Melody McKiver: Classical music meets Indigenous stories

Photo by John Paille.

Melody McKiver, Anishinaabe composer and violist, will have her Vancouver debut per-formances at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Western Front on May 17 and May 18, respectively.

Growing up with musician parents, McKiver has pursued music since childhood, first starting on violin and then picking up drums and percussion, studying all of them to a high level. She made the transition from violin to viola in university as she felt the latter fit better with her voice, technique and personality.

As a solo performer, McKiver explores the viola’s possibilities, spanning from minimalist to danceable, often incorporating laptop processing and looping.

A person of mixed ancestry who cares deeply about the Indigenous cause, McKiver integrates classical music traditions and techniques with indigenous sonic storytelling, creating what she deems distinctive compositions.

“I am part of a working group of Indigenous composers across the country and we have been struggling to define what it means to make Indigenous classical music. Our working definition is that the music is Indigenous if it is made by an Indigenous person. Basically I am just using viola as a vehicle to tell the Indigenous story. One thing I have been trying to integrate into my compositional process is using our spoken language as a basis for melodic and dramatic development,” McKiver says.

Her first EP Reckoning, released at the end of 2017, was nominated for an Indigenous Music Award the following year. The album was an expansion of the original score for the theatre production of the same name, created by Article 11, which is a Toronto-based Indigenous theatre company.

“I was treating the music cinematically – it was about the residential school experience. The character in the play is a first-generation new immigrant who encountered residential school survivors for the first time and it was about his emotional journey processing what happened to these people when they were children,” McKiver explains.

Reclaiming Indigenous connection

McKiver felt a close relationship with the material as she herself is the grandchild of a residential school survivor. Despite having never met her grandmother in person – she passed before McKiver was born – the musician said there is a wealth of information about the residential schools where one can draw common themes on understanding what happened to the survivors and how it has impacted the following generations.

“My mom was adopted for whatever reason – because residential school survivors were targeted by social welfare agencies once they have children. They weren’t given the rights to raise their own children, so we see the repercussion passing on to my mother and then passing on to me. There is the loss of our language and our access to the land,” McKiver says.

According to the musician, her grandmother went to residential school in the 1950s and her peers are still in living memory of the experience. Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools established since the 19th century to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian culture; the last residential school closed in 1996.

McKiver, raised in Ottawa, moved to Sioux Lookout in Treaty #3 in northwestern Ontario in 2016, where her extended traditional family is from, as she thought it important for her musical practice and her cultural identity. She also started learning the native language in her adult years after already being bilingual in English and French.

“We talked a lot about the notion of intergenerational trauma and I don’t just want to focus on trauma,” she says. “My grandma passed before I was born, but she is also my connection to the community. There is still the kinship notion where by maintaining relationship with my grandma, the rest of the community can recognize me as someone who wasn’t raised there, but came back later in life.”

Acknowledging that Indigenous artists are reaching a higher point in mainstream visibility, McKiver also works with digital video and photography to capture images of Indigenous resurgence. Her works Surveillapocalypse (2014) and Ga Waabmin Gaye / Nemolnek Elt Ni’nen (2014) have been screened and installed in Auckland, Brooklyn, Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.


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