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‘I didn’t think I could get there’: Q&A with Treaty 8 composer performing at Carnegie Hall

An Indigenous cellist and composer from northern Alberta is getting ready for her debut at a world-renowned venue in New York.

Cris Derksen, originally from Tallcree First Nation, located about 520 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, is a Juno-nominated cellist and composer who incorporates traditional Indigenous music in her pieces.

On March 6, she will make her New York debut. She will perform her composition, Controlled Burn, alongside the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal at Carnegie Hall — a century-old concert hall, considered one of America’s most prestigious.

She spoke to CBC Radio Active co-host Jessica Ng. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

What came first: finding out that you had this Carnegie Hall gig or the commissioned composition?

They came pretty simultaneously. [Yannick Nézet-Séguin] from [Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal] asked me to write a piece. We signed that contract, and about a week later, they’re like, “Hey, we just programmed it for Carnegie Hall.” I hadn’t even written a note when I found out it was going to go to Carnegie Hall, so there was some pressure.

A woman, holding a black cello in her left hand, is wearing all orange. She is standing in front of an orange background.
Derksen will play Carnegie Hall on March 6 with the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal. (Submitted by Cris Derksen)

This is a huge stage with so much history. What does it mean for you and for your work? 

I am beyond honoured and a little bit gobsmacked as an Indigenous cellist growing up in Edmonton. Carnegie Hall was one of those things that was unattainable, something I didn’t even put on my bucket list because I didn’t think I could get there. So, to have this experience is really mind-blowing.

And to know that your piece is vibrating off the wall must be unreal.

It’s super unreal. I really love this piece. It’s called Controlled Burn and it’s about fires. We understand how, in Alberta, the forest fires have really devastated the land, and I feel like this piece is really, really dramatic and energetic. I think it has a good message. 

Have you had a chance to workshop this with the orchestra?

Yes, I was lucky enough to open the Orchestre Métropolitain’s season in September, so we opened the entire show with this piece standing out. It was mind-blowing. That very first concert, I missed one bar right at the beginning. So, I’m really looking forward to hitting that bar many more times.

When you were composing it, you spoke with a Métis fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. How did that inform the process?

Her name is Amy Christianson and she is also Treaty 8 and has big roots in Alberta. I am also Treaty 8. She really talked to me about what the sound of fire is like. She’s like, “This is what is important for you, think about this.” With pre-contact fires, these controlled burns would happen — and the whole community would be there. Children would be there and aunties would be there. There was lots of laughter and community sounds.

Now, when we think of fire, it’s so different. It’s frightening. The sound of fire turns military with the helicopters. It’s actually like a military operation that happens when we start to fight these giant forest fires. So it’s the complete opposite of what we used to have in our relationship to fire. So, I speak about that a lot in the piece.

What do you want audiences to take away from this piece?

I do want audiences to take a little bit of hope in resilience. But I also want folks to understand that this practice of controlled burn was a way that we used to stop these big things from happening, and that was taken away from us. There’s a little bit of reckoning and reconciliation within our past and our current future.

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