Ian Cusson celebrates deep questions and despises stereotypes. is In this episode, you'll hear the sought-after Indigenous (Georgian Bay Métis Community) and French Canadian composer share a candid conversation with host Khadija Mbowe, digging into his experiences of privilege, shame, and one anecdote of sweet, swift, cosmic justice.
[02:49] Métis community influence on Ian's artistic approach today
[10:00] Navigating indigenous heritage and Western religion will be a lifelong process
[16:50] The privilege and shame of being "white-passing"
[25:16] Becoming better by making art
[34:23] In-depth lightning round bonus!
Music from this episode:
Ian Cusson, "Le Loup de Lafontaine," world premiere performance by Alexander Shelley & NAC Orchestra as part of the Móshkamo Festival which marked the launch of the National Arts Centre’s Indigenous Theatre department. Le loup de Lafontaine was a National Arts Centre Orchestra commission as part of the Carrefour Composer Program, made possible by the Canada Council for the Arts.
Ian Cusson, "Where There’s a Wall,” Song-cycle for voice and piano with text by Joy Kogawa. Performed by Krisztina Szabó, voice and Rachael Kerr, piano. Recorded at the Canadian Music Centre, Toronto on November 14, 2019, by John Gray.
Ian Cusson, "Of the Sea," a co-production with Obsidian Theatre Company and Tapestry Opera. Libretto by Kanika Ambrose, Directed by Philip Akin, Conducted by Jennifer Tung.
Links from this episode:
More on Ian's Louis Riel re-do
BANFF Indigenous Classical Music Gathering
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s HearTOGETHER series is generously supported by lead corporate sponsor Accordant Advisors. Additional major support has been provided by the Otto Haas Charitable Trust.
(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER): Hello and hi! Welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc. This is a space where we hope you’ll find home in this art we all love. I’m your host, Khadija Mbowe and I describe myself as a socio-cultural content creator, classically trained soprano, and loving provocateur. And I’m here to facilitate some heartfelt, engaging, disruptive conversations with artists, activists, and everyone in between (that’s you!)
The music you just heard in the intro was “le loup de Lafontaine” —In English, “festival of the wolf”. Composed by our guest today, Ian Cusson, It’s a half-fable, half-historical account of a community of settlers and indigenous people tensely living in parallel ghettos until the wolf comes to town, giving them a common enemy to unite against.
Ian’s work frequently mines Canadian Indigenous experiences— including his own, Métis background. He grew up in the tight-knit Georgian Bay community on the Northeast edge of Lake Huron in Ontario and was raised by two loving parents— both psychiatric nurses— who encouraged his interests…within reason, of course.
IAN CUSSON: I was the type of kid that the piano had to be locked because I would bang on the piano all the time. And so my mom would like hide the key in an apron. But I, but I love sound. I loved exploring, I loved making things. And even to this day, I'm, I'm a big maker. I like to put together little puzzles or, um, little miniature doll houses. Like I, I love to glue tiny things together, <laugh>. So for me, composing is just sort of like gluing little tiny musical elements together.
(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER): But Ian’s career as a composer didn’t begin in earnest until his early 30s. At age 17, he left home to continue his piano studies at the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. There, Ian met, befriended, and soon fell in love with a singer named Aiden. The pair married and for the next 14 or so years, decided to focus on family— welcoming four children while Aiden pursued an interior design career and Ian worked as a church music director and community arts advocate.
IAN CUSSON: So I wor worked with artists. It was a lot of like championing artists work. They could be singers, they could be sometimes even like architects or visual artists or dancers sort of thing. And just really tried to support and champion the work that they were doing, um, by bringing attention to their, to their work. So yeah, there were, there were a couple of, of really interesting things that are adjacent, I'd say. Like they're a step beside the work that I do now, but it was always related to music, always related to an artistic practice.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Mm. That sounds like a very community-first mindset of thinking about the people around you and, and wanting to see them succeed in any way, or wanting to just help them in any way that you can, even if it's just a matter of drawing attention to them. And I wonder, is that something that you grew up with as well? Back in Georgian Bay— is Georgian Bay, is that how I?
