June 21 is National Aboriginal Day in Canada, an opportunity to examine how the rich culture of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples have inspired many of our classical composers. Fertility rituals of Inuit women, legends of tricksters, history of Aboriginal oppression, northern landscapes, native drumming and Aboriginal languages have found their way into these five works.
Wa Wa Tey Wak (Northern Lights)
Andrew Balfour is a Winnipeg composer and choir director who is part Cree. Wa Wa Tey Wak tells a modern Aboriginal story about a young girl named Chepi who was living at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers 300 years ago. A trickster transports her to modern Winnipeg, where she lives in poverty on the street with the “lost tribe.” The northern lights eventually return Chepi to her own time. The music combines a modern choral sound and Aboriginal chant with lyrics in both English and Cree, violin and drumming. Balfour wrote Wa Wa Tey Wak for his choir Camerata Nova, and you can listen to a performance they gave at the National Gallery in Ottawa.
Click to play Wa Wa Tey Wak.
In 1992, composer Christos Hatzis travelled to Baffin Island to record Inuit stories and throat singers for a CBC Radio documentary. Later he incorporated his throat-singing tapes in four compositions, including Fertility Rites. In his research, Hatzis discovered that throat singing was a kind of fertility ritual performed by women when the men were out hunting. Hatzis says he tried to exaggerate the sexual suggestiveness in this music by altering the taped sounds, making them lower in order to sound more like heavy breathing. The work is for marimba and tape, and he wrote it for the performer on this recording, Beverley Johnston.
Click to play Fertility Rites.
Snowforms was inspired by the patterns of drifting snow outside composer R. Murray Schafer’s farmhouse window. His drawings of the snow actually make up the choral score. The singers hum the shapes and let their voices glide between the notes. You can hear occasional words in Inuktitut that describe different kinds of snow: apingaut (first snowfall), mauyk (soft snow), akelrorak (drifting snow) and pokaktok (snow like salt).
Harry Somers looked to Canadian native history for his opera Louis Riel, based on the Métis uprisings in the 19th century. The libretto is in English and French, and also incorporates a lullaby in the Cree language. Louis Riel is one of the most successful Canadian operas. It premiered in 1967 as a centennial project, and has been revived a number of times, including a production at the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1975 for the American bicentennial. This photo comes from a 2010 production at the University of British Columbia.
In 2010 the University of British Columbia mounted a production of Harry Somers' opera Louis Riel. (Photo: Evan Kreider.)
Jesous Ahatonhia or the Huron Carol dates back to about 1642, when Father Jean de Brébeuf wrote the words in the Wendat (Huron) language to fit an old French tune. Later the words were translated to English and French. Dozens of composers have been inspired by the beautiful imagery that describes the birth of Jesus “within a lodge of broken bark.” I especially like Kelly-Marie Murphy’s atmospheric version for string quartet called Huron Carol Interlude. This video is a popular choral arrangement by Robert Anderson.
CBC Music honours indigenous artists on National Aboriginal Day
Discover more music from Aboriginal Canada
Arvel Bird: Celtic fusion recording artist
John Kim Bell: Producer, conductor, composer
Flutist Chris Norman hosts This Is My Music
on Jun 20, 2012