With our Edges of Canada tour containing a number of firsts for NYO Canada, one of the things we are extremely excited to present is the multi-disciplinary piece The Unsilent Project, which brings Indigenous creation protocols and ways of knowing into intersection with the classical music processes of NYO Canada.
We had the opportunity to connect Ian Cusson and Juliet Palmer, the two composers that are crafting the work, to learn more about their backgrounds, their creative process, and what audiences can expect to hear this summer.
1. For those of us who aren’t familiar with your work, how did you get involved in music and composition?
IC: I come from non-musical parents who put me in music lessons at an early age. Folk and popular music played a big role in my early life with aunts and uncles and grandparents singing and making music (my grandfather’s half brother was the Canadian composer Gabriel Cusson.) I studied the piano from a young age, but it wasn’t until I was 10 and given an LP of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares and a cassette tape of R. Murray Schafer’s La Testa d’Adriana (along with score!) that my musical imagination came to life and I began writing music.
JP: Music is a big part of my family history. My grandmother played piano for silent movies in the small New Zealand town of Takaka, while my great-grandmother was the force behind musical theatre — making costumes, choreographing and doing whatever else was required. My grandmother later became a piano teacher and studied singing. Her three children all played musical instruments, so family music-making was central to our gatherings. I studied piano from a young age and took up the clarinet at 12. However, I always planned to study architecture at university.Somehow my instrumental teachers persuaded me to audition for the Auckland University School of Music and suddenly I was studying music full-time.Iit was a rude shock and every year I almost quit. Composition is what saved me — a creative escape hatch! I ended up with a Master's degree in clarinet, time-based art and composition from Auckland. I was principal clarinet in the New Zealand Youth Orchestra, played with the Auckland Philharmonia, and performed and recorded with contemporary music and improvising ensembles. Once I moved to New York, I chose to focus on composing, but occasionally I do whip out my clarinet and play. I earned my PhD in composition at Princeton University and taught at Brown University before emigrating to Canada in 1998.
2. After learning more about our Edges of Canada tour and the Unsilent Project, what inspired you to get involved?
IC: I was drawn to the fact that NYO Canada wanted to explore a story of nationhood and identity featuring Indigenous artists and creators. This is something that rarely happens in contemporary concert music. It was also an opportunity to explore intersections within my own personhood—as a Métis citizen (itself a merging of identities) and a composer of contemporary art music.
I was also drawn to the project because it walked the line between celebrating our nation’s history and acknowledging the entrenched and destructive colonial attitudes that were central to establishing and growing Canada as a nation. This place of tension is a fertile ground for artistic reflection and response.
JP: Zaccheus' words are fierce and fiery, veering from humour to tragedy in one sentence. His performances are musical — rhythms and rhymes which flow and hurtle, their political sophistication revealing Zaccheus' grasp of the big picture. He was a poet who saw injustice in the world around him and called it out with energy and brilliance. Zaccheus' uncompromising vision is a huge inspiration for the team working on this collaborative project. Zaccheus tells painful truths though his poetry that speak to the relationship between Indigenous and settler Canadians. This project is a way for me commit to the ongoing process of truth and reconciliation.
The orchestral medium is by nature a collective one — dozens of musicians working together to realize a shared artistic vision. However, it can also be read as a stark example of political hierarchy and control. Challenging this paradigm is one of the reasons I find this project so compelling. As composer I won't be the only one “calling the shots” — creating a score along which is then realized by conductor and musicians. The process is much more collaborative and collective than that, involving a process of discussion and improvisation with the creative partners.
3. There are many moving parts involved in this performance piece, including two directors, a cinematographer, a stage manager, and four spoken word artists. How would you approach this work in a different way compared to a more traditional piece of music for a chamber group or orchestra?
IC: Creating a work in a democratic milieu is not without its challenges. Throughout the process, many voices have been at the table, and those voices have been treated with respect and mutual importance. The result is that many people have provided input into the vision of the final project. I feel like this will lead to a richer and more diverse final piece. In the end though, composing this piece isn’t too different from creating any other work: it requires the space and time to imagine the music, and then time in the studio to write it all down
JP: One of the challenges is to find a way for the spoken word performers and orchestral musicians to navigate the work by different means — including musical notation, text cues, and conduction cues. I want them to be equal partners in the work, and to highlight the unique power of each medium of expression.
4. Since our January creative workshop, how has the project moved forward?
IC: Working on this piece has been like taking extended walks down a series of paths. Some of the paths are circuitous, some of the walks are repeated. Some paths connect with other paths. Some lead to dead ends. What is emerging from these creative ‘strolls’ is a piece that I hope will capture the imagination of audiences and players alike.
The work of poet Zaccheus Jackson has been a real inspiration to all of the artists involved in this project. His poem, A Child’s Bright Eyes has been particularly meaningful in informing the piece I’m working on. The poem captures the sense of awe and wonder of seeing a young child: the incredible simplicity of his actions but the awareness that the child will grow up. It anticipates the moment when innocence and experience inevitably collide.
As such, the piece I’m writing charts the birth of an artist, his awakening and the discovery of his voice. It will open the Unsilent Project and act as a front bookend. The evening will end with Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, a tone poem about the death of an artist, the completion of the arc of a life. But of course, there are wider resonances intended in my work. For me the act of writing this piece is in itself a reclaiming of voice, one that has been systematically silenced and excluded in these last hundred and fifty years of nation building.
JP: I've been listening to Zaccheus' performances of the poem Invicta which forms the bedrock of my new work. This process is a combination of editing and research, ensuring the transcription is accurate and that I understand Zaccheus' myriad references to history, pop culture and Indigenous experience. I've met with director Falen Johnson and spoken word artist Brendan McLeod here in Toronto. During our first session, we shared insights into the poem and got a sense of its pacing and flow. I then improvised a rough sketch of the piece using my voice and dining table percussion! We'll be getting together again in April to look over my musical sketches and see how text and sound fit together.
5. What do you hope audience members take with them after they see and hear the Unsilent Project?
IC: I hope people will leave a performance of the work entertained, challenged and hope-filled. I hope they will leave thinking about the many voices that contribute to forming a national identity. I hope they will leave curious to learn more about the stories and histories of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and their integral role in defining our nation. I hope they will leave inspired to imagine new and creative ways that cultures and peoples can interact.
JP: I would love for the audience to share a sense of awe at the strength, honesty and wisdom of Zaccheus' work. I find his poetry totally energizing and uplifting — Zaccheus sees deeply into his own truth and at the same time connects with others in a beautifully empathetic way. These are poems that need to be spoken and to be heard.