Born in 1966, Odawa composer Barbara Croall (Manitoulin Island, Kineu Dodem) is active internationally, with works performed throughout Canada, the United States, Mexico, across Europe, and the Far East. At the age of five she was playing the pipigwan (Native flute) and the drum dewe’igan. Apart from playing, performing and composing on traditional Native flutes and singing in traditional ceremonies, Barbara is also trained classically. She obtained the Associate degree (ARCT) in piano performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto). After earning the Bachelor of Music degree in composition from the University of Toronto and receiving the Glenn Gould Award in Composition (1989), she continued her studies in Europe. She obtained diplomas from the Centre Acanthes in France and the Musikhochschule in Munich, Germany. Among her distinguished European mentors were Peter Maxwell Davies, Robert Saxton, and Helmut Lachenmann.
Overlapping her time of studies in Europe, Barbara was a Resident Composer, 1998-2000, with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra where her works were performed under Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Among these was The Four Directions that also makes reference to the four winds as transformational sound characters from a contemporary Anishinaabe perspective, and When Push Comes to Shove, a work which was dedicated to her aunt who committed suicide at the age of 25 after enduring continual harassment from her male co-workers in the corporate sector where she had worked hard to achieve a position as the only woman (and Anishinaabekwe) among a field of men in the upper level of an international corporation. Barbara composed the incidental and theme music for the opening ceremonies of the 2002 North American Indigenous Games in Winnipeg. Subsequently her music—whether composed for soloists, chamber ensemble, orchestra, film, theatre, dance and interdisciplinary performances and often including participation by Indigenous musicians— has been premiered and featured at many international festivals, including: Murten Festival (Switzerland), Festival d’Avignon (France), ADevantgarde Festival neuer Musik (Munich, Germany), Aboriginal Music Days 2000 (Toronto, Canada), Made in Canada New Music Festival (Massey Hall, Toronto), Motoperpetuo – International Arts Festival for Sculpture, and Poetry & Music (Pescocostanzo, Italy), Is Arti Contemporary Music Festival (Lithuania), Music Niagara (Canada), Comuarte Music Festival (Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City), Northlands Exchange (Finland), Chamberfest (Ottawa, Canada), Brott Festival (Hamilton, Canada), Montreal Bach Festival (Quebec), among others.
ERGO was founded by Croall in 1999 to promote creations and performances of diverse contemporary compositions, particularly in exchange with composers from outside Canada, with a particular focus on women composers and musicians of diverse cultural backgrounds globally, including Indigenous women. In 2000, ERGO was ensemble-in-residence at Columbia University under the guidance and mentorship of French composer Tristan Murail. In 2006 ERGO brought to Toronto esteemed Maori composer, Gillian Karawe Whitehead, and honoured Maori scholar, Aroha Yates Smith, for a special concert for CBC Radio Two recorded by David Jaeger at the Glenn Gould Studio (featuring a number of Whitehead’s chamber works, including her ERGO-commissioned piece, Hineteiwaiwa), and with educational seminars at First Nations House at the University of Toronto. In 2008, ERGO gave Canadian premieres of chamber works by acclaimed Mexican composer, Georgina Derbez. Professional recordings of a number of ERGO-commissioned and premiered works have garnered prestigious awards and merit for a number of composers. To promote Indigenous women’s artistic and cultural activities, she founded Women of the Four Directions (WFD), which continues to present concerts, including at the Stratford Music Festival (2017) where Kontiwennenhá:wi, the traditional Kanien’keha (Mohawk) women’s singing group from Akwesasne, performed a special series of concerts to re-Indigenize for the first time the outdoor performance space Tom Patterson Island on the Stratford Festival grounds.
Barbara was shortlisted in 2003, 2007 and 2012 for the K.M. Hunter Award in the Arts, received a Visual and Expressive Arts Program Award (National Museum of the American Indian, 2009), and was nominated for a Dora Award (2012). As a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music/Glenn Gould School (Toronto), Barbara received numerous scholarships, including a student assistantship from Frederick Harris Music Publishing, and awards from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (NAAF). Broadcasts and her recording credits include: CBC Radio Two (In Performance and Two New Hours), CBC Radio One (Shift, Drive), Bayerishe Rundfunk – Bayern 3 (Germany), Deutsche Radio Swiss (DRS-II), Radio France, Italian National Television, APTN (Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network).
