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Jeremy Dutcher 1
Credit: Vanessa Heins

Perspectives with Jeremy Dutcher: “To become anew we must first let go”

  • Interview
  • PHI Centre
By  Matthieu Carlier

Change is both a destructive and constructive force, a paradigm shift that sometimes means never going back. We analyse it as part of PHI Perspectives, a video series about how we imagine the future.

For the first episode, we interrogate the very concept of change. In order to better wrap our minds around its essence, it was important for us to discuss it with a person who spent his life building his future out of his ancestral Indigenous roots. A tenor, a musicologist and an activist, Jeremy Dutcher draws his material from old Wolastoq songs, applying them in classically-inspired compositions where past, present and future are intertwined. Together we investigate the duality of Indigenous lives, the old and the new coming together, and the role of art in the promotion of change.

PHI: As an artist constantly playing with musical genres and your Indigenous roots to come up with new concepts, it was essential for us to have your opinion on the subject of change.

Jeremy Dutcher: There's so much here to dig into. I'm really excited to address these things. You know, I believe there is a synapse in our brains that connects communities. My mother is Wolastoqiyik, and that is her first language. My father is non-Indigenous. So I sort of sit at this intersection of indigenous and non-Indigenous.

P: Do you feel you're growing from it or do you find yourself constantly in between?

JD: Wolastoqiyik means "the people of the beautiful river", and our neighbors are the Mi'kmaq. They have this concept called "two-eyed seeing": this idea that indigenous people have to behave in two ways, because we exist both in our traditional understanding, the one rooted in our culture, and the contemporary understanding around us. You know, I'm talking to you on the phone in my downtown apartment. There is a duality in this contemporary moment for indigenous people that you could describe as being caught between, but I view it as more of a value positive thing. I think we should celebrate this duality of perspectives. We need to hear from those in-between spaces, cause that's how we grow towards each other and how we hear each other's stories. For a long time, indigenous stories haven't been told by indigenous people, they've been told by Europeans who look upon them and create a story of what they think is going on. That's why it was important for me to prioritize our language and those old songs on wax recordings that I chose to work with.

"We need to hear from those in-between spaces, cause that's how we grow towards each other and how we hear each other's stories."

P: Is that why it is so important for you to take the past and make something new out of it?

JD: We sometimes get caught in this paradigm of old and new, but in the Wolastoq language there are no time tenses. We don't speak in the past, as everything is existing. So when I use old material to create a new song, all of this song is happening at once. It's a continual dialogue between past, present and future. Rather than seeing it as a limitation, I draw on all of those things and think about the way I am collapsing that time for people. The old and the new coming together, it's really sacred and that's what we've been doing as humans all along. This is how trees grow, how sediments grow: it's just one layer after another, adding just a little bit more each time and always growing from the past.

P: You got me thinking about artists from the Renaissance who take their inspiration from Greek Antique authors and sculptors, or the hip hop movement, that stem from rock'n'roll and jazz. They all just took parts of the past and added one extra layer to it.

JD: Exactly! You know, we can only speak from our individual perspective and from our time. As a young Indigenous person in this country, there are things that I want to say to my ancestors and things that I want to say to the generations that have yet to come. As artists, that's what we're here to do, we're here to look and report, and hopefully we can do it through beauty. Any creation has to be all three of those things: contemporary, "of the past" and looking forward.

P: Would you say you apply these mechanics of time to your life as well, even outside your musical practice?

JD: We, as Wolastoqiyik, are the people from the river Wolastoq (Saint John river). As such, I sort of live with the understanding that change is constant. The river is always flowing. In the way I structure my days and my life, I try to keep engaged with that sense of flow. I am fortunate enough to have this kind of life where I can follow where I'm called, in this very unstructured way. Engaging in a deep sense of presence in the moment allows us to give up that past or future worry, bringing love to each and every interaction you have.

Credit: Vanessa Heins

P: Listening to your music and not knowing your Indigenous roots, one could actually hear something entirely new. Drawing from your classical training and your Wolastok heritage, you seem to have crafted your own personal approach.

JD: A lot of the European and American conception of who Indigenous people are comes from movies or the news, without really having a direct relationship with Indigenous people. We are mythical to some people, and by keeping Indigenous people in the realm of myth, we don't give them humanity. Even after Christopher Columbus got lost on our shores, we continued to evolve and create, and I hope people can understand that.

P: Historically, there has always been this dichotomy of the new world versus the old world, and even though you don't want to think in this terms, it keeps coming up. So artists like you can show other paradigms.

JD: Exactly, I do hope I can offer a new paradigm. You know, when Europeans arrived here, they thought that we had nothing to teach them, and that's how this entire continent has been evolving since then. It's funny, I think just now, on the verge of ecological collapse, we are starting to turn back to try and understand Indigenous people. It took a world disaster for the paradigm shift to happen.

"I think just now, on the verge of ecological collapse, we are starting to turn back to try and understand Indigenous people."

