Culture Music

Tanya Tagaq throat sings to a sold-out audience

At her recent concert with the Victoria Symphony, Polaris Prize-winning Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq bridged a centuries-old segregation between popular and art music by addressing societal injustices through orchestral music. In lieu of her more traditional gowns, she wore a simple black dress to perform Qiksaaktuq (translated to Grief) as the soloist for a five movement orchestral work dedicated to the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Her only accessory was a red velvet arm cuff, a symbol that exuded strength and hope.

Tagaq is from a small community in Nunavut called Cambridge Bay. She was forced to attend residential school during her teenage years and cites psychedelic rock as the main genre she was exposed to as a child. As a teenager, Tagaq learned and retained the art and tradition of Inuit throat singing. Since then, she has collaborated with numerous artists of diverse musical backgrounds, including singer-songwriter Buffy-Sainte Marie, rapper Shad, and violinist/composer Jesse Zubot. Her 2016 album Retribution centres around rape and its relation to colonialism.

Tanya Tagaq’s Qiksaaktuq is a powerful rumination on grief, denial, and anger. Photo by Levi Manchak via Flickr

Earlier in the week, Tagaq and Christine Duncan, the conductor of the internationally distinguished Element Choir (and the improvised brass section of Qisaaktuq, participated in a discussion at UVic’s School of Music entitled “Creative Collaboration in the Music Industry.” During the talk, they discussed the concept of improvisation, which was described by Duncan as an “absolute freedom of expression”.

And the potency of this statement was certainly executed at Saturday evening’s concert. Qiksaaktuq is composed by Jean Martin and Christopher Mayo and features a freely conducted brass section to accompany Tagaq’s singing. The five continuous musical movements of Qisaaktuq are modelled after the Kubler Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

As Tagaq approached centre stage in the Alix Goolden hall, an atmospheric darkness was felt in the room, far surpassing the capabilities and effects of modern day concert lighting. Tagaq’s eyes were shut while the strings opened with a discordant shrieking.

Contrary to expectation, Tagaq’s entry lines were entirely tonal — singing, calling, and questioning in soprano. This transformed into a series of gasps, moving from her highest register to the bottom of her range, all the while accompanied by pulverizing percussion. The first stage, Denial, ended with Tagaq experiencing and projecting a full body shudder as the sold-out hall descended into silence.

In the second movement, Anger, Tagaq’s arm moved in sync with the orchestra — she seemed to capture and gather as she sang. Bargaining opened with a soothing string accompaniment as Tagaq tilted her head upwards again, her hand close to her chest as she floated in what seemed to be a reverie.

The final two movements featured the darkest of her tones — including unbearably hoarse growls and cries for help that are never answered. Qisaaktuq concluded with Tagaq shaking her head, knees bent, her hand reaching up and grasping at nothing, and the sound of her voice accompanied only by a diminishing pizzicato double bass.

The lasting influence of Tagaq’s performances are rooted in their impact — in the quiet of the hall following the inevitable standing ovation.

In the midst of new music compositions and innovation, Tagaq succeeds by drawing from her heritage and tradition. Reflection is therefore demanded, not invited. The topics Tagaq explores in her music are a perpetual reality for many, finally given a place in the world of art music and classical concert halls.