Her composition Caribou Song (1999/2001), an 18-minute composition for orchestra, narrator and dancers, was a setting of Tomson Highway’s children’s story Caribou Song (Atihko Nikamon), which was subsequently published as a book by Harper Collins. Commissioned by the Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra as a Millennium 2000 Project (under the aegis of Nicholas Goldschmidt), it was then subsequently performed as a chamber version (Manitoba) in 2001 which then toured to the Murten Festival in Bern, Switzerland (featured on an ERGO concert there, with ERGO musicians performing woodwinds and percussion), and then with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2002. In her composition Barbara transformed the orchestra members into the caribou, using their instruments and feet to bring the caribou to life. Abby Cote wrote in Birchbark News: “Imagine the sound of 10,000 caribou stampeding around you while you watch people perform a mythical dance. The music and the dance sequence blended so well that you were transported to the tundra where you shared in the joyous laughter of two children as they danced to call the caribou”.
In her compositions she draws on her rooted Anishinaabe oral-tradition way of creating songs as the basis of her pieces, ranging from simpler lullaby style songs to more complex pentatonicisms which include slides, pitch bends and inclusion of the natural microtonalities of pitch and a wide timbral range of sounds available in the voice and on acoustic instruments, including the pipigwan (Anishinaabe cedar flute) which she has frequently utilized in her works. Barbara approaches composing for all instruments in an organic way, working directly on the instruments exhaustively first in order to understand their true nature and unique sound capabilities. As a theory student of acclaimed author Grace Vandendool, then of Walter Buczynski (pupil of Nadia Boulanger), Samuel Dolin (pupil of Ernst Krenek and E. Robert Schmitz), Sasha Rapoport, and Art Levine, Barbara learned how to integrate the detailed craft of harmony and counterpoint from Western European perspectives into her own musical language.
Her numerous works exemplify harmonic and pitch spectrum complexities (including microtonal pitches) and contrapuntal complexities (including micro polyphony with a density of many lines, as also influenced in her auditory experiences of immersive listening within nature, such as frogs singing, insects, bird songs, wind/water/ice/fire, etc.). Her most tonally dense work, When Push Came to Shove (1998-2000) for large symphonic orchestra, utilized massive cluster chords (orchestral tutti) as architecturally transformational shapes and hyper-psychological states pushed to the maximum of intensity, then timbral transparency. Barbara also acknowledges the indelible influence of tone colours and chord structures in the music of French composer Oliver Messiaen (numerous pieces for piano she has also performed, especially from the Vingt Regards sur l’infant-Jésus) and her own development of aleatoric techniques and aspects of improvisation in solo, chamber and orchestral piece. In numerous works, Barbara has created her own poetic texts in the Odawa/Ojibwe languages, including for her theatrical song cycle, Bigiiwe (2006-07) commissioned by the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto for mezzo-soprano Marion Newman (Kwagiulth/Stó:lo First Nations)—a work which dealt with the topic of cultural genocide and sexual abuse within the residential school system in Canada.
She is frequently a Distinguished Composer/Visitor at universities, including at the University of Mary Washington (Virginia, 2006), and at Wesleyan University (2009-10) where she was Composer-in-Residence and commissioned to compose a work about Climate Change, which has subsequently been performed in Canada by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the National Academy Orchestra and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. In 2002, Barbara was composer-in-residence at the St. Norbert Arts Centre in Manitoba. There her site-specific outdoor multi-media interdisciplinary theatre work based on the Seven Sacred Grandfather Teachings – The Meeting Point of the Seven (2002) – was performed. This work “approaches history and time as a many layered transparency, whereby the past, present and future intersect and interact with one another.”
Barbara has been Composer-in-Residence for the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival a number of times spanning from 2004. During 2014, she was Guest Lecturer for the Lisa Waxer Memorial Lecture Series at York University lecturing on the connection between Midewiwin beliefs, women’s singing, traditional lifeways, and Anishinaabeg methods of water ecology of the Great Lakes System and its related tributaries. In 2017 she was a Guest Featured Composer at the Strata Festival (Saskatoon SK) where her ‘musical journey-narrative’ chamber work for the festival, Waasa (Far Away, 2017) covered the topic of First Nations children who died trying to escape from residential schools. Her mother, a residential school survivor, recounted witnessing other children running away, being re-captured and severely punished, disappearing and dying during her own time of schooling as a child nearly 500 miles away from her home reserve.