IAN CUSSON: That's it. Yeah. Georgian Bay sort of a, an an outlet of, of Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes, uh, in Ontario is where I grew up. And yeah, like I come from a, from a very, it's a relatively small community, tight-knit community. It's a complex community in terms of its makeup. It's got a strong indigenous population and a mixed indigenous population called the Métis people. So I'm part of the, the Georgian Bay Métis community, and then a bunch of like settler communities that came in as well, especially a lot of French people in, in the area. Mm-hmm. And so from a young age, you know, growing up in a family with extended, uh, cousin networks and aunts and uncles, it was always very community-related. It was always very family knit. You never really could, could fall because there was always someone to catch you. Um, and so that, that kind of community mindset has, was baked into me at, at a really young age. But interesting enough, and this is what really excites me, is I'm trying to bring something of that mindset to the work that I'm doing now, especially when I'm working with, um, large orchestras or opera companies, is to really say, like, people first, right?
KHADIJA MBOWE: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>,
IAN CUSSON: You know, we're, we're all artists, but we're all human beings. And our humanity is what is most important. Before we sing a note, before we play a note, before we welcome an audience, we're human beings and we have to sort of, uh, relate to one another that way and do that well. And if we do that well, we'll make the art better, and we'll make better music. And if we do that well, we'll connect better with audiences. Um, and if we do that well, I think we're, well, we're doing pretty well.
KHADIJA MBOWE: I'll come back to remind me to, remind me to, in a second, uh the, the Métis community, because there's a lot of ins and outs when it comes to, and complexities, I should say, when it comes to indigenous communities in Canada, in North America, Turtle Island
IAN CUSSON: for sure,
KHADIJA MBOWE: in general, but in Canada. Um, so I do wanna talk about that, but first I wanted to ask you, what does that putting people first model look like? Like in a practical way, if you're meeting an orchestra or a group for the first time?
IAN CUSSON: Yeah. Um, it's about meeting them as human beings. So I would say like, trying to have a relational, but with, with all the people that you're wor that I'm working with is, is really an important part. Another image that I, I kind of like to, and this is not my own by the way, but this, this comes from Yvette Nolan, who's a, um, an indigenous Canadian, uh, theater director, librettist, et cetera. And she always talks about, like many of our organizations are shaped like triangles. And an indigenized way of doing things is to really push that triangle, if you can imagine tilting it until it, it becomes flattened like a pancake and then expanding its edges out. So it's a circle. So taking a hierarchical structure where you have one or two people running the whole thing, and then a bunch of people underneath who sort of are the, the worker ants doing all of the work and really changing that model to see it as a circular thing where, you know, there's no head to a circle and every, every place on the circle is equivalent to the other places. So that to me is, is is a way of relating in a human way to whomever is involved in a project.
KHADIJA MBOWE: I like the idea of a circle too, because it's, and I also think that everything is so <laugh>, not me having a capitalist rant. Everything is so commodified that it makes, even making art about a job and less about the process of it. And so, yeah, I just think that that's a really cool way of, of going into a space, especially because if you're a composer in residence, you have a certain hierarchy in that place, a hundred percent. And people are gonna look at you a certain way. How do you navigate that aspect of it with this model? Like, I guess I'm asking you, like, how do you show people that or encourage people to believe that you are genuine?
IAN CUSSON: A hundred percent. Well, you know what that is, I think at every interaction, I try to do that in some way. So for example, I, I've, and you know, we've all been in the space, right? We've all been in that room where the person walks in, who, who does have power, who is given power, and, um, maybe they're the, like the first build person in the, in the cast, or they're the composer, or they're the conductor and they just absorb all of that, and they wear it, and they just flaunt it, and they just, and people sort of, you know, people fall into place around them. I hate, I hate that space. I hate those kinds of spaces. And so I try to walk into a space and say like, be as friendly, be as human. Ask people human questions. Like, “tell me about yourself.”
