Chamberfest: Cris Derksen, her cello and making music differently

Cris Derksen. Photo: Red Works Studio

Talking to Cris Derksen about the music she plays is a walk through many different doors.

As she tells it she plays “sounds that are contemporary, indigenous, electro, new wave, classical. It’s genre undefined. It’s a little bit of everything. It fits into lots of boxes but it’s also so far out of the boxes, it’s in its own category.” Whatever it is, she is one of the most interesting performers working in contemporary music in Canada.

That mix of music is at Chamberfest Aug. 1 when she’ll be playing in a trio with hoop dancer Nimkii Osawamick and Jesse Baird on percussion. Derksen will be sawing way at her cello.

She says the show is “soundscapes with dancing and percussion,” which, when one of the pieces of percussion is a set of goat hooves, conjurs up a vision or two.

Derksen was three when she told her Mennonite mother that “I wanted to play the flute.”

Derksen ended up playing the piano when she was five. Her mother had done her homework and realized that learning the piano is the way to learn the language of music.

Derksen was curious about music but she wasn’t a good student in the conventional sense.

“When I was seven, my piano teacher told my mom ‘I think you need to come in. Your daughter really sucks and you are wasting your money.’

“My mother was confused. I would play all the time at home. She came to a lesson and there I was sight reading things so I was slow.”

But at home Dersken was playing well. Turns out she was making up her own music.

Derksen just didn’t like a structured learning situation.

“I like doing my own thing, even when I went to university.”

The cello came along at age 10 because it was on offer in the public school system in Edmonton, where she and her mother were living. It was also affordable, something that mattered to a single mom.

Derksen says she wasn’t the best cellist in her age group but “but one thing I didn’t do is quit. That’s an important lesson in life.”

It was a classical music environment but by age 14 she was listening to albums such as Nirvana Unplugged and realizing that music making is not done in silos. It’s done on journeys.

After two years at the University of Alberta she dropped out and took a year off. She joined Canada World Youth and lugged her cello to Brazil. When she returned to Canada, Vancouver was where she landed.

“I busked for about six to seven months before I got into UBC. I knew I had to get better at playing.”

That’s when serendipity intervened.

“I got hired by the Vancouver Folk Festival and through that I met Tanya Tagaq.” That meeting turned into a gig and she toured with the rising Inuit throat singer and Polaris Prize winner for three years.

Along the way Derksen learned how to be a professional.

“In university they don’t teach you how to be a freelance musician. I took all of the business courses I could but I was lucky we were playing together. I graduated and the next day I got on a plane and was playing at the National Arts Centre. Then we went to Spain to play at Womex, the world music festival. I flew out of that gate.”

By 2010, Derksen had established a solo career.

“I came out with a CD (called The Cusp) and I had met someone and so I moved on.”

But she had learned.

“Because her music is structurally improvised, taught me how to listen so I could  follow her. It was good for my ears and tuning. I also learned how to be on tour. It was a good apprenticeship.”

It also introduced her to festivals and organizers.

After the first album, Derksen started getting  commissions for TV and film.

The Indigenous side of her music comes from her Cree heritage. Her father is Cree and, while he left her mother, his family is close to Derksen.

“My dad is complicated but he is in the picture. His family, especially my aunties, they are definitely in the picture. So are my   nimosom (grandfather) and kokum (grandmother).

“Growing up in Edmonton, it took me awhile to integrate the aboriginal side into my life. Like a lot of urban indigenous folks, I did my research as I grew up.”

Her first album sold well and was nominated for awards. Her third, Orchestral Powwow, picked up a JUNO nomination. It is a contemporary classical album with a chamber orchestra. There’s no Brahms or Beethoven. She doesn’t perform older classical material.

“That’s a different kind of practice from what I do. I play it for myself when I am warming up. I usually play Bach. His music  is a good way to wake up the ears and fingers. To play it live? It’s a completely different kind of practice.”

On the CD, she has integrated powwow music. The project has been performed live several times including with the Regina Symphony.

The last two years have been, as she says, “super-ramped.” Lots of bookings and lots of projects, including acting as the music director for the opening show Tributaries at Luminato in Toronto, which showcased Indigenous women performers.

Music produced by Indigenous artists is finding prominence today, but Derksen says it has always been there.

“I think it’s happening but I don’t know how unique it is. Look at Buffy Sainte-Marie, she’s another one of my mentors. She has always been using her folk style with powwow. What is new and interesting is that this is now in the Canadian eye.”

Derksen’s relationship with Buffy Sainte-Marie followed a concert together.

“I had opened for her. I didn’t think she had known about me, but she did and every now then I get a positive message from her and ‘Oh it’s a Buffy day’.”

Sainte-Marie is also pushing her to write more songs. “She sent me a message, ‘Cris Derksen are you too cool to write a hit song?’ It’s not on my to do list but if it happens my banker will be happy.”

Cris Derksen Trio
When: Tuesday Aug. 1 at 10 p.m.
Where: La Nouvelle Scene Gilles Desjardins, 333 King Edward Ave.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.