Among her highly acclaimed recent works are Mijidewinan (Messages), a fifteen-minute work in 10 episodes for symphony orchestra and solo Anishinaabek performer-vocalist-traditional flutist with original songs and texts in Ojibwa/Odawa. Premiered in 2009 by the Wesleyan University Orchestra (Middleton, Connecticut), the work was performed by the National Academy Orchestra in 2015, and then again by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra in 2018. Croall wrote that the work: “follows the directions of the sun — something which is an important part of many First Nations ceremonies … beginning in complete darkness before the sun begins to rise, then moving through the gradual ascent and eventual gradual descent of the sun, as we return to darkness again at the end — but this time with the light of a multitude of stars shining down upon us from the sky world, signalling to us the ancient foreknowledge, wisdom and guidance contained in star patterns above that has always been available to us … about how to live in balance, below, here on earth.” (BC)
In 2017 Barbara composed her first chamber opera, Wiikondiwin. The title means “feasting”, and the idea and concept came from Barbara based on her own experiences growing up immersed in nature, as an educator in the field of environmental outdoor education, traditional Anishinaabeg teachings from Elders, and her vision experiences during fasting ceremonies in the deep woods of Manitoba and Ontario over the span of her life. Barbara created the libretto for her opera in the Odawa, Métis French, and English languages under the guidance of Elders in her family and community. Wiikondiwin deals with the transformational and time-traveling abilities of animals of the forest on a mission to rescue the world from destruction due to humans.
In 2018, Saia’tatokenhti: Honouring Saint Kateri, her large-scale orchestral theatre work commissioned by the McGill Chamber Orchestra and conductor Boris Brott, was a collaboration with the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) communities of Kahnawake and Akwesasne to honour the legendary Mohawk woman Saint Kateri Tekawitha, the first Indigenous North American woman to receive sainthood (2012). This 35-minute multi-media work, which was a ‘Canada 150: Next Chapter’ project awarded support by the Canada Council, involved live orchestra with dramatic narration of an original text in the Mohawk language by Kanien’kehá:ka scholar and writer, Darren Bonaparte (Akwesasne), featuring Kanien’kehá:ka traditional hymn singers, and Kanien’kehá:ka dancers (Six Nations) with theatrical direction and original choreography by Indigenous Colombian choreographer Alejandro Ronceria, with high-tech 3-D digital mapping projections and lighting design by Isaac Rayment. The world premiere performances in October 2018 at Kahnawake Church (where St. Kateri’s tomb is located) and Montreal’s Église St. Jean Baptiste marked this historic occasion for honouring St. Kateri.
Barbara is also honoured to be one of several composers commissioned by the Ensemble Made in Canada for their innovative Mosaïque Project (2018-20)—a suite of piano quartets by 14 composers across Canada celebrating the cultural diversity and varied landscapes of Canada, which features audience participation of creating artwork on iPads while listening to live performances during the project’s cross-Canada tour to many communities. Funding for this commission was from the generosity and kindness of Kris Vikmanis and Denny Creighton (Toronto).
In November 2018 Barbara’s new work, Zasakwaa (There is a Heavy Frost, 2018) specially composed for internationally-acclaimed Quebec mezzo-soprano, Julie Boulianne and flautist, Timothy Hutchins (principal flute, OSM/MSO), featuring an original poetic text by Barbara in the Odawa language, received its world premiere in Montreal with the McGill Chamber Orchestra under the baton of maestro Boris Brott who requested this work.
Barbara has worked with leading international conductors, such as: Simon Streatfeild (England/ Canada) Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Finland), Andrei Feher (Canada/Romania), Elgar Howarth (England), Andrew Mickelthwate (Germany/Canada), Alex Pauk (Canada), Alain Trudel (Quebec), Boris Brott (Canada), Tania Miller (Canada), Eric Paetkau (Canada), Fabio Mastrangelo (Italy/Russia), Judith Yan (Canada), Gillian MacKay (Canada) and David Bowser (Canada).
