Q. In 2017 you were selected for Carrefour, a two-year residency program by the NAC and Canada Council for the Arts to mentor diverse, emerging composers. At 37, would you say you’re a late bloomer?
A. Great question! Although I’ve been writing music for a long time, I came to the “emerging” phase of my career late. I focused on having a family first – I’m married with four kids – while working as a church music director.
Q. What changed?
A. In 2013, a friend commissioned me to write a piece for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche festival. That’s when I decided to turn my attention back to composing opera and orchestral works.
Q. You’re of Métis and French Canadian descent. How does your heritage infuse your work?
A. I like exploring the Canadian Indigenous experience, the history of the Métis people, the hybrid nature of mixed-racial identity and the intersection of Western and Indigenous cultures.
Q. For example?
A. I recently wrote songs of poems by Cree/Métis poet Marilyn Dumont, which have been performed by Indigenous opera singers Marion Newman and Rebecca Cuddy. The work looks at the Canadian experience from a Métis lens but within the context of the European form.
Q. What is the reaction to your work?
A. Mostly very positive but some do ask, “Where is the Indigenous-sounding part?” There is sometimes an expectation —from outside and inside the Indigenous community— for concert work by an Indigenous composer to include hand drums and vocables, that is, to sound “Indigenous.” My work is Indigenous because I am Indigenous. I try to make musical and aesthetic choices based on my interests and not in response to expectations. In this way, I hope my work can be part of changing pre-conceptions of what is and what isn’t Indigenous music.
Q. Your residency involves working with NAC Music Director Alexander Shelley. What’s that like?
A. Alexander is an incredible mentor. He takes great interest in my work and offered lots of support and coaching. This has ranged from technical considerations such as how does a player interpret given notation, or how does a particular musical idea read to an audience, to wider questions about the nature of art music and the role of large institutions like the NAC. He’s also just a great person and a fantastic musician. Beyond my work with Alexander, I have had the opportunity to learn from the many gifted and enthusiastic people working behind the scenes at the NAC who are responsible for putting together excellent, world-class programming.
It is truly a gift to be here.
Note: Ian Cusson’s new work—Where There’s a Wall for mezzo-soprano and sextet—premiered November 4, 2018, in Ottawa.