I, I don't need to come in and talk about myself or make every conversation be about me. Tell me about you. What, what do you love? What, what gets you excited? What do you love to play? What do you love to sing? Is there anything that I could do to facilitate your preparation of this music that I wrote? Anything that's awkward. I really want to make it as idiomatic for you to play as possible. Like, if I was writing a song for you, Khadija, I'd say like, what do you hate doing? What do you never want to see in a score?
KHADIJA MBOWE: <laugh>
IAN CUSSON: Where where is the sweet spot of your voice? What do you wish you could do more of? I think it's really then putting on the ears of being a good listener in those moments and saying, “okay, I'm actually listening to your answers”. I'm taking them in, I'm taking notes of them, and then I'm trying to produce something that can really help you fulfill what you're trying to do artistically. So I, this is gonna sound really funny, but I sort of see myself as like, I want to come under people in the way of like, I'm here to, to make materials, right? Musical materials, but I want to come into that relationship by saying, how do we make you shine the best way possible? What materials could I present to you, uh, in terms of music, in terms of the song, in terms of an orchestral piece that will make you shine? Because if you're shining and you're feeling good about it, and you're feeling connected to it, the audience is gonna feel connected to it. They're gonna see that, they're gonna feel it even before they, they hear it, they'll feel it in the room. And then it becomes this kind of engaged, really cool artistic experience for every person.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Sounds like though, in the coming under people and seeing how they can shine best, it's very much about being, of service, of being able to make things and about being of service.
IAN CUSSON: For sure.
KHADIJA MBOWE: And I know, you are a religious man.
IAN CUSSON: Yes.
KHADIJA MBOWE: And I am a godless, heathen <laugh>. So I wanted to ask you, <laugh>, I wanted to ask you though, did you grow up with religion? Because I also know, and this is kind of leading into the conversation, that there's a complex, uh, relationship with religion and Oh, yeah. Indigenous communities, so
IAN CUSSON (09:22): Oh, yeah, yeah. Gosh. Okay. Can I, oh, the, I'm so glad you asked this. Okay. So it is, it's complicated that basically, it's probably the, the best way to put it. Um, and probably we could talk for about five hours about this, but in, in a nutshell, there's a really interesting connection in some indigenous communities with religion. And I'm specifically saying like, Christian religion in that, and this is often related to colonialism, right? Um, so lots of European communities came to indigenous communities. And so you'll see this kind of, sometimes in some communities, these really interlaced Christian worldviews with indigenous worldviews. And there's some people that have done it, I think really, really well, where they're like, they can honor both and they can somehow pull them together really beautifully in a way that coexists and is harmonious. And there are others maybe that don't do that so well.
And you know, I I would say my own relationship with all these things is, is complicated for sure. And sometimes I have been for sure been burned in some religious communities, and that has given me pause. But I, I think I, I try to in, in healthy and good ways pull all of these parts of my own experience together and find something very personal in that connection of these two, of these two worlds, which actually aren't that far off, I don't think. Um, but I'm still unpacking that. So <laugh> that's come back to me in a couple years, <laugh>.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Yeah, it's like an unfolding. You're like, “weeeell, it’s complicated”
IAN CUSSON: For sure. It's complicated.
KHADIJA MBOWE: But you, did you grow up Christian?
IAN CUSSON: So I grew up in a, in a Catholic home, so yes, Christian, but
KHADIJA MBOWE: Catholic!? Whoa!
IAN CUSSON: I know.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Whoa, okay. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
IAN CUSSON: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. So, okay, lemme tell you, but this is the thing. So in my, in my community, there's a really strong Catholic, Roman Catholic population, and it's just like completely embedded and intertwined into that community. So even within my Métis community, there was a very, very strong Roman Catholic, um, presence. And so I grew up in that as like a, a kid that went to church and that sort of thing, and then had a really strong period of rejecting that in my own life where I was like sort of deconstructing what all of that meant, and, and then sort of finding a way of, of reconnecting the pieces of that with my indigenous experience as well. So again, a complicated journey, and one that's wasn't a straight line for sure, and, and continues to be a journey <laugh>. And I feel like, yeah, I'm not, I'm not at the end of it, but probably, hopefully before I dial I'll have some better understanding of it all. You know, So again, a complicated journey, and one that wasn't a straight line for sure, and, and continues to be a journey <laugh>. And I feel like, yeah, I'm not, I'm not at the end of it, but probably, hopefully before I die, I'll have some better understanding of it all.
