Trio of scholars to reveal analysis, play synthesis of Tlingit singing

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Sealaska Heritage Institute will sponsor a lecture by three scholars on their analysis of Tlingit songs that were documented by the Spanish at Yakutat in the late 18th century.

    The panel will play a synthesis of the music for lecture attendees to hear.

    “It’s as if we will hear our ancestors singing to us at a pivotal moment in our history,” said SHI President Rosita Worl.

    In their lecture, Voices of the Ancestors: Inquiries Concerning Tlingit Singing at Yakutat in 1791, the scholars will describe a collaborative project that begins with the Spaniards sailing under Alejandro Malaspina and José de Bustamante y Guerra for the King of Spain on the so-called Malaspina Expedition to Alaska. During the expedition, the Spaniards encountered the Tlingit in Yakutat Bay in 1791.

    The Tlingit sang to and with the Spaniards on several occasions that Thaddeus Haenke, a member of the crew with musical training, and others wrote about in their journals. Haenke translated what he heard the Tlingit singing into four sheets of music.

    Steve Langdon, Ph.D., presented one sheet of music in a past lecture at SHI, and following the presentation, at the request of the institute, he began a search for all four pages of the sheet music.

    After contacting the Museo de Americas in Madrid, Langdon was eventually able to acquire high-quality images of the original pages, which he sent to Maria Shaa Tláa Williams, Ph.D., a Tlingit ethnomusicologist at UAA and trustee of SHI. She analyzed the musical notation and determined what kind of songs the Tlingit were singing, and she discovered that the Tlingit were singing on occasion in harmony – voices at different pitches. She programmed a musical synthesizer to see how the music sounded.

    Tlingit scholar Judy Daxootsu Ramos, who is of the Yakutat Kwaashk’iḵwáan, has participated in Yakutat dance group singing since she was a girl and recalls the dance group singing in harmony when she was a child.

    In the talk, Langdon will discuss the origin and development of the research, commenting on the occasions in the journals where Haenke described Tlingit singing. Williams will present an analysis of the sheet music as Haenke wrote it down and play the synthesized recreation of the music. Ramos will talk about her experiences growing up hearing harmonic music with the Yakutat dance group.

    The three will hold a panel discussion about the music and its place in Tlingit culture as well as future research on how it might be creatively used in Tlingit education.

    The lecture is scheduled for 12 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 28, in Shuká Hít within SHI’s Walter Soboleff Building, at 105 South Seward St. in Juneau.

    The lecture will be livestreamed and posted on SHI’s YouTube channel.

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