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Nunatsiavut diary

Tom Gordon in the landscape above Makkovik.

By Tom Gordon

There were no small number of surprised reactions at my decision to spend a good chunk of my admin leave this year on the north coast of Labrador. But those who know the fascination I’ve developed with the evolution of music in the Moravian communities of Inuit Labrador, understand that this is my first real chance to immerse myself in the project. Still the question inevitably comes up, why winter? Two words: no flies.

Over the last six years I’ve been making brief pilgrimages to the Moravian churches in Makkovik, Hopedale and Nain, photographing the more than 12,000 pages of music manuscripts from which this rich musical legacy has been produced across more than 200 years. The paper itself tells an intriguing story. This is handwritten music that was well-used and as the decades passed, well-worn. Every so often a whole set of parts for a particular anthem would need to be re-copied to replace frayed and deteriorating parts. But, as Picasso once said, “to copy is to create,” and the successive generations of manuscripts reveal the (re-)compositional process of the choir members, string players and organists who gradually transformed a music brought to Labrador by European missionaries into something very much “of Labrador.”

Though I’ve brought my camera along on this trip, I’m hoping to make my digital recorder the research tool of choice this time. More than on paper, this music lives in the voices, at the fingertips and in the memories of the people of the coast. Capturing those voices – in full song or in story about the place of music in the communities – will lift the story of this music “off the page.” And hopefully, I’ll be able to document that story in a way that helps the people here to recognize the way in which their community has defined a musical practice.

So much of that understanding will lie in simple words, the meaning that lies behind them and the specific local inflection of that meaning. One of the first examples that always comes up, is the observation about how “high” the Moravian music is. It usually comes up in the form of a complaint. It’s too high to sing for any but the “old timers” (or operatic sopranos – a breed in short supply here). But recently I stumbled on a clue about what “high” really means. A choir member recalled one of the elders in the choir saying she had to make her voice sound “like a violin.” Suddenly “high” meant something other than pitch – it’s also about timbre, a preferred colour to the sound: And another layer of meaning is revealed.

“Right solemn” requires less decoding. It’s one of many euphemisms for the glacial tempo (or pace) of Moravian music. “Right solemn” also opens me to a metaphor of how time is perceived in the North. Time is different here: the urban body’s “minute hand” struggles against the slower gears of seasonal rhythms and the blocks of extravagant weather that are the real clocks of the North. Indeed, time feels more like space in Labrador, not only because it can be vast and irregular, but also because, like space, it is better inhabited than measured. I’m trying to learn to feel time spatially; it makes it easier to actually be in time without the familiar distractions of anticipation and memory. Though time in the North may sometimes seems slower, I’m coming around to the belief that it’s really just “right solemn.”

Dr. Tom Gordon is a professor and former director in the School of Music. He is spending part of his administrative leave on Labrador's north coast and will regularly check in with Gazette readers.