Last Saturday night in Vancouver, the prominent Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq performed with the Kronos Quartet in the world premier of Halifax composer Derek Clarke’s Tundra Songs. Since the Vancouver Winter Olympics will open next week with a stylized Inukshuk, the traditional Inuit rock sculpture, as its symbol, a concert two weeks before the opening events featuring music relating to northern Canada must have seemed quite appropriate. The concert was held at the Chan Center on the University of British Columbia campus.
In order to prepare himself to compose the work, Clarke flew to Nunavut, hired a guide, and set out for the ice of Frobisher Bay. He recorded the calls of seals, the clicks of shrimp, the sounds of sled dogs, ravens, and a snowstorm. In town, he used his microphone to capture the sounds of a bush plane, a soapstone carver, snowmobiles, and kids playing ball hockey. Later, back in Nova Scotia, he captured one of the more pervasive sounds of northern life that was not available to him when he was in Nunavut: mosquitoes. He had been in Nunavut too early. He has made numerous other trips to the North and is intimately familiar with Inuit throat singing.
He explained that capturing the essence of life in the North in an electro-acoustic composition such as Tundra Songs required more than just computer manipulations. He said that after he captured the sounds he wanted to use, he “put them through granular synthesis and different kinds of processes to stretch them out.” He layered them “to get the different harmonies.” He explained further that “the really enjoyable part of it [was] trying to find a way to relate the sounds so that there is a real play between the sounds of the environment, the sounds that you’re using on the soundscape, and the string quartet itself.”
For her part, Tagaq feels that Charke’s composition has more than met her expectations. He evidently gives clues throughout the work when he expects the throat singer to come on, but he leaves it up to her improvise what she wishes to actually sing. “I’m really fortunate that way, in that most people allow me to have my artistic freedom,” she says. “I can really feel my home in the piece.”
David Harrington, first violinist and leader of the Kronos Quartet, agrees that Clarke’s composition is “really one of the major, spectacular pieces that has ever been written for Kronos.” He said the work is fun to play, with an elemental quality to it. The quartet, from San Francisco, has premiered compositions by a number of leading contemporary composers.
Harrington also praised the talents of Tanya Tagaq. “I find Tanya to be one of the most elemental performers that I’ve ever been on-stage with,” he said. “Her sense of life and her sense of sound is so spectacular and refreshing. I always feel more alive after we’ve played with Tanya—or rehearsed with her, or just been with her. I think she’s just a wonderful force.” He explains how she is a strong, natural performer with no formal musical training—she doesn’t even read music. But she is a wonderful performer and throat singer. Her first performance, she said, was “at a rave that was part of a friend’s wedding.”
She performs every show with total commitment, whether for friends or in a concert hall. “Every show is different, and it all depends on where I’m at emotionally. If I’m having a hard time, the sound comes out differently. But each time, it’s about exploring what it means to be a woman. The darkness, the pain, the positive stuff, too, the sexuality, all of it,” she explains.
Composer, quartet, and throat singer praise one another to various newspaper interviewers. “They’re so cute,” Tagaq said, referring to the Kronos quartet members. “They open up more every time. I think they’re more relaxed now. I might even throw them a few curve balls.” Harrington, from the quartet, describes the composer admiringly: “To record the sound of crows, [Clarke] literally covered his microphone with meat to get them to come closer.”
The throat singer and the quartet followed their 30 minute performance of Tundra Songs with some informal jamming for their Vancouver audience.