You know how people are always saying so-and-so’s music is hard to categorize? Well, cellist Cris Derksen? Her music really is hard to categorize. Maybe that’s why, on her website, Derksen’s described as being a “rising star on the Canadian classical/jazz/folk/pop/electronica/what-have-you scenes.”
The what-have-you scene means Derksen’s done a lot of different work. Like performing with artists as diverse as Tanya Tagaq and Kanye West, scoring the music for the CBC TV series 8th Fire, and working venues that range from the festival stage to the dance club.
Culturally, Derksen is from “a line of chiefs from North Tall Cree reserve” on her father’s side, and “strong Mennonite homesteaders” on her mother’s, as her bio puts it. And that is where our Q&A with Cris Derksen begins.
Q: How do those two cultures play out in your life?
A: As a half-breed [you] have love for both cultures because they are a part of you, and help shape you. Maybe it comes from a love from both sides of my family. It was interesting as a child because some members of my Mennonite family had issues with racism coming from a place of naivety, but as I grew older they understood I was just as human as they were. Both sides of my family equally love me and are proud of what I do.
LISTENClick to play "War Cry Movement I."
Q: What aspects of Cree and Mennonite musical traditions make their way into your composition?
A: I take aspects of so many different things around me into my music. I equate it to being a jeweller, taking things I like around me and making my own beautiful thing from it. The influences are inseparable because I take inspiration from everything around me that is a part of me. I cannot separate myself into different blood categories, and my music can't either.
Q: You shared the role of principal cellist with your university orchestra at UBC. Did you see yourself as having a career as a classical cellist?
A: Ha! I used to say I'd join an orchestra when I got too old and tired to tour around like I do, so maybe. My playing has changed a lot since I was in university. I definitely enjoy the freedom to create more than the ability to perform other people's ideas. But I'm changing and growing as we all do, so I wouldn't rule that possibility out. It's just not for right now.
Q: What set you on your current path?
A: I've been playing in bands since I was a wee kid in Edmonton, and the first CD I jammed to was Nirvana's Unplugged in New York, (there's cello on the album). Classical music has a tendency to be rather high brow, I'm rather low brow, I wanted to make the cello more relatable, take it out of the concert hall and put it someplace a bit more comfortable and familiar. I realized I needed to make a place for me in music that represented myself.
Q: You use loops and effects, which reminds me of a couple of other Canadian string players, Owen Pallett and Jorane. What draws you string-types to this experimental realm?
A: What I was most excited about when I started using loops eight years ago was the fact I could create a full palette of sound as opposed to the single melody line that is usually in classical cello repertoire. Sure there are some chords, but most of the classical cello repertoire requires an orchestra or accompaniment of some kind to give the piece the full
effect. I was super stoked to be able to do it myself without the help of others. Not saying I don't play well with others! It just gave me the freedom to create a full spectrum of sound on my own. I also really enjoy creating soundscapes that represent different natural sounds, I do a pretty mean whale sound, seagull sound and ice-cracking sound.
Q: National Aboriginal Day is celebrated on June 21 annually. What’s the importance of the day to you?
A: I love National Aboriginal Day, it is a day when pride actually swells in my chest. The Aboriginal history around the world is a bitter affair, and National Aboriginal Day is kind of a day to say "Up yours, we made it despite various eradication efforts, we are alive and we are strong people." Sure there are many things that are very wrong and need much improvement, but National Aboriginal Day is a day to celebrate the strength of the people. It's also the longest day of the year, which usually involves late-night happenings with friends and chosen family. This year I'll be in Peterborough, Ontario, at a festival called Ode'min Giizis. I've performed at that festival many times with many different acts, and is one of my favourites, such strong Aboriginal women involved in that festival, it's so amazing to be around such strength and beauty.
LISTENClick to play "Pow Wow Wow."
on Jun 21, 2012