfoot sound artist who is currently involved in research that integrates his traditional sound world with western art song practices. Sonny-Ray has a broad musical palate working with many disparate genres of music and sound.
Juno nominated Cris Derksen is an internationally respected Indigenous cellist and composer. Originally from Northern Alberta, she comes from a line of chiefs from NorthTall Cree Reserve on her father’s side and a line of strong Mennonite homesteaders on her mother’s. Derksen braids the traditional and contemporary, weaving her classical background and her Indigenous ancestry together with new school electronics to create genre-defying music. Her 2019 compositions include Maada’ookii Songlines, a Mass Choral piece for 250 singers commissioned by Luminato Festival. I am unaware of additional vocal works to date.
A member of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, Jeremy Dutcher’s work bringing to life modern interpretations of the traditional songs of his home has brought him international recognition as an artist, composer, musicologist and activist. I am not aware of any published vocal solo or choral compositions to date, but this may be only a matter of time and opportunity.
Beverley Mckiver is an Ottawa-based pianist, composer, music educator and storyteller. Her works explore themes of connection to the land, identity and recovery of Indigenous knowledge. She has composed for singers, instrumental ensembles and solo piano.
Melody Mckiver is a musician and composer from Sioux Lookout, Treaty #3 / Northwestern Ontario. They are a violinist/violist, drummer/percussionist, and producer whose musical work integrates electronics with Western classical music to shape a new genre of Anishinaabe compositions. I am not aware of any published vocal solo or choral compositions to date.
Jessica McMann is a Cree (Cowessess, SK) musician, contemporary dancer and choreographer. She is also a classically trained flutist with a Bachelor of Music from the University of Calgary and an MFA in Contemporary Arts from Simon Fraser University. Her recent compositions and soundscapes explore Indigenous identity and history. She is also co-founder and co-director Wild Mint Arts, an Indigenous arts company. Currently her personal experience, Two-Spirit identity, Cree and Blackfoot language, history of powwow and hoop dancing, and the strength of Indigenous women guide her current contemporary dance work. She works regularly with Elijah Wells, a Blackfoot animator to bring the stories of Transgender, Two-Spirit and Queer persons alive.
Jesse Plessis is a Canadian pianist and composer of Métis heritage who was born in Sparwood, British Columbia. He studied piano with Deanna Oye and composition with Arlan Schultz at the University of Lethbridge, and later piano with Megumi Masaki and composition with Patrick Carrabré at Brandon University. He completed a doctorate in piano performance at the Université de Montréal in the class of Paul Stewart. He currently attends the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, where he is pursuing a doctorate in composition. His compositions have been broadcast on CBC Radio, and have been performed by the Land’s End Chamber Ensemble, Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra, Musaeus String Quartet, Global Drums Percussion Ensemble, University of Lethbridge Singers, Canadian soprano Lisa Mulgrew, and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Jesse is a currently developing a new work as part of the CASP Chung-Wai Chow and John Wright Art Song Mentorship Programme for Composers.
Olivia Shortt (They/She): Anishinaabe, Nipissing First Nation) is a Tkarón:to-based artist. They work as an artist manager as well as a performer, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, improviser, composer, sound designer, theatre artist, teacher, activist, curator, and producer. They are currently working with the JACK Quartet as a commissioned composer in the inaugural JACK Studio. The premiere was intended to be performed on May 2, 2020 at the Kaufman Center, NYC as part of the Ecstatic Music festival but has been postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19.
Karen Sunabacka (Métis and Scottish heritage) is Associate Professor of Music at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo. In January 2018 she was a Mentor Composer for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s Composers’ Institute. An active member and past board member of the Canadian New Music Network she continues to be on the board of Groundswell, Winnipeg’s New Music Series (she is currently serving as President) and NUMUS, Kitchener-Waterloo’s New Music Series. She founded Pressure Waves in Winnipeg, a regular part of Groundswell’s Emerging Composer program. Her music has been performed in Canada, the USA, Brazil and the United Kingdom.
Russell Wallace is a composer, producer and traditional singer from the Lil’wat Nation in British Columbia. Commissions include the formation of Nunavut Gala in 1999, the Vancouver Peace Conference in 2004 which hosted the Dalai Lama and other international dignitaries, and various chamber ensembles and choirs. Currently Wallace works and teaches at the Native Education College.
Please contact CASP if you know of other composers who should be added to this list or if you want to be in touch with us regarding this topic. Updated July 2, 2021
Co-Artistic Director of Canadian Art Song Project