My admiration and fascination with the Inuit culture of Canada’s far north began in 1988, when I spent several months in Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik) on a sort of “finding myself” personal quest that led me as far north as you can go on the planet. The Inuit people are utterly incredible to me … finding themselves in the most inhospitable wilderness on Earth, they nonetheless built a beautiful, thoughtful and peaceful culture that revolves around harmony with the natural world, and the importance of family and community. It has left a lasting impression on me, long after I returned to the south and the world of the qallunaat (white people). This piece is an attempt on my part to musically tell some of the stories and legends that were told to me, and embody my love and deep respect for the Inuit culture.
To the Inuit, the “Northern Lights” (aqsarniit / ᐊᖅᓴᕐᓃᑦ in Inuktitut) aren’t really “northern” at all, they’re right overhead. And some of the myths and stories I’ve heard about them attribute them with the spirits of ancestors, that can communicate with the living through their dreams. This, then was the beginning of the idea for this piece. It’s divided up into 9 sections, for a total playing time of approximately 35 minutes. It’s scored for large orchestra and choir, as follows:
- Flute 1 & 2 (1st doubling Piccolo)
- Oboe 1 & 2 (2nd doubling English Horn)
- B♭ Clarinet 1 & 2
- Bassoon 1 & 2
- French Horn 1 & 2
- B♭ Trumpet 1 & 2
- Trombone 1 & 2
- Harp 1 & 2 (2nd harpist only required for #5)
- Chimes (Tubular Bells)
- 3 Percussion (Timpani, Gran Casa, Triangle, Claves, Ratchet, Whip, Suspended Cymbal, Tam Tam)
- Strings (Violin 1 & 2, Viola 1 & 2, Cello 1 & 2, Contrabass)
- SATB Choir
- Bagpipes, utilizing only the drones (chanter stopped with cork)
The narrative for each of the sections is below:
1. signaktuumajuq – ᓯᖕᓇᒃᑑᒪᔪᖅ – The Dream
It begins with an Inuit man (an “Inuk”), possibly in his early thirties, who is the main character of our story. He is falling asleep, sitting in his igloo with his multi-generational extended family around him. He is sleepy and drowsing, but they are talking, laughing and playing games, including Throat Singing, a friendly competition between two women, which he hears hazily as he drifts from consciousness into the dream-world. Kaleidoscopic dream images swirl around him. Outside the igloo, the Aurorae billow in the sky, and seem to dip down from the heavens toward the lonely igloo, the only speck of light on the frozen tundra. Perhaps they want to tell our Inuk something…
2. nagligusuktuq – ᓇᒡᓕᒍᓱᒃᑐᖅ – In Love
Still in control of his own dreams, the Inuk dreams of the love he has for his family and his wife, of how they met when they were younger, and how much he cares for all of them. This gentle introduction to dreaming is to be short-lived, as his dream is about to be hijacked by the Aurorae …
3. angunasuktuq – ᐊᖑᓇᓱᒃᑐᖅ – The Hunt
Without warning, he is dreaming he is in the middle of a hunt, travelling with other Inuit on dog-sleds, rushing very fast toward something … perhaps there has been a narwhal killed by one of the hunters! The excitement of the chase consumes his dream self, and he is under the spell of the Aurorae.
4. nanuq – ᓇᓄᖅ – The Polar Bear
A large polar bear appears on the ice, loping along with it’s strange rhythmless gait, likely intent on the same prize as the hunters! They hurry, hoping to get there first, but the bear keeps pace and a confrontation appears imminent. Our hero is suddenly distracted, however, by a strange sight over the water out beyond the edge of the ice…
5. ujurumiak – ᐅᔪᕈᒥᐊᒃ – The Mirage
The dream-hunt forgotten, our Inuk stops and stares at a mirage. Caused by temperature inversions over the cold arctic seawater, water mirages (called Fata Morgana elsewhere in the world) are common in the arctic, and can make very distant objects seem to loom above the water, often upside-down or almost unrecognizable as their original forms – sometimes looking like huge castles on the horizon. The Inuk walks toward to the edge of the ice floe, transfixed by the shimmering sight. This is not a good idea.
