Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What is Music?

What is Music? This is a title of Lera Auerbach’s sweet and very touching children’s song that she sent to us in Uummannaq via the Internet. What is Music? was intended to be used in music appreciation classes taught by Professor Joel Spiegelman at the Uummannaq Children’s Home.

Lera Auerbach  is a virtuoso pianist and one of the most widely performed composers of the new generation. Her music is cosmic. It swings between past, present, and future; it is not attached to any specific place or circumstance, yet each time I hear it, be it in New York or in Riga, I always think of Greenland. It is floating alone, all by itself in space, like a mirage, like an iceberg in Uummannaq Bay, as impermanent and ephemeral as an iceberg can be.

We  hope that Lera will come to Uummanaq next year to premiere one of her works and really look forward to this because Lera’s  music is Nipi.

For those who have not read our previous posts, we remind you that in the Greenlandic language, the word “music” - means so much more than just “music”. Nipi also means the sound of speech, the howling of a wolf, the barking of a seal, the sniffing of a snow fox, the growling of a bear, all these little daily conversations with their questions and answers… in other words, it means all the "music" of the beautiful world around us.  That’s exactly what Lera’s children’s song she sent us is about.

Yesterday morning as I watched  Uummannaq Mountain  disappearing in the  sudden fog,  I  listened to the powerful music of   Lera Auerbach’s  Russian Requiem. Those of you who have heard this magnificent work for mixed choir, large orchestra, boys’ choir, boy soprano, mezzo-soprano and bass , know that that  there are multiple realms within it, that  there is a music  beyond  the music there. In Greenlandic, you could also say that Lera’s music has many skins. That’s why you can see and hear Russia in it, with all its flaws and wonders, with its ugliness and beauty, with its perpetual oscillating between hell and heaven. You can hear a  door swinging in a half-ruined hut, the dull gritting of the rusty toothless saw,  and the meowing of an unhappy cat to the extent one can be only in Russia

But now, sitting next to the window overlooking the Uummannaq Bay  and listening to Lera's Russian Requiem, I could clearly hear something else in it - the crackling sounds of Greenland -  of the ancient glacier ice melting in a glass of water, of my own footsteps in the snow, and of my  breath leaving and entering my body in the frigid air of Uummannaq Fjord. There was another world in it – populated   with other kinds of beings – some half humans, some pure spirits… This was a discovery.

Lera’s music makes you think about the cosmos, but it also makes you think about small things, the closest things and the nearest things we normally look at with disdain.

In a land where maintaining life itself means  an epic battle on a daily basis, you have to think about simple things  you normally do not want to think about. If you are thirsty, you have to bring the snow in and melt it. This can be a lengthy process. You have to learn to be patient. You have to heat your house, to repair your clothes and to clean after yourself. If you don’t, you will die. Here in Uummannaq you start seeing life and death in a different perspective, you learn to do simple things, to love them and to get inspiration from doing them.

Lera’s music is a state of mind. And so is Uummannaq, where distant seems near and vice versa.

That’s why I say that among all the halls around the world, Uummannaq is by far the best  one for any of Lera’s works.  That is why we want Lera to come to Uummannaq next year, and we hope she will. But it is not just a groundless hope. Lera is looking up North too.

Lera was one of the first people, or to be more exact the very first person who supported Ummannaq Music two months ago. She was the first one to join the Ummaannaq Music fan page on Facebook and she passionately welcomed the idea, quite vague at that point, of building the world's northernmost music platform on Uummannaq Island.

I still don’t know why she did it.

To begin with, Lera is a very busy person. You can look up her schedule, take just at two random days for comparison.

Lera Auerbach Today: Going to sleep - 3 am Getting up - 6 am Correspondence with Europe + emails - 6- 9am back to sleep - 9-10:30 am Editing and proofreading - 10:30 - 13:30 Breakfast/lunch -13:30 - 14:00 Piano practicing - 14:00 - 17:30 Rehearsal - 18:30 - 19:30 Concert + reception 20:00 - 23:00 Composing 23:30-1:30am Packing 1:30 - 2:30 am Going to sleep - 3 am

Lera Auerbach Today: Taxi to the rehearsal 10- 10:30 Rehearsal for the recital 10:30- 1:30, drive to the hall 1:30- 2:00, rehearsal with the Louisiana Philharmonic of my Symphony No.1"Chimera" 2:00 - 3:30, drive to the University 3:30- 4:00, teaching Masterclass at the Loyola University (2 pianists, one composer) 4:00 - 5:45, drive to the concert 5:45 - 6:15, recital plus reception 7:00 - 10:30 pm.

This schedule makes you dizzy to look at. But now listen to this: just a few weeks before Uummannaq Music was started Lera’s apartment in New York caught on fire. Lera is not a material person, but all her non-material treasures – her scores, her books, her archives, her childhood memories went up in flames, consumed by the avaricious  fire. To say that she he was desperate is an understatement. Yet, she found  time to join Uummaanaq Music when no one else did and since then has kept helping  us to start something that had no history. From afar, she went all the way with us. Step by step. On the ice. 