(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER): That was an excerpt from the title piece of “Where There’s a Wall,” a song cycle Ian composed for the National Arts Centre Orchestra as part of his residency from 2017 to 2019. The work sets to music a series of poems by Japanese Canadian poet Joy Kogawa, reflecting on her childhood spent in an internment camp during World War II. Ian says that he connected with the themes of displacement, dislocation, and fear of outsiders— elements of his own experience growing up Métis.
IAN CUSSON: It's a mixed raced indigenous group generally that comes out of the fur trade from the 19th century. So the fur trade's a a lot of the waterways that move, but sort of between Canada and the U.S. but right into, um, northern parts of Canada and western parts of Canada were, often traveled by French folks, so people from Quebec area. And they were encouraged by these companies that ran, so the Hudsons Bay Company and the Northwest Company to marry indigenous women in order to facilitate their kind of trade relationships. Also, people just fell in love because that's what happens.
So there were things called country weddings that would happen, which were un -church- sanctioned weddings between generally French men, sometimes Scottish men and indigenous women. And what the, those unions then bred these kind of like new communities of people that didn't see themselves as a First Nations community, and they didn't see themselves as a European community. They saw themselves as something completely different. And that was the birth of the Métis people. The bulk of that happened in the province of Manitoba, but it also happened sort of in surrounding areas. And that's really where that thread of my ancestry comes from. But for sure, as a kid, you know, growing up, my grandfather, my Méti grandfather had a, had a sugar bush, which is like this maple syrup farm, and he was really connected to the land. He was this person who really understood how, the place that where we'd lived for hundreds of years, um, what it meant and how to work the land and how to understand it.
And so I really felt quite connected with him as a young person, and probably that was the strand that was most predominant in my mind. Having said that, I had other family members that brought all kinds of different pieces in like Western music and Western Classical music, right? So, so all these threads coalesced in my complicated body that is an amalgam of things. And you know, some people ask me, sometimes they're like, okay, well where does your Métis part start? And where does your Métis music start? And you're like, honestly, my body is a mix of things. And just like, I can't pull the threads of my own, humanity and mixed race-ness apart, I can't pull the, the pieces of my art making apart and ta and identify like, “this is the Métis part, right? It's like my lived experience is, is a complexity of things, and so is is my work.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Mm. I think that also speaks to like, at least from conversations I've had with friends that are mixed race when they're quote-unquote “white passing”
IAN CUSSON: Yeah.
KHADIJA MBOWE: What effect that has on them.
IAN CUSSON: Yeah.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Because they, you see yourself as one way, or maybe you were raised a certain way, but people see you a completely different way. I wonder if, if you can speak a bit to that
IAN CUSSON: <laugh>. Oh boy,
KHADIJA MBOWE: I told you deep,
IAN CUSSON: Oh, these questions are amazing. And, and I'm so glad you're asking them because there's very rarely a space to talk about these things, but they're important things to talk about. And I, again, I'm only answering from my own experience being white passing is a thing that brings with it obviously significant privilege and significant shame at the same time. And so there is, and, and that's complicated. And again, this is another piece of my life and experience that I'm, I'm working out and will be working out for a long time. Where does it bring privilege? Well, because the privileges that are afforded to cis white men, are ones that are, that are often given to me because of the way I look. And I've had conversations where I'll, where people will, will have made assumptions about me even knowing me for years.
