Ideas of North

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Editor’s Note: This is the second post in Part III of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.

“…like all but a very few Canadians, I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”

 Glenn Gould, The Idea of North, 3:21

Made by layering audio recordings wherein interviewees describe the landscape of the Canadian Arctic, Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North (1967) was an experimental radio broadcast commissioned by the CBC to celebrate the country’s centennial. In the introduction, however, Gould admits that he created a work on a subject with which he “had no real experience”—it is just an idea of North. This view of the Arctic as an unfamiliar yet inspirational region is common; indeed, The Idea of North is only a moment in a long history of colonial powers using media to lay claim to the Arctic landscape. What might one see and hear in representations of the Arctic, and how do these perceptions reflect the colonial history of the region?

Media Theory

Recent media theory supports a layered approach whereby visual media, musical media, and the Arctic environment are understood to be inextricably connected. While John Durham Peters understands media broadly as “vehicles that carry and communicate meaning,” the author refines his position by noting that “many forms of life now flourish as much in silico as in vivo.1 By embracing ambiguity concerning what is ‘natural,’ media overlap to create “an ensemble” of natural and artificial elements that facilitate human activity.2 In this view, Arctic ice is a medium in the same way that data, images, video, and audio representing Arctic ice are media. Isabelle Gapp has shown how productive this mode of thinking about Arctic ice is in her recent publication “Ice in Motion: Panoramic Perspectives and Moving Pictures.”3 Hester Blum credits Peters specifically when describing the concept of ecomedia as “an approach to thinking about the imbrication of media forms … within systems and environments.”4 More specifically, Blum has already theorized how polar environments shaped print media in The News at the Ends of the Earth. These theories provide a structure for understanding musical media, visual media, and the Arctic environment as an “ensemble” of media that are codependent.

Nineteenth Century Media

Nineteenth-century Arctic expeditions produced a substantial amount of print media that captured what life was like for crew members. These sources include references to musical practices, which makes them a good starting point for examining the elision of different media. The Illustrated Arctic News, for example, includes several musical references, from a vignette with images of a fife, trumpet, and drums (Header Image), to lyrics about the Arctic landscape. Published lyrics were often accompanied by an “air” that indicated a melody to which the new lyrics would be sung. Airs might be chosen to enhance the affect of the new lyrics, or because it was consistent with a nautical or military theme. For example, Song of the North No. 4, “Appeal to the Seaman & Marines of the Expedition,” was sung to the tune of the official march of the British Royal Navy, “Hearts of Oak” (Image 1). The Illustrated Arctic News also shows that music was used in live entertainment. The advertisements section of the newspaper describes a night of theatre, pantomime, and magic lantern shows with “a highly talented band.”5 A poster from a different expedition confirms that instrumentalists would provide interludes between different acts,6 but it is also possible that the band provided musical accompaniment during the performances.

An insignia consisting of a crown and two crossed Union Jacks surrounded by a laurel is printed above song information and lyrics, written in cursive: Songs of the North / No. 4 – Appeal to the Seamen + Marines of the Expedition / Air – ‘Hearts of Oak’ / Come, cheer up my lads! The season draws near, When all wish to strive nor care where they steer; In Humanity’s cause, which may Providence bless, And crown all our efforts + toil with success
Image 1: Song of the North No. 4 “Appeal to the Seaman & Marines of the Expedition,” with Air “Hearts of Oak”. Illustrated Arctic News, 42. Public Domain, Reproduced courtesy of HathiTrust.

Print media also documents the spread of Arctic music beyond the Arctic circle in the nineteenth century. In 1883, one Mr. Rignold hosted a Magnificent Panorama of the Arctic Regions in Kennington, London. The event featured a panoramic painting by Clarkson Stanfield, yet the word “PERFORMANCE” in large, bold font draws more attention to the musical accompaniment provided by tenor Eos Dyffryn and contralto Meredyth Elliott.7 Finally, the score to Northward Ho!, or Baffled Not Beaten provides yet another context where music and image combined to represent the Arctic. This song for piano and voice is notable because the political lyrics that boast in Britain’s diplomatic power were written by three-time Arctic expedition veteran Commander John Cheyne. Because this score includes the piano part, it is possible to discern that Cheyne’s militaristic lyrics are mirrored by the march-like rhythms of the accompaniment. Further defining the images described in the song, the cover page of the score features an impressive lithograph of the balloon expeditions that Commander Cheyne proposed as a way to reach the North Pole (Image 2).