P: Futurist Ted Schilowitz, who appears in our video "On Nature Of Change", came up with the idea of pivoting moments, which he describes as “acts of cannibalism, moments where you reinvent and destroy the core of your business to come out with a renewed perspective”. Have you gone through such moments of cannibalism?

JD: I think this idea of a pivoting moment is beautiful. It reflects this freedom that we have to reinvent the way we exist. There is something like a self-death in this very moment that a lot of people experience, in that in order for us to become anew we must first let go of who we thought we were. And yes, there has definitely been a couple moments in my life that have been this kind of active self-cannibalism. Every LGBTQ person experiences this kind of pivot when they come out, just by sharing with the people they love who they really are. And you have to let people's expectations of you die. I was 12 years old when I came out...

P: That's really young... Is that because you knew your family would accept it without any problem or is it you being very bold?

I think it's the boldness. There was no assurance of acceptance I could feel around me. But I knew, and I just told them. There is a mystery to that act of just jumping across and letting people know. To me, that is pivotal. Also, when I went to the archive and found these old Wolastoq songs: when I first sat down to hear these sounds from over 110 years ago, it was like looking back into the past. I saw that as a moment of guidance, to understand that I was there to translate everything that I had seen at the archive back into my community.

On Nature Of Change | PHI Perspectives

P: That said, could change be motivated by something new entirely, without any foundation? Can you imagine making art without having to reflect on the past?

JD: That's the thing: what's “new entirely”? You know, I have this icon of mine. She is called Buffy Sainte-Marie and she is the matriarch of Indigenous music. She talks a lot about the idea of ripening. That all we have to do is to ripen.

P: The constant reinvention of oneself...

JD: Exactly. But does that mean that there is never anything new? No. Technology and humanity were evolving in this kind of double helix, sort of spiralling around each other. And you know, the more tools we have to create, the more we ripen. There is something very egotistical about wanting to be an artist and create something new.

P: But you can be egotistical as long as you live up to it.

JD: Just as long you’re excellent… (Laughs) And that’s what I rely on: excellence… But yeah, in a certain way, we need to be egotists, because we feel we have something to say that other people might want to hear. But also, it’s the most selfless gift that you give to people around you as well.

Credit: Vanessa Heins
"Every LGBTQ person experiences this kind of pivot when they come out, just by sharing with the people they love who they really are."

P: So it’s like this idea that art is catharsis, that by sharing your emotions you allow others to give birth to their own emotions. And in a way, this also is a source of change.

JD: I like to think that humanity and all creation is this big net, and we’re all healing machines. That’s one of our great gifts, this ability for complex emotional thought and specifically empathy. Through sharing our experience and being able to hear others’ in return, we are changed. We move differently, we see the world differently, we interact differently. When we hear other people’s stories, there is an exchange of something that can not be taken back. And I think that with the work I’ve gone about and shared, you know, the music and the language of my ancestors, people might not understand linguistically, but they will read their own experience into what you’ve got to say. That’s why I really love to sing in my language, it offers people a window into their own way of understanding themselves.

P: Let’s broaden the topic a little. Talking about pivotal moments, do you think we’re going through one at the moment, as a society?

JD: I think there has been a lot happening on this plane of existence. Think about myself as an entity, and the fact that we are talking right now because you think that I have something to say. Now think one generation ago: an Indigenous and queer person could not talk to a lot of people. That was just not a thing that existed. That shows how far we’ve come. Today I’m allowed to bring Indigenous narratives into spaces where they hadn’t been before. It’s a great honour that I get to carry our stories into the National Art Centre or the Royal Ballet, all those Canadian institutions that hadn’t had a relationship with Indigenous stories. And right now, stuck at home and going through a pandemic, we’re seeing just how much of the old world was actually unnecessary. Like office jobs or massive food production. It’s a wake up call, but how do we look at this time for what it is? How do we create a more sustainable path to make a better world, one where we are more in relation to the earth and to each other? Now we are faced with two roads: one of kinship, family, and of coming together, and the other of continued exploitation and selfishness. Throughout history, we’ve kept making the same choices, and if we continue in the same way, we will have to go back in time again and again.

P: In any case, we either take the path of kinship now or the world goes to hell in every possible way.

JD: Certainly, the outcome of the wrong choice is something that none of us wants to bring into the world. We all want harmony and for our kin to flourish at the end of the day. Some people consider their kin as whoever is in their house, but if we extend our kinship to our community, and even past that, our nation, or even all of humanity and creation, we can make a real change. The more I extend my sense of my kinship, the less it becomes about me.

PHI Perspectives

PHI Perspectives consists of a series of conferences with influential figures organized by the PHI Centre, every iteration sharing a common ambition—to re-evaluate our age-old systems, and to propose a shift in established models. Each event will act as material for videos on contemporary issues, commented by Cheryl Sim, Managing Director and Curator at the PHI Foundation. A journey through evolving thoughts, between theory and change, balancing technology and narration, and producing knowledge for future generations.

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