6. qallupilluit sinaani – ᖃᓪᓗᐱᓪᓗᐃᑦ ᓯᓈᓂ – Qallupilluk
The Qallupilluit are mythical sea-creatures, who live in the cold arctic ocean, usually hiding under the ice, waiting to catch unsuspecting children or unwise adults who wander too close to the edge of the ice floe.
Like our Inuk is doing now.
Seeing their chance, the Qallupilluit attack our hero, catching him by surprise, despite the smell of sulfur that the creatures give off. He races across the ice, giving them a good chase, and puts up a brave fight, but they are fast, and determined, and eventually they have him in their scaly grasp.
However, instead of taking him to their lair and eating him (or whatever Qallupilluit actually do with their victims), they instead pick him up and bodily throw him (in dreams, you are very light) out into the ocean, far away from the safety of land or ice. In a panic, our hero realizes that he has become paralyzed, and, unable to swim, he begins to sink into the dark cold depths.
7. sanna – ᓴᓐᓇ – Sedna
Down he sinks … to his amazement, he finds he is able to breathe under water … down, ever down into the depths, to the dark cold place where Sedna, Inuit Goddess of the Sea, lives at the bottom of the ocean. Sedna is a friend to the Inuit, providing them with fish and sea mammals from her ocean bounty, which has allowed them to survive in the harsh arctic wilderness for millennia. This is why when a sea creature is killed by the Inuit, every part is used in some way, and the hunter must always remember to make an offering to Sedna to thank her for her kindness.
So it is, that our Inuk is not afraid when he finds himself at the bottom of the sea, looking upon the Goddess Sedna. She is surrounded by whales, dolphins, seals and other ocean animals, and more appear to be growing from the stumps of her fingers. Their plaintive calls reverberate in the deep.
Somehow, our Inuk knows that Sedna has things to tell him, but that he must ask her for assistance. Finding himself able to speak under water as well, he begins to ask questions, his human voice almost too small to be heard, amidst the songs of the whales. When Sedna answers his questions, her voice is like thunder, and the love-sighs of his wife, and the voice of his mother when he was a child, all at the same time. Her answers to his questions are full of divine wisdom, but the Inuk is retreating from Sedna, from the ocean, from the dream-world, and the sound of whales and Sedna speaking begins to merge with…
8. katajjait – ᑲᑕᔾᔭᐃᑦ – Throat Singing
… the throat-singing game that he was listening to as he fell asleep. Now he is awake again, and no time seems to have passed, everything in the warm little igloo is as it was, his precious family surrounds him. He cannot quite recall what valuable information Sedna had bestowed upon him, but he knows that the knowledge is within him, and will be available when he needs it in the future. For now, he is happy to be wrapped in the love of his family, and when one of the women makes a mistake in the throat-singing game, he laughs along with everyone else.
9. inaqu – ᐃᓇᖁ – Lullaby
As the night deepens (for it is always night in the arctic winter, just different shades of it), the flame in the kulik (oil lamp) gets lower, and it is time for bed. Everyone in the family climbs into their warm fur-lined beds, carved by our Inuk himself from the same blocks of ice he used to construct the house. Everyone is warm and dry, and as he looks around in the dim orange lamp-light, he feels a sense of pride, in having built a good sturdy house; a sense of security, knowing that his intelligent and practical wife will keep the kulik flame burning low next to their bed all night, waking periodically to tend to it quietly as everyone else sleeps, warmed by it’s glow; and a sense of love and hope for the future for his family. When the gentle lullaby is over, everyone is asleep.
Outside, unseen by all, the Aurora Borealis flicker far away in the heavens, having delivered their message to the Inuk successfully.
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