Mòshkamo: The wolf comes to Southam Hall

Ian Cusson. Photo: Leemarc Lao

One day, in 1902 in the small Ontario community of Lafontaine, a wolf walked right down main street as if he owned the place, frightening the townspeople and playing with the children.

True story … one the Grimm Brothers would like. The composer Ian Cusson liked it too when he first heard it as a youngster and still does today. 

After all, it’s part of his heritage. Cusson is Metis from Midland, Ontario. Midland is part of a triumvirate of small communities with Penetanguishene and Lafontaine. There were three communities then within Lafontaine — Anishnaabe, Metis and the descendants of French settlers. Cusson said an interview with ARTSFILE that these communities didn’t interact all that much back then. But when the wolf came to town, they pulled together.

“The wolf actually was gentle. He played with the children, but the adults were terrified and so they gathered together. They forgot their differences for a moment and they picked up their guns and hunted the wolf.

“The hunt ended when a one-eyed man closed his one good eye and shot the wolf dead,” Cusson said. 

After the not-so-bad wolf was dead, the community rejoiced by dragging the carcass to the town square, stringing it up in front of the church and celebrating a mass of thanksgiving.

For Cusson, the story brings up questions of scapegoating within a community. Unity is wonderful, he says, but at what cost.

This is a story he heard as a child. And there is a novel, in French, published in the 1950s.

“It was always a community legend. In fact my family members are named in the published version.

Now Cusson has taken the story and written a 25 minute piece called Le Loup de Lafontaine with three movements that will get its world premiere Sept. 27 in Southam Hall.

I focus on the relationship between a child and the wolf. They play together. There is a sense of camaraderie and fun and lightness. The adults are almost villains in some sense.”

Cusson was NACO’s Carrefour Composer in Residence for the past two years and this was one of the pieces he wrote during that time. These days he is composer in residence with the Canadian Opera Company.

The music is intended as a ballet score but that waits for a choreographer.

ARTSFILE readers have met Cusson before when he described his work on the new aria for the opera Louis Riel that recently debuted during the Moshkamo festival of Indigenous performing arts at the NAC. But readers didn’t learn much about his career in that discussion.

I don’t know if I chose the path or the path chose me, but I have been writing music since I was a kid.

“I’m a maker. I love to make things. I like to write text and music and make art. I can’t ever stop that.

He left composition for a time but came back to it in earnest in his 30s.

“I had a family in my 20s (I still have them). They were young so I worked as a music director and did other smaller compositional work.” But he reached a point where he had decided what he wanted to do compositionally and needed to get on with it. 

“Primarily I am a composer but I am also very interested in the dramatic arts such as musical theatre. 

“I also love design. My wife is an interior designer, and I love how a physical space looks and feels and all the components that make it up.

He comes, he said, from the “epitome of a non-musical family.” His dad is from Penetanguishene; his mom from Lafontaine. But his wider circle of relations — his aunts and uncles — were extremely musical. He saw them perform in his small town as a kid. His grandmother was a storyteller.

“My parents are both psychiatric nurses, so you can make of that what you want. They held the door open for me. I had lessons. They were supportive. I didn’t have a lot of things given to me but if I ever asked for a musical score or wanted to take a lesson or see a show they were there.”

He followed a well-worn path with piano and singing lessons In his teens he was studying composition.

In retrospect, those early singing lessons seem important today.

“I would say the voice defines my music.” He writes a lot for voice such as songs, song cycles, orchestral song and opera. He also composes orchestral music and “some chamber music on the side.”

He describes his work as “highly melodic, tonally rooted but very comfortable with dissonance, used functionally if the text demands it.

“I write with the singer in mind. I think that’s a key difference with a lot of new music writers for voice who write as if voice is just another instrument, like a violin.”

He said he thinks about what does a singer does well; about how a singer likes to sound.

“Because I love opera so much it is about drama, yes it is about story and theatre. But the voice is the primary vehicle.

“I have always have enjoyed singers as the weird and special people they are. I have been drawn to them. My wife was a singer; we met in music school. I sing in the shower and to my kids which annoys the crap out of them.”

Cusson is Metis. As such he’s an “Indigenous” composer.

He recalled in the interview a gathering at the Banff centre of several Indigenous composers.

“One of things we talked about was what is Indigenous classical music? We talked about war wounds and stories about being asked, ‘So where are the drums in your music? So where is the tribal sound?’ as if there was an expectation of what Indigenous was before we even got in the room.”

Cusson’s music, he says, is more like French and early 20th century music than any kind of stereotypical Indigenous “music.”

The assembled composers came to the conclusion, he said, that Indigenous classical music pulls from all influences.

“It can include traditional elements but it doesn’t always. And it doesn’t necessarily have to.

“It took us all getting together to be able to say that with confidence.”

He said when he writes an opera piece, “I’ll get asked ‘What about writing an Indigenous opera?’ I’ll say what do you mean by that? The producers will say blah, blah, blah, but generally what they want is a story of trauma.

“Could I write music about Berlin Germany in the 1940s that has no Indigenous people in it? Would that suffice as an Indigenous story because I am an Indigenous composer?”

The answer to that question for Cusson is a resounding yes. 

“The maker defines what it is, but I don’t know if that is a pleasing answer for opera commissioners or what producers want to hear.”

They may want something specific, but Cusson doesn’t want to be limited by those boundaries.

Le Loup de Lafontaine
Where: Southam Hall
When: Sept. 27 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

Share Post
Written by

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.