ARCTIC NATURE IRISH
ARCTIC EXPLORERS FELLOW
|Ensemble XXI’s Polar Voices was inspired by Ensemble XXI’s first tour to the Arctic Circle when we played for the indigenous nomadic Nenets reindeer herders in the Tundra. As Ensemble XXI played in the settlement of yurts, other Nenets herders came racing across the Tundra in their reindeer driven sleighs, drawn by the beauty of Mozart’s music in the vast wilderness. After listening to the concert in the Yurt, the Leader of the Nenets Reindeer Herders in the Arctic Tundra exclaimed, “the nearest that I have ever come to this music was through a transistor, but when I see you play your instruments, I can not imagine how many years it has taken you to learn to play them.” We could only exclaim to each other how often we have wished that business people and bureaucrats whom one has to approach for sponsorship, would be as astute and knowledgeable as that Nomad reindeer herder!”
In return, a Nenets Elder made and sang a song in recognition of our visit to play in the Tundra. And so it came to be, that we as musicians from two very different worlds, met and shared our respective music. This proved to be the first step in what has become for us an extraordinary adventure of discovery of the indigenous people of the Arctic and the Sub Arctic in Russia.
Some time later Ensemble XXI decided to bring its Pacific Rim Music Festival (founded in Australia in 2001) to Sakhalin, in the Far East of Russia. Following the festival, Lygia O’Riordan was invited to meet the indigenous Nivkh people of Sakhalin in the north of the island, in and around Nogliki for a Nivkh Festival of Culture. This was an extraordinary experience as the music and culture of another small nation opened up before her eyes and ears with traditional music, dancing, painting and athletic games. Disappointing however was the fact that whilst ancient music was sung and played, the original dances were accompanied by Russian pop music, which was completely inappropriate for dances that were thousands of years old.
This introduction was followed by an extraordinary meeting with a very elderly and blind Nivkh lady – we could call her the Empress of the Nivkhs – Ulita, who lived with her daughter in Sakhalin’s main city – Yuzhno Sakhalinsk. Lygia immediately began to record her singing of songs and legends that were as ancient as time itself.
Inspired by these experiences Pia Siirala returned to Sakhalin for a lengthy field trip when she travelled far and wide across Sakhalin (an island the length of New Zealand) collecting, notating and recording the Nivkh music. This led to the composition by Pia of Nivkh Themes, which was given its world premiere during the next Pacific Rim Music Festival – this time in the North of Sakhalin – a festival dedicated to the Nivkh people themselves. A condition of the festival was that all dances were to be accompanied by original Nivkh songs and instruments. For months the young people of the villages gathered together and under the watchful eyes of the Nivkh elders were taught how to dance with them and were also taught how to play the Nivkh instruments. This created an extraordinarily dynamic atmosphere and the excitement was palpable as the festival approached.
The festival opened with Ensemble XXI’s musicians gathered around a Nivkh elder, who sang an ancient song – a song that goes back to Neolithic times. As she ended, the musicians of Ensemble XXI took up the theme and in place of the traditional Nivkh instrument - the ‘tyatya chxach’ (a log, engraved with bear heads on either side, which is beaten as their main percussion instrument) the musicians of Ensemble XXI knocked on the wood of their instruments in imitation. As the musicians played, the Nivkh Elder, Lida Muvchik, nodded as she recognised a theme, her body swaying at the highly contagious rhythms and the emotion crossing her face as the piece reached its culmination was something that no one present will ever forget.
When Ensemble XXI dedicated its Pacific Rim Music Festival to the Nivkh people of Sakhalin and gave the world premiere of Pia Siirala’s composition, Nivkh Themes in conjunction with the indigenous singers, it was a manifestation for all - both young and old Nivkhs - but also to the wider community, that this ancient cultural treasure must be protected, cherished and encouraged – especially amongst the young indigenous people.
Following Sakhalin, we became so curious about the other indigenous nations in the North of Russia that we decided to explore further and Pia set off for the great Peninsula of Kamchatka. Pia now recounts herself what occurred there and
how this brought us to found Polar Voices:
“My interest in collecting the music of the indigenous people in Russia began in 2004 when I was commissioned to write a composition based on the music of the Sakhalin Nivkh people. I made my first field trip to Sakhalin in 2004, which was followed by another trip in 2006. My compositions (“Nivkh Themes” for String Trio and Double Bass, “Ulita’s Walk” for String Orchestra and Suite for Solo Violin) are based on the material I collected on Sakhalin.
During my next field trip in 2008, which took me this time to Kamchatka, the collecting of the indigenous music suddenly took on a completely new meaning for me. I realised that it was simply no longer a matter of collecting this music solely for one’s own needs
alone since I began to learn that in many remote reindeer and fishing communities nobody before me had collected this ancient music. Their music was practically unknown beyond their own villages. In the course of one month I had collected over 200 songs from 22 singers. The same situation occurred during my Chukotkan trip in the summer of 2009, where in the course of three months, I collected over 800 songs from 50 singers and yet I was only travelling in a small area of Chukotka.
It is extremely important to record this music because such creative singing exists almost nowhere in the world anymore. It throws light on the earliest roots of music to show how vital, inevitable and natural the expression of music has always been to human beings.”
It was now dawning on us that although the world is rightly concentrating on the disappearance of ice and creatures in the Arctic as we witness the horror of climate change, there is another catastrophe occurring in the Arctic too: the disappearance of entire small nations and their cultural treasures. It is like watching the white washing of the Caves of Lascaux or any of the world’s great museums of ancient artefacts. An archeological dig can discover ancient artefacts. However this ancient music from Palaeolithic times, once it goes to the grave with the indigenous elders can never be heard again.
Ensemble XXI’s Polar Voices is a gigantic musical voyage throughout the Arctic -a lens that opens up the extraordinary music of the Indigenous people of the Arctic – from Europe, through the vast territory of Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.