Mòshkamo: Composer Barbara Croall connects people through music

Barbara Croall is the composer of Zasakwaa which is being performed by the NAC Orchestra and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman on Sept. 19.

Barbara Croall is an Odawa First Nations composer who is also a teacher and a performer. Her work is rooted in traditional Anishinaabeg teachings while exploring European musical traditions and styles. On Sept. 19, her work, Zasakwaa (There is a Heavy Frost), will be performed by the NAC Orchestra, with soloists, NACO’s Joanna G’froerer (flute) and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman. Before the concert she answered questions from ARTSFILE. The following is an edited transcript.

Q. Please tell me a bit about you. 

A. I’m Anishinaabekwe (Odawa) and my family is from Mnidoo Mnissing. I also have family in other communities in Ontario and the U.S.

I’m the direct descendent of many hereditary chiefs who were signatories of the major treaties in Ontario: The Bond Head Treaties, The Robinson-Huron Treaties, and The Manitoulin Treaty. My great-great-great grandfather, as a war chief (along with his father and nephews), was a friend and supporter of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh and fought with him in many battles of the War of 1812. He actually witnessed Tecumseh’s  death at the Battle of Moraviantown in 1813.

Q. Please tell me about your start in music.

A. My parents have told me that when I was a baby that I used to hum to myself constantly, and that as a toddler I would sing back melodies that I heard others singing or that I heard on the transistor radio they had. The first songs I ever heard where lullabies that my mom sang to me when I was very young, and these where in the Ojibwe and Odawa languages.

My mom’s father had taught these very old songs to her, andwhen she was taken from her reserve to go to residential school, he told to keep singing those songs whenever she was lonely or homesick. At the residential school she slept in the basement along with the many cribs of babies taken from their mothers. My mom would sing these lullabies (one in particular about an owl watching over you while you sleep) to soothe the crying babies that surrounded her. She also witnessed babies dying and there were unmarked graves of children and babies who died behind the building. So, in this way, I learned about the power of a song to overcome suffering, to soothe and comfort and to heal. I think that those songs helped my mom survive residential school.

I was more interested in music-making toys, so I received a small drum when I was four and also my first wood flute. We started going to powwows. … It was a cultural renaissance period for many Anishinaabeg. I also remember the police and RCMP standing around with guns in their holsters as children, teens, adults and Elders sang and danced. I was witnessing this cultural revival going on, but I also sensed that what we were doing (singing, drumming, dancing) was perceived as ‘dangerous.’

In the early 1970s many powwow drums were actually made from recycling the bass drum from an old Ludwig drum kit (sometimes the sparkle paint was still visible. Elders later told me that the older ceremonial drums were often confiscated and taken away by the RCMP or church officials, so at times drums were hidden away and only taken out in secret ‘underground’ ceremonies. 

Q. What does the traditional wooden flute (pipigwan) signify in your life?

A. The Anishinaabe flute (pipigwan) is usually made of cedar, but sometimes other woods and the sounds differ from wood to wood. I have a beautiful very soft flute that is made of birch, a harder wood. Another is made from the even harder cherry wood, and it has a more piercing sound. I tend to prefer the cedar. It’s a softer and porous wood, so the resonance of the sound partly goes through the wood itself (not just the finger holes and end hole) and gives it a unique sweetness of tone. I also have my own experimental approach drawing on traditional playing, with overblowing and warbling, which is influenced by the sounds of different bird calls and elemental sounds I’ve heard growing up. The loon is the most influential to me as I have actually been swimming in the water late at night when they came around me. The pipigwan has a number of stories of its origins and the holes are believed to have been drilled by baapaase (woodpecker). …

I was taught to go out into the woods (often in fasting ceremonies) to listen to the birds, as the Elder who made my first cedar flute was taught. … The birds are the ‘first singers’ who taught humans how to sing and make-up songs. 

Q. Why does classical western music interest you?

A. When I was five, an auntie living in the city took me to see a performance of The Nutcracker by the National Ballet of Canada and I was over the moon. It mesmerized me and I loved watching the musicians in the pit while the dancers wore these stunning outfits and moved with such precision and embodying different characters.

There was lady who was a babysitter and she had one of those old ragtime player pianos (with the foot pedals and paper rolls) and I wanted to play her piano. She would play songs, then I would try to figure them out by ear and play them back. I could see colours when hearing different notes and chords, so that’s how I remembered notes and found my way around the keyboard. She told my parents that I should be taking piano lessons, but we had no piano and my parents could not afford an instrument, let alone lessons. But, after constant begging, they finally gave in and bought an old upright piano (with broken and chipped keys). I started lessons through the Royal Conservatory of Music syllabus. I was a lazy sight reader at first and preferred to just learn my pieces by ear. Eventually I progressed and my theory teacher (originally from Holland) in my early teens had me analyzing Bach chorales, fugues, and then sonatas, song forms (such as Schubert, Schumann, Brahms) and so on. She taught me how to write down my own compositions more accurately, and her daughter taught me piano and then prepared me for my audition to study music at the University of Toronto and RCM. I also still went to powwows, went to gatherings at friendship and healing centres and continued with my other interests in parallel.

