Inside Scoop: Take the Dog Sled (Part 3)

Taking My Rocks To Nunavik

My ‘way into’ the Inuit culture was connecting with the remarkable throat singer Evie Mark. In 2007/2008 Evie and I corresponded by phone and email. She provided me with recordings of throat singing and DVDs about artist elders as I peppered her with questions. I read Inuit stories, finding them affecting as they were often humourous and spiritual. Some were even surprisingly violent and ribald. I began to understand the challenges that the Innu have faced – the extreme cold, their dependence on the land for survival, the hunting expeditions they undertook each season to bring back food for their families and communities. Evie is such a remarkable human being. She shared with me so many stories. I took these stories into my consciousness and turned them over in my mind.

Evie is a special person. As a young child she learned the art of throat singing from her Inuktitut language teacher. In a recent interview about the throat singing tradition she said “I think it was so strong that it didn’t want to die. So I think it is coming back to us”. She is helping to preserve the Inuit culture as a teacher, performer, journalist, and storyteller.

With her help, I gradually began to formulate an idea of how to convey the challenges and experiences of the Innu, as well as their sense of humour(!) into a musical composition.

I admit to being a bit nervous before the premiere performance up North. I travelled there on tour with Kent Nagano and The Montreal Symphony in 2008. How would the three communities in Nunavik react to hearing their familiar throat songs integrated with Western instruments? How would they receive my Take The Dog Sled? Would they be offended, bored, indifferent? After all, it was really a piece whose musical language is  contemporary. How would they react to their beloved throat singers in combination with instruments (like a bassoon) which they had never seen or heard before? What would they think of my bottlephone and my rocks?

Those three initial communities didn’t have concert halls as we know them. The first performance took place in a school gym (Inukjuak), the second, a community centre (Kangiqsujuaq). The third one took place in the Katitavik Town Hall (Kuujjuuaq). People from these communities – elders, parents, children –  filled each of these venues. I remember the faces being so beautiful and so full of life. The audiences were packed into the venues in anticipation of our concerts.

I worried needlessly. They were delighted with our performances of Take The Dog Sled. They laughed at the funny ending of Bug Music! The new sounds didn’t alienate them at all! Of course they recognized these traditional throat songs upon which I based several movements – Sharpening The Runners On The Dog Sled, Snow Goose, The Mosquito, The River, The Dog Sled/The Puppy.

When the National Arts Centre Orchestra took my piece on their Northern tour a few years later, my composition again touched the audiences in Iqaluit, Yellowknife, and Whitehorse. The day after Take The Dog Sled was performed in Iqaluit, I sat as an audience member in a separate concert presented by NACO. I took a seat in a gymnasium beside two elder Inuit women. They looked at me and recognized me as being the composer of the piece they had heard the previous night.

“Where are you from?” they asked.

“I’m from Vancouver.”

They responded “Yes, but where are you from?”

“Oh…I’m Chinese, born in British Columbia.”

They laughed spontaneously. “We thought you were one of us!

As I recall that moment, tears come to my eyes. I had truly succeeded in my artistic creation – this despite my fear of failure to do justice to this ancestral Inuit tradition, the limitations placed on me, as well as other challenges. I had touched the people for whom the piece was written. Although the challenges seemed insurmountable and the effort great, the rewards were even greater.

Take The Dog Sled is dedicated to the people of Nunavik.


Blog Written By: Alexina Louie, O.C.

Don’t miss your opportunity to hear Louie’s work, as performed by Inuit throat singers, Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik at Esprit’s next concert:

Wednesday November 28, 2018 

8:00pm Concert | 7:15pm Pre-Concert Chat | Koerner Hall,
TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning,
273 Bloor St. W.