Art in Paradise: Sounds of the High Arctic

Forget for a moment words like “good” and “bad” in relation to music, and cue up the sounds of Tanya Tagaq. Words that have to do with liking or not liking are inadequate to describe what she does.

A Tagaq performance is hair-raising. It’s as if you’ve stumbled upon a voice that might be from another era, an era of stone and flesh before written history. Even that isn’t adequate to describe the effect. If not for the deep currents of human emotion that course through her vocals, even contort her body, she might be an emissary from another planet.

That may sound like hyperbole, but her music-making is so unfamiliar in its contours, so much a product of another culture, that you can’t help but be caught short by its astonishing power. Tagaq is Inuit, from Victoria Island, an enormous piece of arctic land north of mainland Canada. Her singing is not only unusual compared to European traditions; it also departs from Inuit tradition. Usually, Inuit throat-singing is a duo affair, something akin to a game. It’s not much like the more commonly heard Tuvan variety of throat-singing, in which a low, growly drone is augmented by simultaneous overtones, as if two people were singing. The Inuit variety is heavy on rhythm, and growly sounds bump up against fully voiced ones in quick fashion.

The tradition may be primarily one of fun entertainment, but what Tagaq has done with that tradition is far more than that. Sometimes she sounds like a didgeridoo played rhythmically. Other times, she keens and wails. Sometimes both happen in quick changes, with rhythm giving way to sustained notes.

All that back and forth adds up to something greater than its parts. Tagaq improvises most of what she sings, and she’s trying to tap into something greater. On her website, Tagaq says, “It feels like I dial in another frequency. I go to places where I surrender to all that terrifies and excites me.”

Listen to her, and you’ll be asked to do the same. Tagaq portrays, all at once, her emotional landscape and the wide-open spaces of her native region. Once you get used to the strangeness of the sounds she makes, recognizable elements emerge. Walrus snorts, whale song, and wolf howls erupt from her vocal cords, and she dances, crumpling to the stage, then reaching high, depicting the primal stuff of life, from suffering to ecstasy.

This is not lighthearted entertainment. Tagaq plays with a band, but the musicians are usually employed to subtle effect. They accompany and amplify what she does, and seldom divert attention.

The Holy Grail for many a music critic is material that possesses a voice that’s so thoroughly tied to a performer’s vision it cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. In Tagaq’s case, that’s true in such an overboard way it’s hard to imagine anything it could be compared to. Yoko Ono’s unleashed vocalizing, perhaps, is a much less deft incarnation of a similar urge, but Tagaq’s sounds compel and persist in a way that Ono’s generally can’t. There’s free jazz here, pure noise, wordless singing. It’s steeped in Inuit culture, but steered toward the kind of musical progression that comes from European traditions. Tagaq is in such control of her voice that the result is more a spell than a song, a spell that connects distant past with present, primal with prosaic.

Though it’s safe to say the pool of arctic-inclined musical experimenters is smaller than most, Tagaq came to greater prominence via that world—Icelandic innovator Bjork invited her on tour, and Tagaq appears on her album Medulla. Tagaq has also collaborated with the Kronos Quartet.

Happily, Tagaq’s world intersects ours this week, when she and her trio (Tagaq plus violin and percussion) visit the Valley for a performance.•

Tanya Tagaq: March 8, 8 p.m., $10-18, Buckley Recital Hall, Arms Music Center, Amherst College, (413) 542-2195,

Author: James Heflin

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