Monday, August 14, 2023

Making my accompaniment debut above the Arctic Circle, off the coast of East Greenland

Greenlandic storyteller Neils Rasmussen, carrying boots, and me on board the MS Fram.

I didn't journey to the remote coast of East Greenland to do accompaniment, but that's what happened. 

We traveled there this month from Reykjavik, Iceland on the MS Fram, a ship built specifically for expeditions in the polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctic.

East Greenland is a vast expanse of uninhabited land, with one exception: the town of Ittoqqortoormiit (pop. 350), a settlement on the entrance to Scoresby Sund, the world's largest fjord system.

As such, visiting a town described as the most remote on earth is a highlight of the view cruises that visit its small harbor, which is iced over for nine months of the year.

In our case, a member of the ship's crew named Neils Rasmussen happened to be a native of Ittoqqortoormiit, growing up among the dog sleds and endless winters. 

So Neils found himself in the weird position of giving walking tours of his hometown to those of us who went ashore to explore Ittoqqortoormiit. (It's pronounced It-ta-ka-TOOR-mit, by the way.) 

We got to see Neils' childhood home (that's the red building below), the schools he attended, and the electric power company where he worked before leaving town for university in Denmark and then other places. 

We got to hear his tales of how, to entertain themselves during the long winters, young people of Ittoqqortoormiit would sometimes dare each other to jump off roofs. This may account for the surprising number of outdoor trampolines we saw outside many homes.

So we got to know Neils, who back on the ship was slated to give a talk about Greenlandic myths. 

He was to do this in the 'Explorers Lounge' on Deck 7, which had a Yamaha hybrid piano just off one side of the modest dance floor.  

An earlier ship talk about Viking legends included stories that I thought would have really benefited from a little musical accompaniment. 

So when I learned that Neils' talk consisted mostly of telling tales that have Greenlandic families have told over the generations, I asked him if he'd ever considered musical underscoring.

He hadn't, but was open to the idea, calling it an "experiment."

So there I was, seated at the Yamaha, with Neils embarking on a half-hour tale of a mistreated orphan's journey through life, and another yarn concerning the Mother of the Sea, one of the mythic gods of Greenlandic legend.

I stayed with him the whole time, staying as light as possible, powering up where appropriate, and going completely silent at key moments.

It was very much like accompanying a silent film, although in this case the story was not conveyed visually but by a storyteller.

To me, it felt a little like when I accompanied a Japanese "benshi" performer during a silent film screening at the Harvard Film Archive: there was a continuous flow of spoken narrative, and the music had to fit in underneath but not disappear.   

Neils received a strong reaction to both tales, and generously acknowledged my accompaniment at the end. 

And I have to say, it didn't turn out half bad. I'd never heard the stories before in my life, but all stories follow something of an arc, and the music I do for silent film seems to work with Greenlandic mythology, too.

Afterwards, Neil and I joked about going on tour together. We'll just need to figure out how to get a piano to Ittoqqortoormiit. 

Neils and me (and a cloud of Arctic mosquitoes) ashore on Bear Island in Scoresby Sund, East Greenland.

1 comment:

  1. I’ll bet if you don’t know Andrew Pinard at the Hatbox theater in Concord(think magician, actor, theater manager and all round swell fellow)

    Or Andy Davis(think storyteller, retired co-director at the World Fellowship Center up in Albany NH-think NOrthopaedic Conway area) then you should look them both up!! They both have a presence on Facebook and are both fun to get to know. I’m sure you know them both but you are a seriously busy man!!