In the foreground, crew members on the ice work to prepare large, red hot air balloons for flight. A snow-covered ship can be seen in the background. The tops of snow-capped mountains can be seen beyond the ship, and, above that, a night sky full of stars.
Image 2: Alfred Concanen lithograph on the title page of Northward, Ho!, or Baffled Not Beaten. Odoardi Barri, Northward Ho!, or Baffled Not Beaten, Words by Cmdr. John P. Cheyne (London: J. B. Cramer, 187), title page. Public Domain, Reproduced courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.

Twentieth Century

Arctic media continued to circulate in wider networks throughout the twentieth century. Take, for example, the concert pieces Arctic Images: A Suite for Orchestra (1971) and Arctic Dreams (1991) by Canadian composers Derek Healey and Michael Colgrass respectively. Both composers drew inspiration from a variety of Arctic visual media. Healey selected five Inuit prints to inspire the five movements of Arctic Images (Bear Hunter, Pitseolak [Ashoona?]; Caribou, Winter Light, Niviaksiak; Mosquito Dream, [Helen] Kalvak; Cliff Dwellers, Iyola [Kingwatsiak]; and The Arrival of the Sun, Kenojuak [Ashevak]).8 Colgrass took a slightly different approach and spent a short amount of time in the Arctic before looking to Barry Lopez’ book Arctic Dreams (1986), Farley Mowat’s People of the Deer (1952), and sculptures of drummers by Inuit artist Karoo Ashevak for inspiration. Unsurprisingly, these pieces are not complete adaptations of visual media into musical ideas; rather, both composers retain visual elements in their musical notation. Where Healey uses curved lines, dots, and other symbols that require musicians to approximate the sounds of the shapes, Colgrass’ graphic notations resemble the natural phenomena they are meant to represent sonically (Image 3).

Curved lines like a two-dimensional drawing of wind are placed on the five-line staff to instruct musicians to reproduce the sound of Arctic wind with their instruments
Image 3: Graphic notation for wind in Colgrass’ Arctic Dreams: IV. “Polar Night”. Michael Colgrass, Arctic Dreams (Toronto: Canadian Music Centre, 1991), 65, Copyright Michael Colgrass (1991), Reproduced courtesy of the Michael Colgrass Estate.

This music positions the Inuit as an essential part of the Canadian North by prominently featuring their art . However, these compositions also limit Inuit people’s ability to represent their own landscape and culture. As was the case with Arctic expeditions funded by the British government, the Canadian government provided funding for Healey and Colgrass to complete their Arctic projects: the C.B.C. commissioned Arctic Images for the Vancouver Autumn Fair, and the Canada Council for the Arts funded Colgrass’ trip to the Arctic. The dedication of Arctic Images to the Canadian conductor John Avison is another indication of the marginal position Inuit artists had in Healey’s project. Printed twice in the front matter of Arctic Dreams, Colgrass’ dedication of the piece to the Inuit women with whom he stayed seems more appropriate; yet, several references to events at the University of Illinois in the dedication still distract from the centrality of Inuit culture in the composition. 

Where Indigenous perspectives were notably absent in nineteenth century media, Arctic Images and Arctic Dreams are examples of state-funded efforts to cultivate a more inclusive Canadian arts scene. These efforts, however, were largely misplaced because they offered representations of Inuit art instead of funding Inuit artists to present, and profit from, their own work. In short, this music incorporates Inuit art without compensating the original creators. The issues with this form of cultural extraction have been raised by Stó:lō musicologist Dylan Robinson, who recognizes that efforts in the 1990s to include Indigenous performers in Canadian music amounted to representational politics instead of systemic change.9 Robinson argues that composers used Indigenous culture as a resource to be placed “in the service of musical nationalism,” which certainly rings true in the examples discussed here.10 Writing as a settler myself, this understanding of the music is not pursued to assign blame to Healey or Colgrass, who were likely eager to engage with Inuit art earnestly. Rather, understanding the state’s role in these projects is a reminder, firstly, of the colonial history that continued to have influence over Canada’s cultural sector in the twentieth century, and, secondly, that continued efforts are needed to approach truly ethical artistic practices.

