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Archive for December 5th, 2006

One of the things I learned very early on while touring with the Arctic Chamber Orchestra was to be flexible.  Our mission was to bring musical performance to people who might otherwise never experience it.  If a community wanted us to perform, the orchestra’s requirements for a booking were not too demanding.  

First of all, we had to be able to get there, which usually meant there had to be a place for our airplane to land.  This was not an absolute requirement, however.  More than once during the years I travelled with them, the orchestra transferred from the “Big Airplane”, a WW II surplus C-46, to a flotilla of float planes or a flock of Cessnas. 

The non-negotiable requirements were the following.  There had to be a room available that was big enough to set up a chamber orchestra.  The community had to be willing to feed us.  If we were doing an afternoon concert, they had to feed us lunch.  If we were doing an evening concert, they not only had to feed us dinner and breakfast, but provide a place for us to sleep.  They were expected to provide transport from our landing area to the performance area.

“Transport”  was one of those words that was open to a rather wide interpretation, as it turns out.  Usually it was a school bus.  At one community, what was provided was a flatbed stock truck that had been hauling goats recently.  One time we were loaded on a fishing boat, and when we passed by the Coast Guard station we were asked to get off the deck.  They were not authorized to carry passengers, so we were contraband cargo.  On occasion we were transported on dog sleds. Sometimes we had to walk to town.

One year we were doing a bush tour.   Our first engagement was at Fort Yukon.  After playing the concert in the high school gym, we were split up and our volunteer hosts took us home for the night.  The host families fed us breakfast and delivered us back to the airport in time for our flight to Kobuk.  While we waited for the plane to be loaded, everybody compared notes on what they had been fed for breakfast.  The winners were the group that got sourdough pancakes with homemade blueberry syrup.

We flew off from Ft. Yukon and made a quick stop in Hughes for a school lunch and short concert.   It turned out that it was not possible to fit the tympani through the doorway of the school, so we performed our Haydn symphony without percussion.   Then, it was back on the plane for the hop up to Kobuk. 

Kobuk is a very small village.  It is located on the banks of the Kobuk River, which drains the south west side of the Brooks Range, emptying into Kotzebue Sound.  At the time I am reminiscing about, the population of the village was 79 people.  The major industry there was fishing and hunting.  Who am I kidding?  It was the ONLY industry there.

Our pilot located Kobuk and flew over at a fairly low altitude, first from west to east, then he made a turn and flew east to west.   An excited group of people waving and jumping up and down in the middle of the tiny cluster of cabins indicated that they knew we had arrived.   He turned north, and we landed at the gravel strip by Dahl Creek, about three miles north of town.  The airport amenities consisted of a tattered wind sock and a pile of 55 gallon drums at the edge of the runway. 

We deplaned into the raw afternoon.  It was in the low thirties, the wind was from the west, about 10 mph, typical early October weather for that far above the Arctic Circle.  Our luggage and instruments successfully unloaded, our pilot flew off to refuel and sleep in a nice bed in Kotzebue.

 We  looked around, enjoying the view of the mountains to the north.  There was an expanse of tundra to the south of us.  If you ventured off the landing strip, it didn’t take very long to get wet feet in the muskeg.   There was no road to speak of, just some scars in the muskeg where some large vehicle had passed.

After a half an hour or so, we began to wonder just exactly how we were supposed to get to town.  Gordon maintained faith.  Transport had been promised, transport would arrive.   About then, someone mentioned how nice it was that it was early winter so we didn’t have to suffer from the billions of mosquitoes that undoubtedly inhabited the region during the summer.  After another 15 minutes, as we watched the sun sink slowly towards the horizon and wind began to cut a little more deeply, we finally heard a low diesel mutter from the south.  We all started to collect our stuff in anticipation of the bus to town. 

