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In 2020, Jessica McMann and her husband moved to Cochrane, a shift that had more of an impact than the musician and composer had perhaps been anticipating.
The flautist holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Calgary and was required to study composition as part of her course load. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that she began composing in earnest and delving into her culture, inspired by the view outside.
“Outside my studio window, I’m on the third floor, you can see the dusk happening from east to west because we are south-facing,” says McMann. “On the east, you have Cochrane, on the west, you have Morley and Star Ranch and the landscape of the reserve. In that moment of dusk – I just wrote it in that moment of seeing that change of colour. When I started working on the album, I started to reflect on what that meant. I looked at the pieces I already had written and I realized there was something about coming home, there’s something about my life as a Prairies person, as a Sixties Scoop adoptee, there is something about that journey. There is something about being from the Prairies and living on the Prairies and what does that mean to me as a Cree person.”
There is nothing on McMann’s new album, Prairie Dusk, to suggest she is a relative newbie to composing. The recording features McMann on flute and voice, American Navajo pianist Connor Chee, violist Holly Bhattacharya and Metis baritone Jonathon Adams but the compositions all came from McMann. This lineup will also be featured in an upcoming tour of western Canada, which includes an Oct. 29 show at Found Books in Cochrane.
The album, which also comes out Oct. 29, begins with Kayas-ayiwan, a haunting mix of piano flourishes and viola/flute lines gently drifting atop a windy backdrop that is meant to evoke “the ancient ones” of McMann’s culture. It’s followed by the multi-movement The River Has Man Ways of Being, which was partially inspired by a story of McMann’s late Cree grandmother. It’s followed by Stories for My People, which McMann composed in 2020 after receiving a grant from Calgary Arts Development and was inspired by Canadian residential schools. The mournful Lament for Small Souls follows, which blends McMann’s traditional Cree/a capella vocals with flute and was written in response to the discovery of mass graves of residential school children.
McMann was adopted by non-Indigenous parents in Alberta at the age of two as part of the Sixties Scoop, which refers to a period from the 1960s to 1991 when thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families. The multi-disciplinary artist had explored this history before in her dance pieces, but Prairie Dusk is the first time it has been incorporated into her music.
She was in high school when she began searching for and found her birth family.
“I started making those connections into Cree culture,” McMann says. “I feel like it’s a scattered experience but I feel more lucky than most because I know a lot of adoptees struggle with meeting their birth families. That doesn’t always go very well. I’m lucky in the fact that I had a positive relationship with my late grandmother and that I know my family and my extended family and they know me. A lot of adoptees don’t have that.”
McMann studied classical piano and then flute while growing up in Calgary. She also played in a Christian-rock band called Fresh New Vibes, which toured a circuit of Lutheran churches, from her pre-teen years until she began university. Her debut album, 2021’s Incandescent Tales, was recorded at the Banff Centre and featured traditional and contemporary music by other composers.
In August, McMann, Chee, Bhattacharya and Adams entered the National Music Centre studios in Calgary with producer Kenna Burima for a two-week session to record Prairie Dusk. McMann is already at work on a follow-up, an alt-pop album that will feature her vocals more dominantly. As a composer, McMann has been busy with commissions. She has worked with Early Music Vancouver and Vancouver’s re:Naissance Opera. She is also writing for a number of Indigenous opera singers in Canada, including Marion Newman and the Indigidivas and Jonathon Adams.
“There is this whole other life that started in 2020,” McMann says.
As with Incandescent Tales, McMann opted to use as many Indigenous artists as possible. That includes musicians but also collaborators such as Tianna Delorm, a nêhiyaw artist from Cowessess First Nation who designed the album cover.
“In classical music, it’s a very small community and we don’t often see the same level of support for that,” McMann says. “I believe there is an essence of voice that comes through when we have our own people on projects.”
Prairie Dusk comes out on Oct. 29. Jessica McMann, Connor Chee, Holly Bhattacharya and Jonathon Adams will perform at Found Books in Cochrane on Oct. 29.