And I'll talk about my community and they'll, they'll be like,”but that's not you, right?” And I'm like, <laugh>, “yes, it is me”. And they're like, “no, not no, but not like that”. I'm like, “what do you mean? Like that right?” Where there's where a person's coming at you and going, “well, I just thought you were white”. Yeah. Um, but you're not indigenous like that. And you're like, “I'm sorry, who the hell are you?” Right? Like, when that kind of thing happens and you're like, what do you even mean by this? Um, and often those, those people are friends and those people can be well-meaning people, right? And, and I think they're catching themselves in their own assumptions and their own stereotypes and their own racism. Um, and that, and that as, and that is hard. I've also had, I've also, I guess some of the harder parts of the, the white passing this, if you will, and I'm not like saying this as a pity thing, but just where someone will say something really pejorative or really awful about indigenous people, and they'll say it to me and they have no idea.
So like I, I worked on this one piece where I rewrote a piece of music that was in an opera, a Canadian opera called Louis Relle. And a piece of music in the, in the opera from 1967 had been appropriated from an indigenous community, a non Métis indigenous community in Canada. And, uh, so people realized even the, the, the heirs of the creators were like, “this is a problem. We need to like fix this”. And so they asked me to write a new piece of music to go in place of this aria, and I did. And that piece was presented at a large, uh, I'll just say a large company in Canada presented the piece. And at a— you won't, this is, this is some dirt you're gonna get here at a,
KHADIJA MBOWE: Some tea!
IAN CUSSON: Yeah. You, you ready for it? So there's a presentation of this aria, not the world premiere, but like a pres an important presentation of it.
And a man who had had several drinks came up to me after and was talking to me about how appropriation is not real. That music is just available to any composer and they don't believe in, in music's being stolen from particular communities. And this is all a sham. And um, and also the work that I did on this piece, on rewriting this piece, the original composer would be rolling in his grave, and this is a form of censorship. And after the man had said that, I kid you not Khadija his pants fell from his waist to his ankles, it was like <laugh>. I was like, first of all, I was in shock that he was saying all of these things, but he was saying these things to me thinking like, “oh, like I can share this with another white man who will understand me”. And I'm like, “you have no idea who I am or what my background is. And you feel the comfort to say this”. I thought it was kind of sweet poetic justice when his pants fell to his ankles and uh,
KHADIJA MBOWE: When he was pantsed by the ancestors, he he
IAN CUSSON: (19:27): Was for sure, for sure. Yeah. The ancestors totally pantsed him <laugh>. Love that.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Oh my goodness. Okay. Whew. But in all seriousness, I do appreciate you saying all of that because that's something that like, I understand what you mean about that shame too, cuz it's like, like, how do I go about, I don't even know correcting this. Like, I, I don't, I don't know like how,
IAN CUSSON: For sure. Well, and, and here here's the sh here's the weird thing too about like the, the, the whole shame part, right? It's like oftentimes I will correct that person and it makes a really awkward, you know, moment and it, and you just, you do that. And sometimes, and there have been times where I have not corrected cause I'm just like, I don't know what to say. I'm feeling like you're talking about me and you don't even know it's me. And I'm like, I don't owe you anything. And I'm just like, I need to get out of this situation. So there have been times where I don't correct if, for example, the, the man I was telling you about, you know, I just like walked away and that was, that was done. But I think like one of the things where shame really hits me is because I feel ashamed of the fact that I get certain passes that other people, that my colleagues, my friends don't get.
IAN CUSSON: So, perfect example I was at, in the, the BANFF center is a large, um, arts organization in Canada that is like a retreat in the mountains. It's actually absolutely beautiful. And it brings together all kinds of awesome artists across Canada and even North America, uh, to, to the center. And I was there with a group of classical indigenous musicians. And first of all, there's, this is not like a huge community of people and these were actually all composers. So there were probably about 10 of us in the room from all across Canada finally coming together talking about what was like, what had been hard in our experiences working with orchestras, working with opera companies, with working with other organizations, expectations of us, et cetera, et cetera. So it was a great place to kind of build in a sense of unity and community, even though we, we had completely different lived experiences.
