Cris Derksen thrives on collaboration and technology by Dave O Rama


Cris Derksen likes to keep things fluctuating through diversification. The Cree cellist from Northern Alberta spent over a decade living in East Vancouver working toward her music degree, performing as principal cellist with the UBC Symphony Orchestra, and playing with the all female folk ensemble e.s.l.

Classically trained and yet always drawn toward the more experimental from an early age when she would create her own compositions on piano, as far back as seventeen years ago — in her first year of university — Derksen began utilizing digital gadgets in her practice and performance. Because of her consistent use of the technology the cellist was recently approached by Roland as a sponsor, which allows her access to all of the company’s new gear. She loves the greater reach that the technology provides her. “I am able to create a full symphonic sound with just a cello and effects,” explains Derksen. “I’m currently using a multi-guitar effect, and I’m also using a new guitar synthesizer by Boss.”

Having always been in the headspace to expand her musical expression as far as she possibly can Derksen cites an early friendship with Tanya Tagaq, while still a student, as major turning point in her career. “She took me on a worldwide tour as soon as I graduated, so I was fortunate enough to have full time work with a crazy Inuit folk singer improviser. Tagaq has been on an upward trajectory for a while and it’s really exciting to watch and be a part of.”

Part Cree and part Mennonite, Derksen identifies strongly with her aboriginal heritage and says that it informs most of her sonic creations. “I’m always half and half,” says Derksen over the phone from her current home in Toronto. “I can’t take half of my blood out of me. So, I’ve always been really focused on the intersectionality between where contemporary and traditional meet in the classical world, as well as in the traditional and contemporary in the indigenous world.”

Infusing her compositions with a broad assemblage of musical influences Derksen can incorporate her own powerful orchestral and vocal stylings mixed with hip hop inspired drum machine breaks, percussion, choirs, horns, digital effects and a never ending flow of collaborations. In 2015 Derksen’s third recording, the JUNO nominated Orchestral Powwow, was released. Derksen met Tribal Spirit Music label owner Robert Todd through the electronic band A Tribe Called Red when they were utilizing Todd’s extensive library of contemporary pow wow music and he jumped at the chance to have Derksen give the music her orchestral touch. “When I say contemporary pow wow music it still means that it’s very traditional but it is made in 2016. There’s a whole culture of pow wow music that exists all across Turtle Island that is super exciting.”

Derksen took two approaches to creating Orchestra Powwow. Instead of taking Todd’s recordings and chopping them up and reconfiguring them the way A Tribe Called Red was working with the material, Derksen instead decided to use complete pieces and then compose music that would successfully interact with them. She ended up choosing the work of five different pow wow groups, the result is dramatic, wholly unique, and totally compelling.

In addition to working with already existing recordings Derksen also performed in the studio with The Chippewa Travelers, a family drumming and singing group who Derksen continues to perform with whenever she is presenting the music from Orchestral Powwow live. The recording also includes some incredibly moving singing by Norwegian vocalist Jennifer Kreisberg, who Derksen was introduced to through Canadian legend Buffy Sainte-Marie, who the cellist mentored with briefly.

“I asked Buffy to do this mentorship with me for the reason that she has longevity in her career, as she has been doing it for fifty years,” explains Derksen. “I don’t think the music industry necessarily supports longevity for musicians, and especially for female musicians. So I wanted to hang out with Buffy and really focus in on what has kept her in the industry. So hanging out with her provided me with good tools and good ideas on how to focus my life for the long run.”

It appears that Derksen’s idea of focus is to be as diversified as possible. The talented string bender could be seen as a project juggler working with anything from a trio right up to a twenty-three piece orchestra. Many of these incarnations also incorporate the stunning athletic talents of Nimkii Osawamick, a native hoop dancer originally from Manitoulin Island who often performs with Derksen live. A look at Derksen’s list of past accomplishments shows an artist hugely drawn toward collaboration.

“It’s so good to get out of your head. I’m super into interdisciplinary collaborations as well. If you expand beyond music itself to work with dancers and to work within the theatre construct, making my form of art fit into a different form of art that I’m not familiar with. It’s really good for your brain to be open to expanding on the tools you already have.”

In her pursuit of possibilities Derksen has composed music for television, film documentaries, and dance. She has also worked with Naomi Klein, Kanye West, Kiran Ahluwalia, and Digging Roots. She has an ongoing relationship with dancer and choreographer Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith as the main composer for Smith’s Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, creating all the music for her piece TransMigration as well as contributing to the soundtrack of the dancer’s most recent work NEOindegina.

Asked if she sees a recent renaissance in First Nations music Derksen has this to say. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily a renaissance rather than a change in lens over the last six or seven years. If we look back to Buffy [Sainte-Marie] who’s seventy-five and has been in the industry for fifty years, she’s always been using pow wow music. I don’t think the music has actually changed, but I do think what has changed is the lens through which people view it and how people champion it. And I think that’s the real exciting part because when people champion it then we start working together.”

Cris Derksen has a very busy year ahead of her with performances planned with Santee Smith in New Zealand and at least two trips to Australia to perform and record. She admits that she is constantly being approached to collaborate on a vast assortment of projects and is too busy experiencing the magic of these musical connections to spend any time on creating a bucket list of her own. In fact she’s so busy that she doesn’t have plans to record her follow up to Orchestral Powwow until the end of the year.

Before we finish our conversation I ask Derksen if there are messages she is trying to covey through the sheer sonic potential of her compositions. “In my brain I talk a lot about nature — I talk a lot about the struggle between nature and contemporary life — and I talk a lot about beauty. But the rad thing about instrumental [music] is that these are just my stories, and they can be different stories for you.”

by Dave O Rama

Originally published in BC Musician Magazine