Slated for 2019 are premieres of Barbara’s new works: an oratorio. Miziwe … (Everywhere…) in the Odawa language (with some Ojibwe) for the Pax Christi Chorale under the baton of David Bowser, featuring soloist Krisztina Szabo (mezzo-soprano), Justin Welch (baritone), Rod Nettagog (Ojibwe traditional singer) and Barbara herself (vocals and pipigwan); a new concerto for timpani and chamber string orchestra with Thirteen Strings (Ottawa) featuring timpanist Ed Reifel, under the baton of maestro Kevin Mallon; new works for children’s choirs (with separate texts in Algonquin and Odawa languages), and adult choirs (Barbara’s original text in the Odawa language), and small chamber ensembles.
Press – Critical Acclaim
About When Push Came to Shove (1998/2000) for large symphony orchestra
“A sense of musical and spiritual collapse at the end gives it a strong shape and direction … The animal-like scrabblings of stringed instruments, the ritualistic use of the tam-tam, the frenetic life-pulse of the bass drums and timpani … In the end, Croall’s piece emerged as the high point of the evening. That’s a compliment to this gifted young composer.” – The National Post (Canada)
About Dagwaagin (It is Autumn, 2008) for large symphony orchestra and Anishinaabekwe performer
“The concert opened with a commissioned work entitled ‘Dagwaagin’ by composer Barbara Croall who also narrated the poetry in Anishinaabe. The term ‘onomatopoeic’ refers to words that imitate sounds they describe – murmur being one quoted example. Croall’s work attempts to musically portray the sounds of nature, specifically autumn. She doesn’t just see nature – she feels it, and thus has been able to capture the very essence of nature. The piece is so vivid that her audience feels it too. Conductor Martin MacDonald and the N.A.O. interpreted the composition with a tenderness bordering on veneration; at the finale I was emotionally in awe.” – Ontario Arts Review
About Stories From Coyote (2000) for native storyteller and orchestra:
“The stories were both interesting and fun, and the music fascinating as the musicians resorted to using their instruments in unique ways to achieve sounds of the forest conceived by the composer”. – Kamloops This Week (Kamloops, B.C.)
“… the audience was treated to the world premiere of the music commissioned by the orchestra as a millenium project. …. Filled with bird calls, sounds of the wind rustling through the trees and ice crackling under foot, the modern sounds use rattles, drums and various parts of the more conventional instruments”. – The Daily News (Kamloops, B.C.)
About Noodin (1999) for two flutes:
“Two flutes push each other toward a typhoon – rustling, roaring, whistling, thundering and shivering. The sound dies after an orgiastic dance: what remains is a play of the wind, a whisper”. – Suddeutsche Zeitung (Germany)
“Croall’s ‘Noodin’, for two flutes, was a standout on Friday. Its title apparently comes from the Ojibwe/Odawa language and means ‘there is a wind’. Brilliantly written and brilliantly performed…the piece captured – without taming – the elemental force of wind, spirit and nature … a huge range of dynamics, colours and emotions – using percussive ‘spitting’, flutter-tonguing, ‘shrieks’ and, at the end, ethereal sounds reminiscent of electro-acoustics or crystalline eagle cries…Croall’s piece was gripping from beginning to end”. – The National Post (Canada)
“a new work by Canadian First Nations composer Barbara Croall brought the audience to its feet at Windsor Symphony concerts at Capitol Theatre… the world premiere of Croall’s Wezoowaad Anang, or Shooting Star, a musical and dramatic portrait of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh.
Croall’s work is comprised of 13 vignettes from the life of the great native leader, from his birth to his battles alongside the British in the War of 1812. He was killed near present-day Thamesville, east of Chatham, in 1813. … The work, which was commissioned by WSO, is a compelling stage piece…” – The Windsor Star
Zaagi’diwin Nagamon (Love Song), CD Journey in Brass, Hannaford Street Silver Band, ODR 7451 (2017)
In Her Own Words
“I always aim for a connectivity between the human and non-human aspects of life as intertwined,” explains Barbara Croall in a written project description of Miziwe… In it she describes the work’s “expansive use of vocal and instrumental techniques and expressive meaningful breathing in various ways to extend beyond merely human notions of sound, to include sounds that we hear in nature.” …”I never use ceremonial or sacred material in my music. …Most often, the basis of a piece of music I create will be a song of my own – often influenced or inspired by sounds I hear in my time spent outdoors within nature in remote areas …this reflects my own personal need to feel interconnected with the rhythms and flow of life within nature.”
Chang, Bryan. “Giving Life to an Odawa Oratorio.” TheWholeNote 24/6 (March 2019), 30-31.
Contact Information & Links
Official website: barbaracroall.ca