Corpsing: Inuit culture and Haydn

A much-discussed piece of “salvage ethnography” is the film Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922):

For his 1926 film Moana, see here.

More recent is a highly praised film from Zacharias Kunuk, Atanarjuat: the fast runner (2001)—click here for a trailer. It enacts an ancient legend while lavishing great anthropological care in evoking early Inuit culture.

But Nanook of the North is to some extent a fictional creation too, blurring the lines between documentary and drama. It is an early case-study in a substantial discourse in the ethics of visual anthropology that leads on to Jean Rouch, representations of the Yanomami, and so on.

As to vocal styles, in katajjaq throat-singing (e.g. Voices of the World, CD 1 §12), the duet is considered to come to an end when one of the singers laughs, loses her breath, or breaks concentration (LOL).

Hard to imagine a performance of such charm at certain other recent swearing-in ceremonies…

Now I’d like to seek ethnographies of changing life in Inuit communities since the time of Nanook (preferably not containing the words “traditional way of life” or “vanishing culture”—“but that’s not important right now“). This is a lively topic in ethnomusicology—there are many studies to add to my reading list, such as Maija M. Lutz, The effects of acculturation on Eskimo music of Cumberland peninsula (1978), Beverley Cavanagh, Music of the Netsilik Eskimo: a study of stability and change (1982), and studies of throat singing by Nicole Beaudry and others—as an introduction to the detailed work of Beaudry, note her thoughtful reflections in Shadows in the field. See also First Nations: trauma and soundscape.

Here’s a trailer for the short film Throat song (2013), in which a young Inuk woman, lost in a community that has been tragically separated from its past, begins to connect with other victims of violence in her community, and seeks to reclaim her voice:

Throat singing also inspires a lively experimental scene, with singers such as Tanya Tagaq.

* * *

Corpsing is one of the pleasures of musical life in WAM too—we’ve all done gigs like that. I can’t suggest here the numerous ways in which fiddle players try to corpse their desk partners by a tiny little gesture of resignation at the repeat of a minuet, or a fake sforzando attack on a pianissimo entry.

Generally “the show must go on”, but once, the Allegri string quartet were performing the intimate, intense slow movement of a Haydn quartet when the viola player let out an extended and voluble fart.* The leader giggled sotto voce, and as the mirth spread (even to the miscreant, who’s generally the first to keep a straight bat) all four of them were soon so helpless with laughter that they just couldn’t keep going, and had to leave the stage to compose themselves.

To be sure, this is at a certain remove from Inuit culture. In the latter, as if you haven’t worked this out already, corpsing is intrinsic to the performance event; in WAM, it’s an illicit part of the muso’s “deviant behaviour“. For corpsing in the crucifixion scene of the Matthew Passion, click here; and for the suave Charlotte Green on BBC radio, here.

* I’m reminded of the old Punch cartoon:

Host (to guest who has just perpetrated an embarrassing histrionic effect) “Gad sir, you’ve farted in front of my wife”.

Guest, with air of studied nonchalance, “Oh, I’m most frightfully sorry, I didn’t realise it was her turn.”

8 thoughts on “Corpsing: Inuit culture and Haydn

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