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Tapping a northern cool

Tundra Songs: Kronos Quartet with Tanya Tagaq, January 30, 2010

The Georgia Straight

by Alexander Varty

When he was asked to write a new piece, Tundra Songs, for the Kronos Quartet and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, composer Derek Charke knew that he’d have to make the physical presence of the North a central feature. So he donned a parka, hopped a flight, and got busy.

In Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, he hired a guide and set out for the ice floes of Frobisher Bay. Using a hydrophone, he recorded the clicking of shrimp and the calling of seals. He recorded sled dogs and ravens and a snowstorm. Back in town, he captured kids playing ball hockey, snowmobiles, bush planes, and the sounds of a soapstone carver. He documented almost all the characteristic sounds of northern life, except for one: the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes. It was March, too early for insects. So once he got home to Wolfville, Nova Scotia, he built a bug recorder and captured that, too.

“A lot of people think that with composition, especially an electroacoustic composition like this, you’re just manipulating different sounds that come with your computer,” Charke explains, reached at his Acadia University office. “But with something like this, I’m really trying to go from the ground up: recording every single sound, manipulating them, putting them through granular synthesis and different kinds of processes to stretch them out, and then layering them to get the different harmonies …. In terms of the intellectual journey, that became the really enjoyable part of it: 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.”

And then there’s Tagaq, who’s very much the X factor in this otherwise meticulously crafted 30-minute composition, which will receive its Vancouver debut at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (January 30). Tundra Songs is a considerable departure for the Inuit singer: although she’s worked with Kronos before, she’s primarily an improviser and does not read music. One of Charke’s biggest challenges in writing Tundra Songs, he says, was to allow Tagaq room to be herself.


“On my end, it’s a matter of having listened to Tanya many, many times, and of having listened, to a hell of a lot of throat singing,” the composer explains. “And of course, because I lived up in Inuvik for a while and I’ve been up to the North many times, it’s something that’s fascinated me for some time. The sounds were in my ears, having transcribed all these different Inuit throat songs for string quartet – and that played a bit role in the conception of this work, too.”

The end product, Tagaq reports, has lived up to Charke’s hopes and exceeded her expectations.

“Derek gives me cues throughout the piece about when to sing, she says, on the line from Yellowknife. “But he doesn’t really tell me what to sing, so it’s pretty open. I’m really fortunate that way, in that most people allow me to have my artistic freedom.

“I can really feel my home in the piece,” she adds. “He nailed it on the head. He’s brilliant.”

The Kronos Quartet’s leader and first violinist, David Harrington, agrees. “It’s really one of the major, spectacular pieces that has ever been written for Kronos, I would say – and I think it’s a breakthrough piece for Derek Charke, too,” he offers, reached at the quartet’s San Francisco office. “It’s fun to play; I think there’s kind of an elemental quality to the music, and to the collaboration. It feels really great, to me.”

That’s high praise, considering that Kronos has premiered dozens of major works by such prominent composers as Arvo Part, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Henryk Gorecki, and Terry Riley. But Harrington is audibly excited to be working with Charke, who’s written for the group before, and especially with Tagaq.

“I find Tanya to be one of the most elemental performers that I’ve ever been on-stage with,” he says. “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.”

Harrington discovered the singer through a 2003 compilation issued by Britain’s JROOTS magazine. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he recalls, and then, laughing, recounts his initial telephone conversation with the woman who’s now one of his favourite collaborators.

“One of the things I said to Tanya was how much I appreciated what she was able to put into the notes that she sang,” he says. “And there was this kind of silence on the phone, and then she said, ‘What’s a note?’

“I just said, ‘Tanya, I love you. The rest of us talk about notes as though we know something about them. You’re the first person I’ve ever encountered that admitted that they don’t have any idea what a note is, and I don’t think the rest of us do, either.’”

He’s being modest, of course – and there’s also the possibility that the tricksterish Tagaq was just having him on. But one thing’s for sure: there will be notes in Tundra Songs like none you’ve ever heard before.

Thu Jan 28, 2010