Friday, February 5, 2010

On Thin Ice

The history of Uummannaq Music  started on that gloomy day in early December when we noticed that our dear friend, Tiina Itkonnen, the most talented Finnish artist and  Polar photographer, joined the FB group  “Children's Home Uummannaq - Piano tuning”.

 “The piano at the home is so out of tune, cried out  the FB  message.  We are raising funds for sending a piano tuner from Ilulissat to Uummannaq. A round trip fare on

Air Greenland to Uummannaq and back will cost about 3.500 DKK and the tuning 1.500 DKK….”

Joel and I were intrigued by the message.
We both knew about the Children’s Home – a cozy retreat for abandoned Eskimo children in the snows of Uummannaq, a small town on a small island in a large fjord on the North-West coast of Greenland, some 600 km north of the Arctic Circle.  I even knew the founders – the polar explorer Ole Jorgen Hammeken after whom the Hammeken Point, the peak of the world's northernmost mountain in Peary Land was named,  and Ann Andreasen nicknamed  in Ummannaq and beyond as "The Strong Woman”.

  Joel has never met them. Yet, we both started thinking in unison.

“Wait a minute!  we said out loud after reading Tiina’s comment.  The piano is out of tune. Ok, we will probably be able to help out and to inspire our friends, including some world famous musicians living in  NYC to pitch in. But what will happen after the piano is tuned? Do these little children know how to play the piano? Do they have a music teacher at all?”

We wanted to see what was hidden behind the horizon. But at that very moment, when we were musing on it over a coffee at Nespresso Boutique on Madison Avenue, we could not see much …beyond the glass walls of  Nespresso… just because our five senses became jaded after long years of living in the civilized and ordered world.

You never know when, you never know why. I will probably never know why Joel Speigelman, a 77 year old renowned classical composer, a conductor and harpsichordist, once a friend of Igor Stravinsky and  now one of   Mikhail Gorbachev's favorite musician friends.  Joel, who has orbited his long life between New York, Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt and Cairo and who fashions French cuisine as much as French manners, said literally the following: “ I will go there and work with these children!”

Well, he actually said it after watching a fascinating movie  Le Voyage d’Inuk “On thin Ice” set in Uummannaq and starring Ole Jorgen Hammeken. He also added that if possible he would rather to go after the sunrise:  for those who do not know, the sun rises in Ummannaq only after long Christmas vacations and Prof. Spiegelman is a sunny man.

When Joel shared this idea with  his colleagues, fellow musicians and music connoisseurs, some of them went speechless. Several suggested that Joel will sink in the icy waters of melting Uummannaq  since he  never learned how to swim. Others saw this as a pure act of magic that eventually could transform the world  and maybe … maybe  even affect  global warming.

Yet, some carefully questioned whether music and ice belonged together at all. Whether these two powerful notions coincided or at least intersected in space and time…
Some knowledgeable people indicated that there was even no such a word for music in Eskimoic  language. According to them, there were 874 words for snow, and 375 for polar bear, but there was no word for music. Therefore, these stuffy musicologists with linguistic proclivities suggested  that in the absence of the word, the concept of music as such was also absent from the Eskimo culture!!!

That is a good example of what the arrogant civilized ordered world sometimes does to us! We are reluctant to believe that ideas may differ from their vehicles of expression, especially in such a multilayered language as Inuktitut. If there is no word for something, then it does not exist!

By that time, we’ve heard enough of  Inuit music to have no doubt about its existence. We knew a lot about its complex rhythmic organization, and undulating melodic movement. One morning we listened to the recording of a really old Inuit song when we suddenly ran into this word  – Nipi – and were immediately fascinated with it. Nipi according the authors of the text accompanying the recording meant music, but much more than just that. It also meant the sound of speech, noise, the cracking of  ice,  the  howling of a wolf,  the barking of a seal, the sniffing of a snow fox, the growling of a bear..  in other words,  the real music of a big world, that obviously was much bigger than the world of some superior card carrying  PhD  musicologists. And it was then when the idea struck us:

Learning and creating a music that is as big as the world, one that is not limited by traditional walls of the European influenced conservatory would be our goal in Ummannaq. We did not care any more whether the Ummannaq children knew how to play classical piano or a saxophone, we knew already that we were going for something new, something that had no history We were going to make it. Step by step. On thin ice.

We decided to call our project  "Uummannaq Music" and it means just that: making music together, on the spot, spontaneously, with what ever musical and non-musical materials would be available there including acoustic and electronic instruments, natural materials such as wood, bone, skins, the wind, metals, the sound of ice as it drips and cracks, the chants of the Shaman, the grinding of the earth, the howling of animals, the twitting of birds, and whatever sounds that may be produced by nature or manufacture.

This is how Joel Spiegelman, a talented educator who taught music in the finest American Universities for more than 50 years, puts it:

“In  our new project Uummannaq Music I intend to use a series of improvisational techniques and exercises that allows each one to perform according to their own level of ability on what sound making implements are available, be they musical instruments such as a piano, flute, sax, or just pieces of glass, ice, wood blocks, a taught bow, the wind, a skin drawn over a kitchen pot turning it into a drumhead, and other sounds of nature and man as explained above.”

That said, we are about to pack our suitcases and head to Uummanaq.

We are packing all the important things – such as warm boots, socks, gloves, hats, and merino wool underwear which hopefully will  keep us warm. We are stocking up with disposable heating pads that we will insert in our gloves and socks. We are thinking in layers, many, many layers. We are very busy doing just that  even though our kind-hearted  host, the “strong woman” Ann Andreasen who has invited us to come to the Children's Home with "Uummannaq Music: has already told us imperatively: “Don’t bring anything. We have everything you might need. Just bring yourselves!”