I am listening to What is Music? and I am thinking of Lera, who at the young age of 17 found herself in New York thousands of miles away from homeland and from her beloved parents with little hope of ever seeing them ever again.  The times were cruel and I know how it felt:  probably, like being lost in inner Greenland, with no footprints on the snow, and  no road signs  in sight… I think of Lera and I also think of the children from the Uummannaq  Children’s Home who today are no longer lost but  looking to choose their paths…

And here is the lesson. One of the reasons why Lera became what she became is because she did not look for road signs or someone else’s footprints. As opposed to the rest of us who look down to the ground at our feet, she looked up into the sky. Lera looks up and she sees things. She draws her inspiration from those other worlds hidden beyond the layer of the frost-green sky, beyond the borders of the visible world.

She sees things like the Dutch artist Rob Sweere who is known worldwide for his Silent Sky events when people  lie down on the ground and look up at the sky.  These events have taken place all over the world, including  in Uummannaq.  How much more can you see when you look up! Look up more often! Look North more often! And then you will meet your own heart as you’ve never met it before.

A few days ago we happened to have our own cosmic connection. A Cosmic Bridge via a Skype video connection was built between the Ummannaq Children’s Home  and  Pete Seeger, the iconic American folk singer and song writer  who lives in Beacon, New York. Pete sang for the children, while they in turn sang a Greenlandic song for him.  

And  of course, this cosmic connection  was Nipi too: with all the crackling sounds that Skype adds to the music and to all the voices coming from both sides of the Atlantic.  All these local and foreign sounds -  voices of strangers  caught somehow in between and of invisible spirits from above…din and clutter, rattling, rustling, jingling,  a-mo, a-mo – together with  music constituted the real Nipi.   Especially when  Ole Jorgen Hammeken  the French filmmaker Bertrand Loazay  stuck their laptop out of the window to let Pete Seeeger see the majestic sapphire icebergs floating by the music room of the Uummanaq Children’s home. Distant seemed near again. 

At the end of our cosmic session Joel Spiegelman played for Pete Seeger the song that he wrote for Uummanaq Children’s Home named The Angel of Uummannaq.

This song is a prayer and an incantation that sounded like a magical spell addressed to the Angel of Uummannnaq.  It’s a very special prayer on top of the world in this land of impermanence, where all things come and go, where there is no yesterday or tomorrow, but only today. At first glance, it may seem that Angel of Uummannaq is quite a sad song. Indeed,  it is a reconciliation with the imminence of death, with constant fear of Sila, of weakness, of sickness, of hunger, of cold…. Yet, it is a joyful song because it leaves you with hope. Eskimo people are well aware  that life is neither black nor white. And this song is a celebration of the simple happiness at being alive.

Angel of Uummannaq is with us. It guards us. It gathers us together.

I listened to Joel’s song and wondered: what this Angel might look like? Would it be  wearing skins and kamiks, like Greenlandic Ken who is fashioned in polar bear pants and a seal parka? Would it be flying above the ice cap or beneath the sea ice? Would it be driving the dogs?

I looked around while Joel was still playing and suddenly it occurred to me: there is not one, but  many. It takes many Angels to make this town fly above the endless white desert and  to be a heavenly inspiration for everyone who has ever come here.

Uummannaq Angel has many faces and many names. Ann Andreasen is the Angel of Uummannaq. She saves lives and souls on a daily basis, with no breaks and no vacations – around the clock.  Louise Zebb who has served  for a half century in the Uummannaq Children’s Home is known to have performed miracles. She is the Angel too.

Ulla, a 10 year old girl, our youngest musician – look at this picture drawn on ice and taken by the most wonderful Arctic photogrpher from Finland Tiina Itkonen – and you will see the  Uummannaq Angel alive. Bjorn Kunoy, the lawyer, at first glance you might say he is not an Angel, but he is: he protected Uummannaq so many times and on so many different occasions; he is an Angel!

Lera Auerbach who inspired Joel’ s Angel for  its fist flight… Dmitry Garanin who ardently supported Uummannaq Music on Facebook.  Elena Kuschnerova, the pianist from Baden-Baden, who  has long said that she was ready to come and share her talents and passions with Uummannaq Children…Pete Seeger,   Ap Verheggen and Frank Landsberger from cool(E)motion, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater  and  all our 1, 056 supporters on Uummannaq Music Facebook Fan Page…..they are all true Uummannaq Angels.

And what about Ole Jorgen Hammeken, the polar explorer whom many call "Knud Rasmussen of the modern days" and who connects all these Angels around the globe and eventually brings them to Uummannaq? Yes, he is a Great Connector, but  isn’t he an Angel too?

All these Angels sing to us today. They share one voice. And this voice is called Nipi.

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