IAN CUSSON: And in that, in one of those conversations, um, some of those friends had gone down to the trading post in town and they came back up and at the next kind of group session together where we're all sitting, hanging out and chatting, they talked about how they were followed in the store. And these people are visibly native, they're visibly brown, and they were followed in the store. And I have never, except maybe one time in my life when I was 15 and I was, you know, the potentially the bad teenage kid, but I have never in my life been followed in a store because of the way I look. And these people are well-educated people, they're lovely people. They're, you know, all of whatever those social markers are that might make a person quote unquote air quotes “acceptable”, but they're— the way they appeared was a threat to the, to that store owner.
IAN CUSSON: And I asked them about this and they said, I said like, “what does, has that happened to you before?” And they're like, “<laugh>, this happens all the time”. And in that moment I felt—I do not have that lived experience. And first of all, I'm enraged that you have that lived experience, but also like, how is it that I get the pass in that and then the shame that that brings, do you know what I'm saying? Like
KHADIJA MBOWE: Yeah,
IAN CUSSON: That's, that's the messiness of this whole, of that part of, of that like white passing experience, at least in my, in my situation.
KHADIJA MBOWE: No, that makes sense. It's, uh, cuz there are definitely things that I, it's <laugh> I'll tell my friends certain things cuz I'm very dark-skinned, highly melanated. Thank you. And I will tell my friends things that I have experienced and they just like, it's not, it doesn't compute for some of them or they wouldn't have understood. And it's just like, I don't know how else I can communicate that. And it's not your fault also too, because no one can help the bodies that they're born into.
IAN CUSSON: Right.
KHADIJA MBOWE: We can help the way that we interact with them and think about them. Right?
IAN CUSSON: Absolutely.
KHADIJA MBOWE: And so I wanna ask you now then, how do combat that shame, Ooh, like what, what do you do or what have you practiced? What kind of practice do you have to work through that?
IAN CUSSON: I make art, I make music. I think it pushes me to tell stories that don't ever get told more effectively than I even thought I could before, right? So like to push myself to be like, “I'm gonna rip apart every stereotype that is put in front of me” is kind of like the, at least the thought in my heart, I know I won't do that effectively. And plus it's, it's a community of people that are gonna do those kinds of things over a long, long period of time. But it's just about saying like, okay, that's what people's expectations are. I am going to break those apart and I'm just going to do them by making compelling art where you feel for the people you see on the stage, like the characters in the opera or whatever it might be. And you can't help but identify deeply like on an emotional level with them that now, even though you might have wanted to explain that person away because they were, you know, different from your vantage point, somehow you can't ignore them and you're like somehow emotionally locked to them and then that somehow deconstructs one little part of your brain where it's like expectation you might have had or stereotype or whatever it might be.
So I feel like I combat, I combat it by making things and just being like, “Nope, I'm even gonna push it further. I'm gonna even go deeper. I'm gonna tell that story or try to bring this, this feeling forward”. I think at the end of the day, one of the things I'm really convinced of is people, people don't change by changing their mind. I think people's minds change when their hearts are changed. And I think that's the greatest tool. And, and, and I don't wanna say tool cuz it's not meant to be a tool, but that's the, one of the greatest effects that art can have, right? When you hear something that is so compelling that it affects your emotional state, it inevitably changes your mind. Is kind of the approach that, that I take,
KHADIJA MBOWE: Is there a piece that you've composed or presented in your recent memory that you felt like got that across? And what was it about? What was the story?
IAN CUSSON: Ooh. Um, there's a piece coming up that I'm really excited about and I'll, I'll I'll tell you about that in a second. But, um, one of the things that in the song cycles that I write, especially, and in the, you know, any, any vocal kind of work that I have, or orchestral songs and that sort of thing, I always try to find the most incredible text and usually by people, people that aren't typically set to music. And usually those are female voices and usually those are indigenous voices. And so there are some incr like, I mean, if I just set texts by indigenous people in the world, I would never, ever, ever exhaust the incredible texts that are available, right? So like, there's so much to, to find and to, to sort of create new artistic projects around. There was a piece that I wrote for the Canadian Opera Company for a winter program that they had during the pandemic.
