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Cree composer Andrew Balfour, seen at the Forks in Winnipeg, is the founder and artistic director of the Winnipeg based 14-member vocal group Camerata Nova.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail

There are things you expect to hear from a classical-music composer like Andrew Balfour: that he grew up singing in a church choir. That he began playing an instrument at an early age – in his case, trumpet. That while other kids were grinding out guitar licks, miming Bruce Springsteen or David Bowie (he grew up in the 1970s), Balfour was air-conducting Beethoven.

Then there are the parts of Balfour’s life story that make eyes widen, as he talks, in even, measured tones, about being taken from his Cree mother when he was an infant in 1967, as part of the Sixties Scoop. Or when he tells you that he spent several years living in extreme poverty in downtown Winnipeg. Oh, and did he mention that he spent four months in prison?

Balfour shares these biographical details with shoulder-shrugging equanimity. They’ve all contributed to what he has become today: a highly sought-after composer who fuses classical-music tradition with Indigenous texts and themes to create works that range from shimmering soundscapes to unsettling sociopolitical commentary. One of his most arresting works, Take the Indian, features snippets of testimony from hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: “They took away my heritage, they talked of paradise with a whip, they came to me at night.” For a performance staged by Camerata Nova, the Winnipeg-based chamber choir that Balfour founded in 1996, the sopranos who sang those lines dressed in residential-school uniforms, while the tenors and basses wore black priests’ cassocks.

Toronto’s Tafelmusik and Mendelssohn choirs and the buzzy New York-based experimental ensemble Roomful of Teeth have all commissioned pieces from Balfour, and close to 20 groups across the country have performed his first published work, Ambe. The five-minute piece builds around a driving, rhythmic bass line that echoes the sound of a ceremonial drum – or, as Balfour has said, the heartbeat of Mother Earth – and projects a message of unity for all "two-legged beings.” The text is in Ojibway, and its energetic, welcoming message “seems to be something that people want to hear right now,” Balfour says.

It’s a far cry from Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus and the rest of the Western canon that dominates choral programming in North America. And for Canadian choir directors, that may be what’s most exciting about Balfour’s work. He’s drawing on his First Nations identity to nudge the Canadian classical-music scene out of its stodgy Eurocentric traditions.

But back in Winnipeg, in the early nineties, Balfour showed few signs of becoming a distinguished artist. He was in his 20s at the time, drinking heavily, living on welfare and watching his life unravel.

As a child of the Sixties Scoop, he considered himself lucky. He’d been adopted when he was six months old by a family with Scottish roots that he describes as loving and supportive. His parents shared their passion for music with him – his father, the minister at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Winnipeg, encouraged his choral singing, and played trombone. His mother was a violist.

But as Balfour grew older, he’d struggled, and become conflicted and confused about his identity. Attention-deficit disorder made focusing on schoolwork difficult. He dropped out of Brandon University after a year, plagued by growing pangs of isolation. His parents had relocated to British Columbia, and the move intensified feelings of abandonment that gnawed at him when he thought about his Cree background and his separation from his birth mother.

“I didn’t know who I was,” he says today, “or what I was meant to be.”

Balfour calls this period of his life his “lost years” – a bleary, liquid time when he dabbled in substance abuse and binge drinking, and on at least one alcohol-fuelled night, vandalism. In 1992, he was arrested for ripping the letter R out of a Royal Bank marquee – he was hoping to grab the O and the Y as well, to honour Montreal Canadiens goalkeeper Patrick Roy. He ignored the charges for a year or two, hoping they’d go away, but in 1995, he landed in Manitoba’s Milner Ridge Correctional Centre.

Most of the prisoners in Milner Ridge were Indigenous, and it was there, surrounded by First Nations and Métis men, that Balfour began exploring his Cree identity. He’d grown up knowing he was adopted and that his mother was a member of Fisher River Nation, north of Winnipeg, but he didn’t identify as Indigenous in a meaningful way.

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Balfour had a powerful spiritual experience during his time at the Milner Ridge Correctional Centre and from then on, he knew that he wanted to pursue his identity through music.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail

In prison, the men “saw something in me,” Balfour says. “It was like they recognized me, even though I didn’t necessarily look like them, and even though they’d lived much harder lives.

“They’d been through a lot – drugs, alcohol, addictions – but they accepted me like a brother.”

The inmates met with an Indigenous elder each week – Balfour remembers the scent of sage and sweetgrass hanging like a comforting cloud over the sessions – and one day, toward the end of Balfour’s sentence, the elder invited him to participate in a sweat lodge.

The experience was overwhelming. In the darkness of a forest that felt “like a womb,” he put forth the question, “Who am I? And what am I meant to become?”

The answer didn’t come that night, but he recalls a profound sense of feeling protected, as if something was watching over him and the other men attending the lodge. A message of sorts arrived about a week later, when he had what he describes as a vision: It felt like a near-death experience, he says, in which he was visited by people he’d known throughout his life, who spoke to him. None of it made sense at the time, and he still struggles to articulate what transpired exactly, but he’s certain about this: “It was another power, another spirit … something telling me that life was going to be okay. And from then on, that’s how I felt. And I knew that I wanted to pursue my identity through music.”

That sense of conviction helped him commit to a musical career. When he got out of prison, he started singing informally with a few other Winnipeg performers who shared his love of Renaissance music. The group became Camerata Nova, the semi-professional chamber choir that Balfour remains artistic director of today.