With a roar of diesel and crashing gears, our ride  arrived.   We all stood, staring in astonishment.   Even our conductor, who was seldom at a loss for words, was silent.  The driver of the aged mobile crane that had just arrived jumped out of the cab and yelled, “Sorry it took so long to  get here!  Battery was dead!  Can’t turn it off, I’m afraid it won’t start again if I do.” 

The crane was the biggest vehicle in Kobuk, and so it functioned as their version of mass transit.  Surrounded by diesel fumes and confused by the roaring engine, we hurriedly loaded up on the crane’s flat bed.  The driver scrounged some ropes from the mess of greasy rags and tools in the cab, and the tympani, music stands, and the string bass were securely tied to the base of the crane.  The rest of us looked after our own instruments and baggage.

Once we were all aboard, the gears crashed again, the driver yelled, “Hold on!” and off he drove across the tundra.  The 30 members of the Arctic Chamber Orchestra held on for dear life as we jolted through the tussocks. 

When we arrived in town, once again we could not get the tympani through the doors of the school.  This time, however, there was a double door on one side.  The school teacher, who lived in an apartment at the back of the school, and our orchestra manager, busied themselves removing the center bar of the double doors, and the drums finally made it inside a building for the first time that day.

While they were doing that, the rest of us looked around the school.  This did not take long, as it was simply one big room with tables and chairs.  We moved all the tables to the edge of the room.   The supply of folding chairs was discovered in a closet, and the orchestra set up in the middle of the room. 

We played the concert we had prepared before dinner.  Every soul who lived in the village was present, and many people had travelled miles in from the bush to attend as well.  There was a contingent from the town of Shungnak, which was about twenty miles down the river from Kobuk.  In addition, all the folks who were out at the fishing camps near by were there too.  

There was no audience seating.   Only the orchestra had chairs.  We sat in the middle of the room, and the listeners lined up around the sides of the room.   They were three and four deep. 

It was amazing.  None of the children had ever seen a violin or an oboe in the flesh before.   Many of the adults had not, either.  Nowadays it is hard to visualize a life without satellites, computers, or TV.  That’s the way it was.  Radio reception was iffy too. 

We were performing Haydn and Bach and Mozart for people who garnered a subsistence from the fish and moose and caribou.  There was a generator in the village to supply electricity, but not everybody was hooked up to the “utility.”  For many of them, this was the first time they had ever heard classical music.  It was truly amazing to see just how universal a language music is first hand. 

They ate it up.   After the performance, we orchestra members were swarmed with children who wanted to touch and try our instruments.  I watched Leslie Salisbury, one of our violin players, give an impromptu violin lesson to a kid who looked to be about 10 years old.   The truly amazing thing was that within five minutes he was getting quite a good sound out of the instrument.  Anybody who has ever tried to play a violin will know just how rare that is.

After we played our concert and had satisfied the curiosity of the children, we packed up our instruments and the tables got moved back into the room.   Then the potluck dinner was served.  This was not a rich community, and we were served what was available.  The centerpiece of the meal was moosehead soup, which as you can imagine was made by boiling a moosehead until everything in and on it fell off into the broth.  Actually, it was pretty good, if slightly bland.  I felt like some onions, garlic and carrots would have made it a lot better.  And salt would have been good, too.   I was very glad that no one told me that all those sort of odd little white bits that were floating it were the brain until after I had eaten.  “Brain. Good for you. Make smart,” was the laconic comment of the Inuit woman dishing it out.

Following the meal, it was our turn to be entertained.  The dancers of the village had left during supper, and returned in full regalia.  The ethnomusicology professor was our tympanist.  He was in his element as he taped the drumming and chanting.   After a while, there was a “social” dance and our hosts taught us the steps and made us join in. 

Finally, the festivities ended, our hosts left us, and we took over the school room.  There was no room for modesty, we unrolled our sleeping bags and slept wherever there was space. 

The next morning, we were all loaded into river boats and transported down to Shungnak, where we were fed breakfast.  Our plane joined us there,  and we continued on to our next concert, at Point Hope.  But that’s another story.

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