Voice of a Nation is a Métis inspired collection of works that has been touring Ontario as part of the Canada 150 thing. Last night the Toronto leg of the tour happened at Grace Toronto Church. There are three pieces in the program. Different Perspectives is a setting by Ian Cusson of a text synthesized from the sometimes surprising reactions of a group of young people asked “what Canada meant to them”. It was designed to be sung by community choirs on the tour and last night was given by three (uncredited) female singers accompanied by the thirteen player Toronto Concert Orchestra under Kerry Stratton.
Next up was a dance work choreographed by Aria Evans exploring aspects of the Trickster; the shape shifting mischief maker of indigenous legend, to Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat interspersed with wind machine. I’m not well qualified to comment/interpret contemporary dance. I could see some kind of gestural language was being employed but I really couldn’t see any kind of narrative or linking theme beyond the constant rearrangement of dark grey blocks on the floor; much of which I couldn’t see anyway as the church’s sightlines are really not very helpful for this kind of performance. The three young dancers involved though were obviously extremely competent. I really don’t have any way of reading a performance like this one.
The main reason I was there was to hear Ian Cusson’s new piece Five Orchestral Songs on Poems of Marilyn Dumont performed by mezzo Rebecca Cuddy. The piece was a staged performance with direction by Michael Mori. These are powerful, sad, angry poems in a very distinctive idiom asserting indigenous identity and refusing to accept the marginalisation of indigenous people and culture. The first, Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald, is typical and I’m including it in full below as a sample. Cusson’s music is evocative and individual. I don’t think I could easily put a label on it. It flirts with atonality but is lyrical and makes really effective use of the winds but I can’t say it’s “like x” or “like y”. It’s a distinctive voice. The staging supported the content of the poems in simple and effective ways and, yeah!, there were surtitles so no need to try and read tiny print in semi-darkness. All of this got a heartfelt, beautifully sung and compellingly acted performance by Rebecca. It’s a good piece. It asks awkward questions without being annoyingly didactic. I want to hear it again.
It’s interesting how the whole Canada 150 thing has been subverted in the music world. Obviously intended as a kind of “One Nation Rah Rah Rah” event on the lines of the US bicentennial it’s been used to raise the awkward questions settler Canada doesn’t really want to deal with and to give exposure to indigenous artists. I do wonder though how far that process has extended beyond the tiny bubble that is contemporary art music. The size of the audience last night would suggest not very far.
Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald by Marilyn Dumont
Dear John: I’m still here and halfbreed,
after all these years
you’re dead, funny thing,
that railway you wanted so badly,
there was talk a year ago
of shutting it down
and part of it was shut down,
the dayliner at least,
‘from sea to shining sea,’
and you know, John,
after all that shuffling us around to suit the settlers,
we’re still here and Metis.
We’re still here
after Meech Lake and
stalling the ‘Cabin syllables / Nouns of settlement,
/…steel syntax [and] / The long sentence of its exploitation’
and John, that goddamned railroad never made this a great nation,
cause the railway shut down
and this country is still quarreling over unity,
and Riel is dead
but he just keeps coming back
in all the Bill Wilsons yet to speak out of turn or favour
because you know as well as I
that we were railroaded
by some steel tracks that didn’t last
and some settlers who wouldn’t settle
and it’s funny we’re still here and callin ourselves halfbreed.
From: A Really Good Brown Girl, Brick Books, 1996.