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The North in music

December 29, 2011

Lately, I have come across representations of north, as well as more complex identifications with ideas of northern-ness, in a wide variety of musical genres. My introduction to the north in music wasn’t actually aural, but literary–I read a couple of articles that analyzed representations of north in several Canadian operas.

(To be clear, I am aware that there are highly talented musicians who live in the north–including Inuit, Athabascan and Sami performers–and hopefully I’ll get around to showcasing some of them. This post, however, is about different modes of representing north in sound–whether through the storytelling tradition of the opera or through the very climatic conditions of the polar regions).

First, the problems with expressing “north” in a traditional format:

Laurel Parsons, in her essay called “Anerca: Representations of Inuit Poetry in Twentieth-Century Art Music,” argues that the three musical compositions she analyzes transform rather than express the Inuit poems anthologized by Edmund Carpenter in Anerca (a collection of Inuit poems that I’ve discussed in a previous post). She explains,

I deliberately use the word ‘transformed’ rather than ‘expressed’, because in almost every case the European-style modernist language used by these composers is as foreign to Inuit poetry and music as one could possible imagine. Indeed, of the six composers represented here, only one had actually visited the Arctic regions and had contact with Inuit people prior to composing Anerca. These compositions thus instantiate a dichotomy of discourses, one rooted in ancient, oral, and rural indigenous traditions, and the other in modern written and urban Euro-Canadian culture.

Sherrill Grace writes, in “From the ‘Hand of Franklin’ to Frobisher: Opera in the Canadian North,”

What counts in this song [Stan Roger’s ‘Northwest Passage’], apart from the pure, haunting melody, is the dream of northern adventure, of masculine conquest, and of what has been, for so many centuries, an unattainable goal: passage across the frozen Arctic to find paradise, riches, or glory.

Both mention Glenn Gould who, although not the father of Canadian arctic music, is certainly the most famous (and controversial) practitioner of it:

This is Glenn Gould, and this program is called The Idea of North. I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country. I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. But like all but a very few Canadians, I’ve had no real experience of the North; I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider, and the North has remained for me a convenient place to dream about, spin tales about, and in the end, avoid.

While Gould claims to have “gone there,” in reality he spent very little time in Churchill, Manitoba before returning south and forever after “avoiding” north at all costs. Parsons, Grace and Gould all identify a pertinent aspect of north in the music they analyze or produce: none of the singers or writers write from the north in any capacity, they only write their desires of north from a southern perspective, armchair travelers producing the sound of fictional norths.

But this is not the sum total of the polar regions in music. The Arctic and Antarctic have inspired artists to tell much more profound, yet elusive stories that are not made from the narratives inspired by human action in the north or south, but in the very elements  and animals that make up the polar regions: ice, temperature, seals. The following representations of atmosphere, climatic conditions and natural elements in music tell a different sort of story than human desire for riches, glory, immortality all caught within generic conventions that are easily consumable by an audience situated far south of where the action takes place. The following are several artists, recordings and genres that are more intimately intertwined with north than the operas of Anerca, Gould’s Idea of North, or songs about the search for the NorthWest passage.

Paul D. Miller’s The Book of Ice

DJ Spooky (aka Paul. D. Miller) was inspired on a trip to Antarctica to record the sounds of ice, to produce as music the haunting tones of what he terms a “historical archive” frozen in time.

The Book of Ice is a collaboration between Paul D. Miller, Columbia University’s Brian Greene, and Ross A. Virginia, Director of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College. From the publisher:

Using photographs and film stills from his journey to the bottom of the world, along with original artworks and re-appropriated archival materials, Miller ponders how Antarctica could liberate itself from the rest of the world. Part fictional manifesto, part history and part science book, Book of Ice furthers Miller’s reputation as an innovative artist capable of making the old look new.

The project is not just a book, however. On the webpage that announces the book’s release, we also learn about how DJ Spooky has been incorporating ice into his musical pursuits. I highly recommend clicking on the easily overlooked tab under the video for the “Terra Nova Trailer Edit,” titled: “John Schaefer interview with DJ Spooky on The Book of Ice accompanied live by the Telos Ensemble on WNYC. Oct 20, 2011.” It runs for about twenty minutes and includes performances of two of DJ Spooky’s ice inspired pieces with smart commentary by him on the history of people’s interest in ice and what his talents bring to recording a material history of ice.

