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Cris Derksen: “We Are Blooming as Artists”

Cris Derksen is an internationally respected Indigenous musician originally from Treaty 8 in Northern Alberta. She’s comfortable with all the words people have used to describe her: cellist, composer, producer, soloist, writer.

“I embrace it all, because I fit into so many boxes,” she says. “It’s been incredible to cultivate an audience that comes along with me.”

She knows that there is true diversity in that audience, and she’s grateful for it. “When I played with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra last year, the audience included classical music fans, but it was also cool to see Indigenous folks coming to see the symphony. That means my music is bringing people together.”

This year, in recognition of National Indigenous Peoples Day and Indigenous History Month, Derksen will appear at the Maclab Centre for the Performing Arts in Leduc. “I’ll perform a variety of compositions that are symphonic but also include loops and electronic music. Some members of the ESO will play with us, and Jessica McMann will hoop dance and play flute. It’s a mixture of everything I have been working on.”

Derksen loves to blend classical and electronic music and says, “There’s more acceptance of difference and electronics in classical music now. It’s more common than it used to be. Solo artists use electronic music to elevate their instruments.”

Derksen recently worked with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montréal. Her piece entitled “Controlled Burn” was commissioned by that orchestra and had its world premiere in September 2023. The composition creates a space where classical and electronic music encounter the Cree Nation worldview.

After playing New York’s Carnegie Hall and working with the Winnipeg Ballet, Derksen is happy to be returning to Alberta, and she appreciates the significance of National Indigenous History Month. “June is always a busy month for Indigenous artists. This will be special because I grew up in Edmonton, and my family will come.”

One question that Derksen asks often is, “How do we make classical music look and sound more like Canada?” Her response, like her music, invites many influences in. “I started the Classical Indigenous Gathering at Banff Centre in 2019. I noticed that in the Indigenous music scene, we are all friends, and we all know each other. But in classical music we didn’t know each other. I wanted people to unpack classical music, and be with different artists. Orchestras started paying attention. Now people are asking Indigenous people, ‘What do you want to do? And how do you want to tell your story?’”

Derksen thinks that’s a good thing. “We are busier now. We are blooming as artists. Doors are being opened.”

A Night of Cris Derksen Works with Strings will take place on June 17 at Maclab Centre for the Performing Arts in Leduc. Cris Derksen will be joined by Jessica McMann (flute, hoop dancing), Sylvia Chow (violin), Alison Zdunich (violin), Leanne Maitland (viola) and Marek Tyler (drums).

This event is pay-what-you-can, starting at $5. All proceeds will go to the Indigenous Artist Market Collective.