YYZ’s a big town and there’s always loads going on. The media is saturated with shouts of information for upcoming shows and productions that creates a kind of option paralysis. That is unless you try to look up 01 November 2017: Tanya Tagaq Tour at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, Toronto.
Go on, get a search rolling on your browser.
The lack of information is a little strange, considering that Tanya Tagaq is an international icon of the avant-garde; that and she is a proper Canadian superstar. Weaving out of traditional katajjaq, Inuit throat singing, she’s already sung with Björk (Ancestors on Medúlla, 2004), and won a Polaris Music Prize with Animism, in competition against Drake (Nothing Was The Same) and Arcade Fire (Reflektor) in 2014, and was shortlisted again in 2017 with Retribution.
Her fierce political stance and guttural, hypnotic, and ultraviolent soundscape may scare (or even offend) the general public who are more comfortable with lush voices of opera and gentle art songs- until we realize that we have seen her before. We had heard her voice, along with familiar faces. We saw her this past spring with Toronto Symphony Orchestra as featured soloist for the new commission for Canada Mosaic Series, Qiksaaktuq, and her work with the renowned Kronos Quartet includes Tundra Songs (2015), and compositional collaboration, Sivunittnni, as part of Fifty for the Future project. And yes, we did hear its premiere last year in town, in the familiar Koerner Hall.
Perhaps the reader may wonder aloud at this point: how does throat singing relate to the classical music anyhow? Certainly, there are enough operas and standard classical shows going on in town? Why should I venture out to this unfamiliar music?
David Harrington of Kronos Quartet states the need for discovery succinctly:
“You hear something that changes the way you think, then you try to make that sound for yourself and you have begun to add to your collection of essential homemade musical experiences… What would happen if we could, through our years of working with hundreds of composers from many places, make a body of incredibly interesting, fun music that could serve the next generation as a launching pad to a world of discovery?”
And discovery is the core of this concert. Armed with her longtime collaborators: Jean Martin and Jesse Zubot, the Element Choir with leader Christine Duncan, and guests Ash Koosha, and Jeffrey Zeigler (formerly Kronos Quartet), the concert is organized by the National Film Board of Canada for Throat, a documentary-in-process on Tanya. The crew is bringing Dolby Atmos, the 360-degree sound mix technology, to film what is to become the foundation of the film.
What is the Element Choir, you ask?
Drawing members from all background, Duncan has been leading the choir over ten years. She uses intuitive gestures to create structured improvisation composition within the group.
This may sound like a whole lot of jargon: improvisation has been a hot topic in contemporary classical music for a good long while, and we the classical music people are still quite cautious about its definition and applications. Even in the next genre, jazz, the idea of improv is often confined by the mechanical means (applicable theory and idiomatic technique) and by musical restraint (pre-constructed structure, the need to relate to the original melody, etc.)
I went to attend Duncan’s workshop for new members a few nights ago (*membership is open to anyone who is interested), and when I confessed the difficulty of ‘letting one express,’ Duncan agreed that perhaps the idea of organic interaction without the academic rules scared me off:
“Talking, whistling, vocalizing — all these things go beyond the idea of singing. What I am asking people to do is listen to collaborate, to build from nothing. I want to have individuals, whom I call elements, to work with me, to create a pointillistic composition… my role is to give everything I can, to create the environment, to have their back, to make it safe, to make you believe that trainwreck won’t happen.”
The collaboration web began long ago, when Tagaq first met Jean Martin about ten years ago, at Guelph Jazz Festival, where both of them were invited to collaborate on one stage. Ever since then, Tagaq worked closely with Martin and Jesse Zubot, and Duncan met Tagaq through Martin. On 2014 France Tagaq Tour, Duncan hopped along, and one day, Tagaq invited her to perform with her- and the rest is history. Duncan quickly became a core Tagaq team member, and for Polaris 2014 award, when the producers wanted something special, Jean suggested the addition of the Element Choir — and they became an integral part of Tagaq’s music. This building of personal relationship is so important to Duncan: it is about recognizing relationship for what it is, as permission to go to places, to be opened up for finding this special new awareness.
Improvisation is a highly political gesture- one yields one’s autonomy voluntarily, surrenders it to others (or to a leader), and becomes acutely aware of others to the point where each individual is not distinguishable in the mixture, yielding to the group’s exponential expressive potential. To a degree, with written music, we do do this, within the general confinement of classical music interpretation. However, the Elementals are participating in a whole new level, and with that understanding, the program quickly becomes an aesthetic enigma- to be experienced (to witness or even to participate in next Element Choir gig!), then to mull over.
There is no program to present regarding 01 November 2017 Tagaq show. But perhaps it’s only natural, because this concert is not curated to express anything particular; rather it is heavily charged aggregate that will transform in real time, on Wednesday.
I find it interesting that Duncan calls Element Choir’s improvisations compositions, as it is literally correct. This will be a real-time composite, of individuals, of identities and interests, of genres and of collaborative, open energy.
There is only one thing left to do: go to the show. The team — National Film Board, Tagaq and her crew, are almost ready for the composition, and they want YOU to be there, the last missing element.
Tanya Tagaq at Trinity St. Paul’s. Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Tickets $30. Full details here.