This text is part of the Museums special section
Exploring the musical traditions of the circumpolar regions and their representations in the visual and performing arts: this is the aim of this exhibition presented at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until March 12, 2023.
Through a hundred works by renowned Inuit artists – sculptures, prints, drawings and installations – this exhibition illustrates the crucial role played by music in Inuit culture. The vast corpus of traditional and contemporary works, borrowed from the Inuit of Nunavik, Nunavut, Greenland, Siberia and Alaska, demonstrates that song and dance are intimately linked to the territory (nunaat).
Songs of throat
From the music of the circumpolar peoples, the knowledge of non-Inuit (Qallunaat) hardly goes beyond the astonishing throat singing performed by the women of Nunavik. “These musical performances are sung by modulating four sounds, emitted during exhalation or inhalation, and with the mouth open or closed,” explains musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, author of a reference book on the subject. This song is traditionally performed by two women face to face, according to a staggered framework on which a break of rhythms and sounds is superimposed. “At one point, one of the singers changes the tune and the other has to adjust her tune to stay in phase; it is very complex and the performers are real virtuosos”, adds this professor emeritus of musicology at the Université de Montréal.
Singing and shamanism
Through the exhibition Tusarnitut! The music that comes from the cold, the visitor learns that this throat song is extremely ancient; it was already practiced by the Chukchi people of Siberia, 8000 kilometers from the Inuit territory of North America, whose last passage through the Bering Strait is estimated at least 1000 years ago. Settling in North America, they brought elements of Asian arctic culture, including throat singing. “This traditional song therefore dates back at least 1,000 years, says Jean-Jacques Nattiez, making it the oldest form of Canadian music. By compiling archival documents and soundtracks from the 1970s, the ethnomusicologist and his team of researchers managed to establish that these sounds, which mimic the cries of animals, are spells directed at animals to agree to be captured by hunters. Hence their link with shamanism.
Interaction of spirits
One of the leitmotifs of the exhibition refers to this close relationship between Inuit music and shamanism. But throat singing is not the only example of this. “The drum dance, practiced from Siberia to Greenland via Nunavut, is also used to act on the soul of animals,” says Jean-Jacques Nattiez. Some sculptures of dancing bears and walruses playing drums illustrate the concept of “transformation” which leads shamans to change into animals and animals into human beings. Videos of shamans’ chants are also part of the collection Tusarnitut! A music that Jean-Jacques Nattiez qualifies as “survival music”, because it is intrinsically associated with nature, in particular with the spirit of animals.
In contact with the western world, the musical universe of the Inuit has let itself be penetrated by the music of the Inuit Qallunaat : folk, pop, rock and hip-hop. It remains Inuit, sung in Inuktitut, even if it blends traditional sounds with those of modern music. The recordings accessible via QR code also allow you to listen to some excerpts. This penetration even dates back to the time of the Christianization of the North: a beautiful print on display shows Inuit playing the accordion and others converted into violinists.
The theme of circularity
Visitors can also admire an engraving illustrating an igloo in which nuns are seated in a circle. The circle is one of the symbolic representations of the Inuit culture. The set designer Laurence Boutin Laperrière had the idea of installing panels in a central space in a circle whose shape refers to that of the igloo and the drum. Five drum models from Siberia to Greenland are on display, including an oversized one that evokes the central place the drum occupies in Inuit culture.
“The music that comes from the cold. Inuit arts, songs and dances »
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