IAN CUSSON: And it was a 12-minute piece for chorus, a soloist and, and orchestra. And it was called in Winter and it was a series of texts on poems of a woman named Katherena Vermette who is a met poet, she's also a novelist, she's incredible, won of ton of awards and has this beautiful way with images. Um, one of the images in the poem was this idea of children looking outside at winter, at the winter scene, but they're looking through this layer of plastic that's been put over the window. Like, and, and I know this because, and when you have a drafty window, you tape this plastic membrane over the window to keep the draft out, but what does it l mean to look out? And what does it mean to pick a tiny hole that becomes your vantage point out into the world? And so there was a line about children picking holes in the plastic that covers the window.
IAN CUSSON: And I just thought, what an incredible line that would never make. Its make its way into a work on a major stage with a major orchestra and, and, uh, chorus. But that's exactly the kind of text that I want to position in those spaces because it completely throws everything off-kilter and it makes us think differently and feel differently. So, so that, that was a work that I, I loved and I try to do that with a lot of the works. A work that's coming up. Um, this is an incredible opportunity for me and I, I just, I, I pinch myself every day that I think of that I'm a part of this project. Um, I, I was able to work with a librettist named Kenika Ambrose, who is an amazing Canadian ibrettist playwright film and TV writer. And this piece is called Of the Sea, and it's a story of the middle passage and the lives that were lost in the slave ships that came across the Atlantic, both either by choice or by force.
IAN CUSSON: She created a world under the water of the Atlantic Ocean that is a living, active, compelling world where these kingdoms under the water are run by these two incredible queens, Queen Gefa and Queen Serwa. And the story is of, of a man named Maka who takes his daughter Binum off of a slave ship and into the water to save her from a life of slavery in the Americas. But he remembers his god, the God of the son, God Chukuu. Um, and if he can get his baby binum back to the surface of the water in a couple of days, she will have life again. And so his quest is to, to get his baby, to have the life that he could never live. And he journeys through these two kingdoms and all of these amazing people under the water that are powerful and empowered. I got invited to this project because we met in a “lib lab”, which is a librettist and, uh, composer partnership, um, with Tapestry Opera in Toronto.
IAN CUSSON: And she just kind of, we wrote a little seven-minute scene and the scene was, I, I thought was all we were gonna be writing. And then it became pretty successful and, um, it got picked up and the whole opera got commissioned. It's a 20-person orchestra with chorus and five, uh, soloists. And it is, I just, I am giddy that I get to be part of that. And again, like, here's me as a Métis person. I, this is not my community or my culture, but I got invited across, across this cultural line in a way that felt generous and responsible and like it was, I was invited in a way that I felt like I could provide my own compositional voice into a world that wasn't my own. And it's so far probably been one of the most fulfilling projects that I've ever been a part of. And I just, I can't wait for the world to see this, this opera.
KHADIJA MBOWE (28:03): Yeah. Ian, is there anything else you want to tell the folks at home?
IAN CUSSON: Just how much I dig you! I think you're great.
KHADIJA MBOWE: <laugh>
IAN CUSSON: No, honestly, can I just say I just really love your, your, the humanity that you bring. Like we talked about humanity a lot in this show. Um, just, just the human nature and I feel like from the first time we've had a conversation how engaged and probing and thoughtful and willing to just go there. And I think too many people shy away and I feel like you just dig right in. So thank you for doing that. I feel like you asked me probably some of the most probing questions today that I've ever been asked. And so, um, good on you. And thank you for making me go there cuz it's, it's important for me to do that too.
KHADIJA MBOWE (33:08): Thank you for being open because that's what it is. It's a two-way street. It's an open heart. I can't, I could be as probing as possible, but if you're, if you're a rock <laugh> or it's like, what is it trying to get juice outta turnip <laugh> southern phase,
IAN CUSSON: <laugh> <laugh>
KHADIJA MBOWE (33:25): Ian, thank you so, so much for this amazing conversation,
(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER):Ya’ll, I just love Ian, and I hope you do too! Of The Sea premiered on March 25 at Tapestry Opera, which we’ve got linked in the description with all the other info you need to keep up with my good dude. Stay tuned after the musical outro for our “in-depth lightning round bonus” where we’ll talk good music, bad advice, and so much more. Meantime, enjoy a sneak peek from Of The Sea.