Taken together, these examples show that many representations of the Canadian Arctic are best understood when discussing visual and musical media together. Moreover, this media should always be considered in relation to the Indigenous perspectives that are frequently misrepresented by colonial powers. In the nineteenth century, musical and visual media encouraged crews in their tasks, ultimately facilitating the extraction of natural resources, scientific data, and military intelligence from the Arctic. This colonial dynamic shifted in the twentieth century when government-funded arts projects led to cultural extraction from the same region. Much like Gould’s own work, many of these visual and musical media are filtered through ideologies about the landscape or separated from it entirely—far from authoritative accounts of the Arctic, they too should be understood as ideas of North.


1. John Durham Peters, “In Media Res,” Intro. in The Marvellous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 2.

2. Peters, “In Media Res,” 9.

3. Isabelle Gapp, “Ice in Motion: Panoramic Perspectives and Moving Pictures,” ARCTIC – Journal of the Arctic Institute of North America 76, no. 2 (2023): 160–78,

4. Hester Blum, “Polar Ecomedia,” Intro. in The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 29.

5. Facsimile of the Illustrated Arctic News, Published on Board H.M.S. Resolute: Captn. Horatio T. Austin, C.B. in Search of the Expedition Under Sir John Franklin, 53. London: Ackerman & Co., 1852.

6. Parks Canada. “Fighting the Arctic Blues: Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site.” Parks Canada, Government of Canada. Modified 27 May 2022.

7. Gapp, “Ice in Motion,” 165.

8. The manuscript and published scores contain incomplete names. The first name is clearly printed “Pitseolak” in the manuscript score, but is misprinted “Pitsedak” in the published score. Pitseolak Ashoona has several works with titles close to “Bear Hunter” that could have inspired the first movement of Arctic Images. Excluded names have been added in square brackets.

9. Dylan Robinson, “Introduction,” in Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 3–5.

10. Robinson, “Introduction,” 2.


Ashevak, Karoo. Drum Dancer. 1970–3. Figure in whalebone, stone, caribou antler; 32.5 cm x 63.0 cm x 53.4 cm. National Museum of the American Indian, New York,

Ashevak, Kenojuak. Arrival of the Sun. 1962. Stonecut in black and yellow on Japan paper, 63.4 cm x 99.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, /the-arrival-of-the-sun.

Barri, Odoardi. Northward Ho!, or Baffled Not Beaten. Words by Commander John P. Cheyne. London: J. B. Cramer, 1879.

Colgrass, Michael. Arctic Dreams. Toronto: Canadian Music Centre, 1991.

Gould, Glenn. The Idea of North. C.B.C. Radio, radio broadcast, 28 December 1967.

Facsimile of the Illustrated Arctic News, Published on Board H.M.S. Resolute: Captn. Horatio T. Austin, C.B. in Search of the Expedition Under Sir John Franklin. London: Ackerman & Co., 1852.

Healey, Derek. Arctic Images: A Suite for Orchestra. Toronto: Counterpoint Music Library Services, 1977. /counterpoint7/2022-12-12/1/5023631.

Kalvak, Helen. Mosquito Dream. 1964. Stonecut on paper, 45.7 cm x 59.1 cm. Private collection,

Kingwatsiak, Iyola. Cliff Dwellers. 1962. Ink on paper, 48.5 cm x 33 cm. Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, =64014&row=75&tab=more.

Niviaksiak. Caribou, Winter Light. 1959. Ink on paper, 21.5 cm x 33 cm. Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, =64014 &ro=18&tab=more.

Feature image: A vignette from The Illustrated Arctic News with a small military ensemble of trumpet, drums, and fife (left). Facsimile of the Illustrated Arctic News, Published on Board H.M.S. Resolute: Captn. Horatio T. Austin, C.B. in Search of the Expedition Under Sir John Franklin (London: Ackerman & Co., 1852), 11. Public Domain, Reproduced courtesy of HathiTrust,
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