Cello There: Cris Derksen interview

Canadian cellist Cris Derksen chats about being an Indigenous person in 2019 and playing the cello ahead of her appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Feature by Jemima Skala | 01 Aug 2019
  • Cris Derksen

Cris Derksen isn’t exactly what springs to mind when you think of a cellist. Far from the stereotype of upper-middle class straight white man, Derksen is a half-Cree, half-Mennonite Canadian performer who uses the cello to speak to her experience as a person of Indigenous heritage. Using loops, effect pedals and drum machines, she warps the sounds of her cello into sonics that are instantly relatable, if perhaps not instantly comfortable.

With three studio albums out and a busy performance schedule, Derksen will be performing at two events in Edinburgh International Book Festival's Indigenous Voices series – Songs from the Land: Sometimes I Speak English on 15 August with Inuit poet and throat singer Taqralik Partridge and Scottish musician Inge Thomson, and Calling Home on 16 August with Tara Beagan. For the former, there’s just one catch. "I can’t really tell you what it is!" she laughs when asked to explain a bit about it. "I’m going to be improvising on the cello to some different poets. They are going to come to Edinburgh, they’re going to get inspired and write new stuff entirely, so it’s all going to be very off the cuff."

Improvisation is where Derksen is at her most comfortable, having done four years of touring with celebrated Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq straight after graduating from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Given that Tagaq only improvises, this is where Derksen was able to cut her improv teeth, finding her voice. "It takes a lot of deep listening to be an improviser," she muses. Returning to Songs from the Land, she says: "I’m a big fan of improv, and I’m a big fan of listening and responding. I think it’s going to be beautiful. I have no doubt. I just don’t know what it will be."

Derksen's measured calm is carried into her insistence on the importance of having discussions about indigeneity outside of countries with Indigenous populations. "I think there’s still a lot of preconceived notions about what indigeneity looks like," she says, "and I think it’s easy to romanticise Indigenous folks in a way that isn’t true to 2019. Not necessarily as contemporary as we are." This contemporaneity of Indigenous people is the key to Derksen's work. She describes her practice of melding electronic sounds with the cello as "braiding that traditional and contemporary together.

“I think folks are always impressed with how I manipulate the tools that I use, and especially on a cello because it’s such a colonial instrument,” she observes. Having learned the cello through a school programme, Derksen was certain by the time she was 17 that she was going to be a musician. This early start imbued her with a self-assured musicality that meant she could adapt her instrument to her own self-expression. As she puts it: “All creators create from their own perspective, their own understanding, view and lens.”

In terms of how her own identity slots into the music industry, Derksen is positive in the face of any potential hardship or discrimination. “What I’ve come to learn is that because I am so diverse and I have so many intersectionalities within myself, it allows me to make friends and create music for such a wide variety of audiences… It really just broadened my audience base.” She pauses and laughs: “I’m coming to Edinburgh to do a book show! It has been beneficial to my own career to be so diverse.”

With a back catalogue and performance history that aims to bring the contemporary experience of Indigenous people to the fore, Cris Derksen is an exciting addition to the Indigenous Contemporary Scene programme in Edinburgh this August. Expect to think, consider, but most importantly of all, listen with open ears and an open mind.

Sometimes I Speak English, Baillie Gifford Imagination Lab, Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh, 15 Aug, 8pm
Calling Home, with Tara Beagan, Writer's Retreat, Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh, 16 Aug, 5.30pm