Although, again, not of the Arctic, Werner Herzog’s 2007 film on the dreamers, wanderers and questers that end up in Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, also introduces the strange world of sound in the south polar region:

Seal sounds from Encounters at the End of the World

My favorite part of the clip is a very Herzogian directorial moment when all three scientists lie down out on the ice to listen to the endless performance of “Pink Floyd” in the “world beneath” them.

Moving back north, Norway appears to be on the forefront of music from, on and about ice.

From a poorly written article on Norway’s “Iceman” from the Daily Mail:

Terje, from Bergen in Norway, became known as the Iceman after he started making music with instruments carved out of blocks of ice drawn from a nearby lake…He begun by hitting frozen stalactites before moving on to forging his own instruments…In 2006 he founded the annual Icemusic Festival on a mountainside at Geilo in Norway. Unsurprisingly many of his songs have a winter theme. According to Terje different types of ice produce completely different sounds and while it looks perfect, man-made ice sounds appalling and is completely unsuitable. The best-sounding ice he’s found came from a glacier in the north of Sweden. He said: ‘You can have a hundred pieces of ice and ten will sound good and 90 will sound bad.’

Click here to read the article. I recommend watching the included video to hear some of the sounds that his ice-carved instruments produce.

Also Norwegian, but interested in “icy tonal ranges” rather than ice as an instrument, the black metal band, Taake, and their recent release, Nordbundet (the Norwegian Black Metal movement seems to be attempting to refute Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s insistence on the friendliness of the Arctic).

Nordbundet means “northbound” in Norwegian (and Taake means “fog”). According to the youtube post, this is the official video for the track and Nordbundet can be found on the album “Noregs Vaapen,” released on Dark Essence Records 2011. Also,

Directed by Torgeir Ness Sundli, the video, for song “Nordbundet”, is a mix of live footage of the band interspersed with scenes of the countryside around TAAKE’s home town of Bergen, which have been filmed by founder and front man Hoest, who also produced the video.

The scenes not of the band performing are all wintry views of the Norwegian countryside with a special emphasis on trees and mountains. I don’t have a translation of the lyrics, but the combination of the title and the snow-covered, remoteness of the images give me an idea of what the song is about.

And finally, some notes written by Chris T. on Norwegian Black Metal (or, the rejection of opera as the sound of the North):

Taake (formerly called Thule, in fine northern fashion) are a good example of the extremely icy production style found in black metal. This production style was used by the original 80s black metal bands (notably Bathory) unintentionally. They were recording in their garage so that was the best sound they could achieve. The Norwegian bands of the 90s then embraced and perfected this, giving it meaning along the way. It came to represent the sublime aspects of their environment. Also, you may notice the fast and constant picking style (“tremolo picking”). This is intended to make the riffs more atmospheric so that the whole thing washes over the listener. (Admittedly this music is an acquired taste aimed at a small audience, so feel free to not like it. Headphones are recommended for all of these songs.)

Taake, Nattestid Sar Porten I

While Taake has a good balance of black metal’s raw and majestic characteristics, Emperor takes the romantic and majestic side of things much further. The production style is still cold with the high pitched guitar tones and vocals (this vocal style is, by the way, a reaction to death metal’s growly, bodily vocal style. Black metal vocals are disembodied and ghost-like. It is a very inorganic style of music).

Emperor, I Am the Black Wizards

To round out this sampling, I must include my favorite band of all-time, Darkthrone. Darkthrone defined early 90s Norwegian black metal with their album “A Blaze in the Northern Sky”. They started out as a death metal band for one album before stripping all the warmth from their sound to create truly raw and evil sounding music. Even the album covers in black metal as a whole went from colorful to black and white from this point on. They are, for me, the prime embodiment of the sublime–the most threatening elements of their surroundings are what they embrace as a beautiful (notice the call for “eternal winter” at 3:17 in this track). The connection here between black metal and 18th-19th century romanticism is no accident on the part of many of the musicians.

Darkthrone, The Pagan Winter

While something of the epic still resides in these black metal compositions, the acting subject is no longer singular and heroic (like in the opera) and the north is not a place to be conquered to the will of man–for riches, for glory, for narrative immortality (as southerners would make it). Black metal’s version of north is just that, a version, but in bringing all of these different sounds of the poles together (all with their own particular history, motivation and blindness), I hope to offer a soundscape that is as diverse, divisive and intriguing as the poles are themselves.

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