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Exhibition highlights new dimensions in Inuit music

March 29, 2019

PAST TO PRESENT: “A Resunding Beat: Music in the Inuit World” highlights the diverse range of Inuit music from vocal traditions to contemporary innovations, showcasing the interplay between music and visual representation. The gallery space is packed with listening devices sampling different tunes.

What sounds and rhythms come to mind when one thinks of the Arctic? The latest exhibition at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, “A Resounding Beat: Music in the Inuit World,” which opened Tuesday, offers a taste of Inuit music both rooted in tradition and charged with originality.

Arctic Museum curator Genevieve LeMoine filled the museum’s gallery with an array of recording devices, photographs, visual depictions of musical traditions and modern LP records, while examples of various Inuit music genres play on surrounding walls. The centerpiece—an Inuit drum made from animal hide, which was the sole musical instrument in Inuit society for thousands of years—underscores the exhibit’s vast historical lens.

LeMoine explained that the exhibition came to be as the museum searched for new topics to explore as well as alternative ways of highlighting the collection. After much careful searching and brainstorming, Inuit music emerged as an untapped theme.

“We thought it would be an opportunity to look at that interplay [between music and art]; to look at what traditional music was like and how it’s represented in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional artwork,” said LeMoine.

Tuesday night’s opening was accompanied by a lecture titled “Called Upstairs: The Inuit Voice in Moravian Music,” delivered by Tom Gordon, professor of music at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Gordon’s lecture explored the connection between Inuit music and the Moravian church music, first established in North America by German and British missionaries starting in the mid-1700s.

Gordon explained that aspects of traditional Inuit music, such as a technique known as throat singing performed by Inuit women, were banned by Moravian missionaries who believed the style to be satanic. Contending with the spread of Christianity and its colonizing influences, the Inuits began to adapt Western music to their own artistic sensibilities.

Gordon played a choral piece written by Inuit composer Natanael Illiniartitsijok which remains the first known piece of church music composed by an Inuit person to be performed regularly today.

To Gordon, the recasting and appropriation of European music by Inuit artists shows the enduring identity of the native Labrador communities.

“The initial ‘call upstairs’ may have been from the colonizer,” he said. “But the answer has been Inuit through and through.”

The theme of adaptation echoes throughout even the modern elements of the exhibition. Curatorial assistant Lauren McLaughlin ’19 worked with LeMoine over the summer to curate the playlist for the exhibition. Though many songs in the selection derive influences from contemporary pop and rock, McLaughlin points out that artists such as Tanya Tagaq still incorporate traditional Inuit elements such as throat singing.

LeMoine emphasizes the importance of showcasing new and innovative music in shaping a modern understanding of the Arctic.

“The people in the Arctic aren’t frozen in some historical past.  They are modern people doing amazing contemporary things,” she said.

LeMoine said that she hopes Bowdoin students will be excited not just for the objects on view, but also for the history they embody. She noted the ongoing relationship between the College and Arctic communities, cultivated by Museum Director Susan Kaplan, as a potential source of collaboration between Inuit communities and pieces from Bowdoin’s collection.

“It’s still an active relationship, and I think that’s one thing that should get students excited,” said LeMoine.

LeMoine is confident that “A Resounding Beat” is “an exhibit that has something for everyone,” no matter your musical taste.

“A Resounding Beat: Music in the Inuit World” will be on view at the Arctic Museum through December 31.


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