When I was 13 I had to pay for my own piano and music theory lessons by working on farms and babysitting. By working hard to achieve good grades I was able to secure scholarships. Often teachers gave me extra time because they knew I was working to pay my way. I still feel on a continuum of learning actually.

I continue to learn about different kinds of music from all over the world through friendships with people of different cultural backgrounds. That’s what I truly love about music and how it really is a ‘connector’ between peoples.

After my studies at U of T and the RCM/Glenn Gould School I auditioned for both the Guildhall School of Music (London) and Musikhochschule in München and was accepted by both. I decided to study in Munich. … It was definitely a culture shock for me, but I learned so much. … 

Q. You are a performer. What is the appeal?

A. My role as a performer in many of my own pieces has come about through singing, drumming and playing the pipigwan as an integrated part of orchestral and chamber works, apart from solo performances. I always understood that the European tradition also had an ‘oral’ tradition at it roots. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were all astounding performers and interpreters of their own music, and were marvellous at improvising. … I experience composing and performing together as a continuum of all musical languages. It is so important that composers also be performers.

Q. Why composition?

A. I honestly don’t know what compelled me at a very young age to compose music. There has always been the love of doing it, and I was pulled into it from an early age which my parents never understood but never discouraged. I get so deeply involved in creation that I often feel like I am in a sort of ‘trance’ when doing it. It’s hard to explain. I’m not even concerned about what the outcome will be during that process. … Making songs remains the basis for all of my pieces, even if sometimes that isn’t obvious. 

My music is rooted in the natural sounds I hear around me and how I experience human-created ‘mechanical’ sounds (still linked to nature somehow in odd and mysterious ways). I’ve had listeners tell me that my music is ‘surrealistic’, that it doesn’t sound European, but that it draws on aspects of European music and instrumentations that are recognizable, but through an Indigenous ‘filter’ or experience of those sounds. I strongly believe that all music (is) transformational (and) not ‘fixed’ or ‘frozen’ in time (even if historically positioned in sound or style). I often hear conventional chords in unconventional ways and will follow my instincts to where that can lead. In contrast to deconstructivism, however, I would say that my music does the opposite by ‘reconstructing’. That’s likely because so much of Indigenous cultures and ways was nearly destroyed. Rather than express ourselves through fragmentation, we yearn to reclaim and continue from where that brutality left us floating in a ‘suspended’ state of awareness.

The island of Mindemoyenh looks like a woman lying down. Photo: Courtesy Barbara Croall

Q. Tell me about the piece Zasakwaa (There is a Heavy Frost).

A. It comes from my memories as a child of swimming in Lake Mindemoya on Manitoulin Island (Mnidoo Mnissing). … In the middle of this lake is an island, and the Anishnaabeg have known her as ‘Mindemoyenh’ — Old Woman. (The settlers renamed it Treasure Island.) She is like an ancient female and grandmother guardian spirit of the entire island, and the singer embodies this character as the first frosts of the coming winter are freezing the waters all around her, enclosing her body, while a bird sings songs to comfort her during this change of season. … The contour of the main line/song is actually following the outline of the shape of the Mindemoyenh Island, as it looks like an old woman lying on her back and sleeping. So I thought about it possibly representing that other side of existence through ‘dream sleep’ or of winter hibernation.

My mom also just turned 80 recently and I was thinking about her embodiment of the eternal to me.

I aimed for ultimately simple ideas in this piece, so it’s likely one of the most ‘sparse’ pieces I have composed. Again, I guess it has to do with focusing on the ‘island’, the onset of winter, and how that relates to experiencing life. 

Q. This performance is during a festival of contemporary Indigenous culture. What do you think about such an event? 

A. I really think that orchestras featuring contemporary Indigenous cultures is one real way to continue to honour the 94 Calls to Action which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended. It doesn’t plant us in the past in a fixed or frozen way either, and it gives another performance context for ongoing revitalization of our languages. Classical music has already moved far beyond being an exclusively ‘European’ expression anyhow. … This is the way I hear the orchestra. To my ears it isn’t frozen in time between the so-called ‘common practice period’. It stems from something more ancient and actually multi-cultural already.

It’s also wonderful that main series more regularly feature Indigenous creations and performers. … The timing of the NAC festival leading to the coming of autumn is powerfully symbolic from many Indigenous perspectives, as this relates to the change of season and cycle of life around it.

Q. Anything you’d like to add?

A. I am so grateful for the Elders who have guided me and continue to guide me, to teachers who believed in me, to my family who without judgement let me follow my dreams of being a composer. With every recent invitation to create something new and or to have a new performance, I remind myself how difficult it was when no one would even look at my scores. … Miigwetch miiniwaa.

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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.