With Threnody, Vancouver Cantata Singers give voice to lost Indigenous women
Like a number of other local classical-music events this weekend, the Vancouver Cantata Singers’ Threnody: Requiem and Remembrance is intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, and to provide a more general opportunity to mourn those we’ve lost in that and other conflicts. But there’s also a pointed message in this sombre and beautiful program, thanks to Kristi Lane Sinclair’s song “Woman”, which reminds us of a slaughter that’s happening right here at home: the undeclared but ongoing war against Indigenous women. Hundreds, if not thousands, of mostly young women are among the missing or murdered—and, more often than not, finding their killers has been a low priority for police forces across Canada and elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, these sad facts were on Sinclair’s mind when she sat down to work on material for her second LP, Dark Matter, which was released in 2015. “This was after a lot of things had started to come out in the media,” the Haida singer-songwriter explains, in a telephone conversation from her Toronto home. “This was after Tina Fontaine—stuff that just really breaks your heart and tears you apart. And then [actor] Misty Upham was missing in Washington state, and nobody would look for her there. Her family found her, because they’re the only ones who were going to look. So I remember being literally floored—I was on my knees, crying, because I was just so angry and so fucking upset…and then I literally stood up. I had an electric guitar beside me, and I just started playing and the song was written in the length of the song.
“I knew it was special,” Sinclair continues. “I knew exactly what it was about; and I knew that it probably wasn’t really my voice. And I knew to just trust that, and let the song become whatever it wanted to be.”
Three years later, the song is now becoming something else, with help from Cantata Singers artistic director Paula Kremer and composer Peter Hannan—who, as it turns out, both had some prior history with its creator. “Paula was my solfège [sight-reading] teacher, and Peter ended up being my composition teacher-slash-mentor,” says Sinclair, who studied music for three years at VCC. “I was going to work with him on writing for strings, and then he said he was in conversation with Paula, and that the choir wanted to try something a little bit different. And he said, ‘I think you should do this, and I’ll help you.’
“I hadn’t written notes on a page for, like, years,” she adds, laughing. “But layering voices like that gave it a power it didn’t have in the original version, with just me singing it. Hearing 30 people sing it is way cooler.”
Sinclair thinks it’s especially cool that a broader audience will now get a chance to hear “Woman”, in a context that will only reinforce its message.
“In the end, the piece is about being inclusive,” she says. “It can’t just be Indigenous people who care, and it can’t just be Indigenous people who take action. In the press, a lot of these women are dehumanized for various reasons—and that’s completely unfair, because they’re very loved and very beautiful, and an important part of our culture and this country. So everybody needs to stand up and protect them.”
The Vancouver Cantata Singers present Threnody: Requiem and Remembrance at Christ Church Cathedral on Saturday (November 10).