Tanya Tagaq and the Kronos Quartet made Tundra Songs a masterpiece

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At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday, January 30

Almost four years to the day after the Kronos Quartet’s first-ever performance with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, the five musicians returned to the scene of their debut in triumphal fashion. Making their return even more gratifying was the fact that their collaboration was a bit of a mess the first time round—a striking mess and a promising one, but a mess nonetheless.

In that initial offering, Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s featured composition, Nunavut, failed to cohere, instead devolving into a series of halfhearted duo improvisations in which Tagaq’s ferocity overwhelmed most of the Kronos musicians. This time, the string quartet commissioned Derek Charke to create a score for the five players; between his deep understanding of the North and the band’s growing comfort with their guest, Tundra Songs was every bit the masterpiece first violinist David Harrington had promised in an earlier interview with the Straight.

Like most of the other pieces on Saturday’s program, Tundra Songs is an electroacoustic composition, with the strings amplified to better match Charke’s eerie mesh of found and manipulated sounds from the polar ice. The Nova Scotia composer’s ear for sonic atmosphere is remarkable. His writing for strings featured propulsive rhythms, many borrowed from Inuit music, and the playing—as one would expect from North America’s premier new-music string quartet—was impeccable. But it was really Tagaq’s show, even if there were long passages where she sat mute while the other musicians negotiated the score.

Taming her remarkable voice was never on the agenda. Letting it soar—and roar, and grunt, and hiss—most definitely was, however, and Tagaq rose to the occasion with a performance that was simply elemental. Her approach is essentially abstract; except when telling the heartbreaking and horrifying creation myth that underlies Tundra Songs’ third movement, she eschewed words entirely. Yet her singing delivered very concrete images of winter storms and summer sunshine, of birth and death and sexual ecstasy, of struggle and survival. Tundra Songs is a complex and ambitious piece of work, but the audience felt its impact on an emotional level and replied with an exuberant standing ovation—which it repeated after a generous encore that featured the quartet’s arrangement of the Sigur Rós song “Flugufrelsarinn”, a solo improvisation from Tagaq, and the weirdly affecting digital maelstrom that is John Oswald’s Spectre.

Here’s hoping that Tundra Songs is recorded soon, preferably accompanied by the six shorter works that Kronos presented during the first half of the program. This was an experience many in the crowd would love to repeat.

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