On September 21, 2011, the U of A’s Augustana Campus in Camrose will host the world première of Crowfoot, a contemporary piece of classical music written by 2010 campus graduate and Métis composer Nicholas Howells. The piece was written for Nicholas’ former piano instructor Milton Schlosser and, in part, celebrates the great Chief after whom the federal constituency of Crowfoot is named. Nicholas is but one of a handful of young Aboriginal composers active in classical music in Canada.
Nicholas grew up in Cremona, a small town of 350 people located west of Carstairs, Alberta. He has four siblings, all of whom are all involved in music or other forms of artistic expression. His Métis heritage can be traced back to his great-great-great grandmother Rosalie L’Hirondelle, a Dog Rib/Cree woman from the Peace River area who married Daniel Cunningham.
“I became interested in classical music at a pretty young age,” said Nicholas. “My mother always had CBC playing in the house so I had a lot of exposure. I remember really enjoying Vivaldi, and my favourite vinyl record was Holst’s Planets. I couldn’t get enough of Mars! It really affected me.”
“I was really drawn, emotionally, to classical music. I would listen to something like Mars and sometimes I’d have to turn it off because it was just too scary; but then there were other pieces where you could just sit back and really be moved. I think that’s why my mom got me taking piano; she saw that I was really moved by some of the things that I was hearing.”
Nicholas began taking piano lessons at age 9 but stopped soon thereafter. Several years later, at the age of 14, he heard his sister play and decided to return to the instrument. “That’s when I decided that maybe it was something that I should be doing or something that I could do,” says Nicholas. “I started lessons again and just took off from there. I started actually writing music right away and that was the thing that really kept me going.”
When asked how the piece Crowfoot came to be, Nicholas said, “Milton approached me a while back with an idea and a quote from [Chief] Crowfoot. The idea was to write a piece that embraced or helped me explore my Native heritage for him to perform. Right away I had tons of different ideas going through my head. One of the first ideas I had was, when I’m teaching my young students from beginner books, we always play “Indian Dance” or “Indian Song”. These pieces always consist of a drumming, two-note, left-hand chord separated by a fifth and a simple melody in the right hand. That’s about all that you find for something that represents Aboriginal music in the repertoire for beginning students. I kind of wanted to take this idea of the fifths representing the drums but do something a lot more creative. And so I started writing and ended up including an actual drum which allowed me to expand on the left hand.”
“I started working with that and felt really good with all these ideas but, as I got writing, it actually became quite difficult. I was writing a piece about my history and all of a sudden I started having to ask myself all the big questions that people end up having to ask themselves. Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I fit in? That was quite eye opening, but it also made it really difficult.”
One of the difficulties for Nicholas was trying to connect with his Métis history. “First of all, it’s just hard to find much information about that sort of thing. Fortunately, I have people in our family who have held onto some history,” said Nicholas. “I spent a lot of time reflecting on my own life. That was quite a moment and that’s sort of where this piece really took a turn. I think in the piece there’s a lot of frustration, a lot of tension, and I think that’s sort of reflecting this personal journey that I was taking trying to connect with something that I’ve really been removed from. That formed the foundation of the piece.”
“The Crowfoot quote really brought this other element into this piece. The quote is so peaceful and beautiful. Crowfoot was Blackfoot not Cree, but I have Milton speaking in Cree because that is my history. I think the quote helped to balance the piece out. I have a student from Hobbema and it was her grandmother – who asked not to be named – who did the translation of the quote for me. It’s a difficult piece; I have a hard time playing it, and it’s really personal so hopefully people will be able to gain something from it.”
By definition, the Métis people are a synthesis of European and First Nation cultures. When asked how the piece Crowfoot reflects these cultural influences, Nicholas replied, “Growing up, I was absolutely influenced by the European tradition of classical music. I did have a little exposure to Native music, Cree music, but this piece definitely carries on that European tradition.”
“The way that I sort of bring the two together is first of all through the drumming and the rhythm of the piece. “ Nicholas describes a second way: by involving the audience. He asked himself, “If I would have lived 150-200 years ago, what would music be to me? I think the big difference from what I’m doing now is that, for Aboriginal cultures, I think music was a way of bringing community together. It wasn’t just the spotlight on one person; it was about coming together and celebrating. So that’s why, in one part of the piece the audience does come into play, and they have to do some stamping,” laughed Nicholas. “Partly that was reflective of the part of the quote that talks about the buffalo; I was thinking of the buffalo hunt. But also writing this piece I felt, if I would have been living 200 years ago, it would have been this community event, so the audience would not have been just sitting back and listening, they would have been participating. I suppose that’s how I was trying to take these two traditions and put them together. Hopefully it works!”
I asked Nicholas what message or feeling he hopes to invoke in the audience who hears this composition for the first time later this month. He shared, “I know what feeling it gives me, but you never know what other people are going to get out of it. I think one of the things I find with contemporary music, or even classical music, is often you need a couple listens to be able to get everything out of it. Now I don’t think this piece is so obtuse that it’s going to throw people off. I think it’s accessible; there are parts in it that for me are these moments of frustration or a bit of turmoil. I think what I’d like the audience to get out of the music is a sense of that struggle but also the sense of beauty and the [Crowfoot] quote coming through out of this tension. I hope it moves people. I really hope people get involved when it’s their turn to get involved. I hope people embrace that and really do their part to make it work because I think that in itself is really going to lift people up and pull them into the piece.”
After the premiere at Augustana, Nicholas’ work will make its international debut later this fall in Tokyo, Japan, as part of a recital by professors Milton Schlosser, piano, and Kathleen Corcoran, soprano, at the Canadian Embassy’s Oscar Peterson Theatre. In terms of future works, Nicholas shared that he is considering writing another orchestral piece. He is also working on a 50-minute piece to complement a children’s story about two young Aboriginal boys originally written by his late cousin. Nicholas is also completing a number of shorter pieces that are more in the European tradition and plans to continue to sing and play keyboard in one of Red Deer’s local rock bands.
Please join us for the world première of Nicholas’ piece Crowfoot, debuting on the Augustana Campus of the U of A (4901 – 46 avenue, Camrose) on Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 7:30 pm. Tickets will be available at the door (General Public $20, Students & Seniors $15). For more information, please contact Valerie Bailey in Augustana’s Department of Fine Arts at 780.679.1532 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.