KHADIJA MBOWE: First one. Who makes you laugh?
IAN CUSSON: Oh, my kids.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Are you allowed to say which one?
IAN CUSSON: <laugh>. Oh, you
KHADIJA MBOWE: Know, what could you imagine?
IAN CUSSON: For sure. Well, like Madison is the, is the one that wants to make me laugh and she generally succeeds in doing it by any means necessary.
KHADIJA MBOWE: How old is Madison?
IAN CUSSON: Madison's a mean 13
KHADIJA MBOWE: A mean 13! That's a good way to put it.
IAN CUSSON: <laugh>,
KHADIJA MBOWE: Their parents had just got shivers up their spine.
IAN CUSSON: : Oh, for sure. Yeah. I I quake most days. Quake in fear <laugh>.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Oh no. Okay. This is a cataclysm sentence— if you had to give advice to a new batch of humans that were gonna inhabit the earth after some giant cataclysm happened and we all disappear, what would that advice be?
IAN CUSSON: Love.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Can you be more specific?
IAN CUSSON: I'd say love as much as possible and as completely as possible. Um, I think proceed with love wherever you can and whenever you can. And, and, and things will, things will go well.
KHADIJA MBOWE: This is, this is for the optimists in the crowd. The skeptics are like, “boooo”
IAN CUSSON: <laugh>. Wait a minute.
KHADIJA MBOWE: All right. What is a skill you wish you had?
IAN CUSSON: Okay. What if I had a skill, a skill that I don't have that I would, I wish I had,
KHADIJA MBOWE: Or like, have something cool to that like, you see someone do when you're like, man.
IAN CUSSON: Yeah. I think something like, I think ventriloquism, you know, like to be able to like th either throw your voice and or make it sound like a rock is talking or, or like a piece of wood on your hand is talking. That would be, that that's something I wish I could do. I've tried and it's not, it doesn't happen. I can't do it. I don't know. I don't have the technique
KHADIJA MBOWE: That is, I've never heard, like, no one's an, we haven't asked a bunch of people this, but like, I don't think I've ever heard anyone, I would never expect that answer. No offense to the ventriloquist out there and vent community.
IAN CUSSON: Full respect to all of 'em, actually.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Clearly, clearly. What is a song that you wish you had written? It can be for monetary reasons and slash or just the way it moves you.
IAN CUSSON: I think that this is gonna be a, uh, this is right in the opera world. I love from the Gutter in Peter Grimes, which is this like quartet, female quartet in a very male, male-centric opera. And I just think it's one of the most glorious moments of music. And I think if I could have written that, I would be, I'd be happy, real. I could, I could, I could end my career today. I'd be fully happy.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Okay. Last one. What is the worst advice you've ever gotten?
IAN CUSSON: Oh gosh. Oh, okay. Um, when I was first with my, my wife, like as we weren't married yet, um, we were told, “oh, you're gonna hurt each other and you should end this cuz you're young”. And, um, you know, 20 years later going strong. I feel like it wasn't good advice for us, maybe for someone else, but not for us. They underestimated us.
KHADIJA MBOWE: Light shade. Light shade. Exactly. <laugh>. Oh my goodness. Okay. Wait, so you and your wife got married…?
IAN CUSSON: We were five.
KHADIJA MBOWE: I'm not doing this with you. You were the original Corey and Topanga! For all the millennials
IAN CUSSON: I know, Yeah. Oh gosh. I love Topanga. Actually, I had a major crush on Topanga growing up, so
KHADIJA MBOWE: <laugh> Yeah, that makes sense.
IAN CUSSON: <laugh> <laugh>. So I just followed in their footsteps. No, we were, I was 20 when we got married and, uh, and I'm 40 41 now, so we're in our 21st year of, of marriage, which is crazy
(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER): Until next month, I’m Khadija Mbowe and this has been the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc.