Analyzing the style of Native Alaskan Music is where anthropologists or researchers really can get themselves into trouble and mix-ups. For example, when I began research, I found myself immersed in complexity and contradiction beyond anything I imagined, so contradictory that there were seemingly no generalizations I could make about Eskimo music as a whole. Furthermore, my observations from studying sheet music and other sources appeared to be completely contrasting everything I read on the subject.
This is because of a few fundamental differences between Native and Western music, which, when not taken into account, can manifest themselves as astounding but contradictory results. It is a fault not only of myself but of those anthropologists who traveled to these villages and wrote down native songs in western notation. Like writing down a language for the first time, the differences between Eskimo and Western music are akin to phonetic sounds for which we dont have a letter. These differences, as simple as it sounds, are all facets of the same basic difference, the nonmathematical and indefinite nature of Eskimo Music.
The indefinite nature of Eskimo music much reflects their indefinite concept of time. While Western culture is one of quantifying - regimenting time, giving everything an exact cash value, mathematically dividing music into beats per measure - Eskimos are on a less regimented schedule, treasure things for their personal value, and have no mathematical division of beats. Instead, Eskimo music follows a rhythm more like that of speech, learned entirely by rote, not by reading what is essentially a mathematical formula off of a page. When one tries to mathematically quantify music that does not follow a beat pattern, the music suddenly appears infinitely more complicated, like using an endless decimal to quantify what is actually a simple abstract amount.
Pitch follows the same philosophy. The Womens Juggling Song is a clear illustration of how complex notation can make a simple song. When I first saw this, I noticed an occasional sharping of the second and flatting of the third, progressing to later sharp the fifth and then ending with the cadence note which used to be the third of the scale being the root of the new scale. But remembering the indefinite philosophy of Eskimo music, this is in a sense just a gradual transposition, a shift in mode or feeling of the piece, it was not designed to be a nightmare on paper- that part came from the anthropologist who wrote down the closest equivalent of the microtonal inflections in a pitch-regimented notation system.
It is important to note that the indefinity of Eskimo music lends it to rapidly change overtime, at least as rapidly as two dialects might diverge. Because of this, there is little way of knowing how these songs might have been sung a hundred or a thousand years ago. Therefore, all we really know about Eskimo music is what is there now, and what was there when Westerners with their scrupulous record-making recorded when the first interest in Eskimo Art appeared, which was only a few decades ago. Because the first real interest in Eskimo Culture came after it had already been severely influenced by western music, knowledge of what is characterizes true Eskimo music is wanting.
With an understanding of indefinity established, we can proceed to consider what conclusions can be drawn from an observation of the music of the Eskimo Inuit People.
Eskimo Music generally consists of three lines, The vocal line, containing all melodic aspects of the song; the percussion; and the dance.
The Vocal production of the female is generally very nasal and strident. The male voice is not forced in the same way, and is not supported, from the perspective of Western breathing technique. In addition to plain vocal production, there is often throat constriction and glottal or diaphragmatic pulsation, similar to that of Asian throat singing*. Other vocal effects include: glissandos, melismas, glottal stops, shouts, whispers, and animal-imitating cries.
The pitch differs much more between performer in Eskimo Music than does the rhythm. This is partly because of human nature; it is easier for one to learn a distinct time interval than a distinct pitch interval. Also, dance regulates rhythm in a way that it does not regulate pitch.
The sung melodies are based on pentatonic scales** although occasionally a hexa- or heptatonic scale will be found. (Click here for a listing of common scale patterns.) Men and women usually sing an octave apart. The most common intervals are fourths and seconds, and the most common melodic cadence is a leap followed to a gradual fall, and then ascending to the cadence tone. Microtonal inflections are also commonplace. Harmony is never found, except in the case of a drone, which essentially plays the same role in Eskimo music as does the Ison in Byzantine.
One cadence that is so common in Eskimo music that it could almost be called a theme would be any transposition of the this sequence [D C A G] This theme, always descending, is most obvious in The Three Brothers.
Percussion is usually performed by a group of four to six men, who sing simultaneously. The drumming is generally on the chauyak but occasionally on the keloun. This Drum accompaniment is usually polyrhythmic with singing. For more information on percussion, go to the Instruments Page.
Dance is performed always by women, but sometimes by men as well, each gender having specific roles in dancing that never coincide. Aside from gender differences, the dancing is usually in unison, much less free than the dance of the Canadian Eskimos. Dances are frequently about the weather, nature, and animals. Many of them are story telling, homages to nature. These dances, as in every culture, reflect the Eskimos naturalistic philosophy.