Balfour began composing for the ensemble early on, and his first compositions were settings of Christian texts. (Although he isn’t religious today – his father was careful not to impose his own faith on him, he says – years of attending church services have left him deeply familiar with sacred texts.) But over time, he started using music to explore Indigenous identity. For a 2007 work called Wa Wa Tey Wak (Northern Lights), he wrote a contemporary legend about a young Cree girl who lived 300 years ago and is transported by Raven, a trickster figure, to contemporary times to receive knowledge about the future of Indigenous people in Canada. Arriving in modern-day Winnipeg, no one can see her except “the lost tribe”: Indigenous street people.

Some of Camerata Nova’s more recent “concept concerts,” which feature work by Balfour as well as other composers, have explored Indigenous themes in more pointed ways: Taken, the first in a three-part series dedicated to the idea of truth and reconciliation for Indigenous people in Canada, explored the loss of land, culture and identity. The short oratorio that Balfour wrote for the concert told the story of 16th-century explorer Martin Frobisher bringing Inuit people back to England as “curiosities.” The second concert in the series, Fallen, examined the experiences of Indigenous soldiers who fought for Canada, centred on the story of a Manitoba hunter/trapper who enlisted to fight in the First World War. The final program, Captive (scheduled to premiere in Winnipeg in 2020), will consider Indigenous incarceration.

These days, Balfour divides his time between Manitoba, where he lives in Neubergthal – a Mennonite village south of Winnipeg, and Toronto, where his partner lives. While he writes both orchestral and choral music (Toronto Symphony Orchestra commissioned a short work from him that premiered in 2017), it’s his work for choirs that has captured the most attention.

David Fallis, interim director of the Mendelssohn Choir, says he became interested in him after hearing Toronto’s Trinity St.-Paul’s United Church choir perform Ambe and Take the Indian. When he began researching the composer’s work, he marvelled at Balfour’s range: “He has an Indigenous perspective on many things, but he is so knowledgeable about many styles of choral music. He might use Cree text in one piece, but then another piece that I was drawn to was written in Scots Gaelic.” For his Mendelssohn commission, which debuts this fall, he plans a musical setting of text from the Bible’s Book of Psalms, translated into Cree.

Balfour’s versatility has made it easier for him to breach the staunchly white bastions of the classical-music scene, which has been slower to embrace Indigenous artists than literature, film and even pop music have. Authors such as Tomson Highway and Eden Robinson have been publishing bestselling works for decades (Balfour identifies Highway’s 1998 novel Kiss of the Fur Queen as one of the books that first helped him begin to relate to his Indigenous identity). The Inuit film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner was the top-grossing Canadian film in 2002. Canadian pop-music listeners have embraced throat singer Tanya Tagaq, hip-hop band A Tribe Called Red and Jeremy Dutcher, who won last year’s Polaris Prize. Choirs and orchestras, meanwhile, with their fusty traditions that focus on centuries-old repertoire, hushed reverence for maestros and pained tut-tutting at inappropriate clapping, still lean heavily on Beethoven, Bach and Mozart.

The classical-music scene needs to change, Balfour says. “The landscape really needs to open up to new music and composers,” he says, rolling his eyes a little as he talks about artistic directors who program contemporary work, but rarely set aside more than half an hour to rehearse it because they want to focus on the “real music” of the evening: a standard such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “That’s where they really spend their time and attention, because they want to be able to make it their Rite of Spring. And that’s what needs to change.”

For now, at least, there’s no getting around the fact that when Balfour writes a choral work, the sea of faces that ultimately performs it will likely be white. And so, too, will the audience that listens to it. But he sees the growing awareness of Indigenous culture as an opportunity – not just to help classical music get over itself, but to further the process of reconciliation. “Our elected officials aren’t going to be the ones who can change things in this country. It’s the artists – our work is the medicine that will help us through all this and create the Canada that we want.”

Arts organizations that want to perform music with Indigenous themes and content need to be true collaborators, Balfour says. “They need to reach out, talk to elders, do a lot of listening; not just take a work and perform it however they want to.” When they don’t collaborate with Indigenous creators and communities, they risk misunderstanding words, traditions and context – and end up appropriating Indigenous voices and content in ways that reinforce Canada’s troubled colonial past. At a recent gathering in Banff, Alta., of the tiny community of classically trained Indigenous musicians in Canada, Balfour and nine other artists signed a manifesto in support of “musical sovereignty” that called for arts organizations to involve Indigenous artists in every step of the creative process.

When Voca Chorus, the Toronto-based community choir that I sing with, programmed Balfour’s Ambe for its spring concert this year, artistic director Jenny Crober invited Balfour to attend a rehearsal and speak with choristers about the work and its significance. Addressing the choir, he described how the ascending soprano line rises like “an eagle soaring” above the booming bass voices. He explained that the Ojibway text was welcoming – “Come in, all two-legged humans, there is good life here” – and he helped the choristers draw out the “m” in “Ambe” to correct their pronunciation and enhance the warmth of the sound.

“For me, meeting with you like this is so important,” he told the choir. “This is what needs to happen.”

He listened to the choir sing the piece one more time, nodding as it built to a thundering, almost rapturous crescendo. Then he turned to address the choristers and a smile cracked his face. “To hear you singing this work, with so much warmth and energy and respect … This is the Canada that I want to be part of,” he said.

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