At the York Theatre on Saturday, February 28
If ever there was a revelatory performance, this was it—and the revelation that I had at the jam-packed York Theatre is that Tanya Tagaq’s music is deeply, thrillingly normal.
Now, before you assume that I’ve lost my few remaining marbles, let me explain. Normal isn’t necessarily ordinary: Tagaq and her accompanists Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin remain an extraordinary, even singular, force in Canadian music, and on-stage they go places most performers are afraid to even look at from afar.
For this Talking Stick Festival presentation, the Cambridge Bay, Nunavut–born singer and her band had us out of our comfy chairs in a matter of seconds. Not literally—this was deep listening rather than a rave—but metaphorically. Martin’s scraped cymbals and the light pressure of Zubot’s bow on his amplified violin invoked a chilly wind that morphed into an Arctic storm once Tagaq began to sing—and dance, an aspect of her work that has generally been overlooked.
Musically untutored, Tagaq has also, as far as I know, been untouched by any kind of choreographic training. Yet she has a profoundly intuitive grasp of how to amplify her voice with her movements, both serving to express the idea that all life is one. It’s not going too far to say that both sonically and physically she’s a shape-shifter, embodying male and female principles in her voice, animal and human in her feral, foxy crouching and birdlike extensions. And beyond that, her physicality is elemental; at times she became the storm that Zubot and Martin had conjured with their intense blend of acoustic and electronic sound.
Backing off from the metaphorical and the speculative, another revelation on Saturday was how important those two are to this trio. Tagaq is, rightfully, the star; part of her shape-shifter’s tool kit is the ability to project a presence that’s all out of proportion to her diminutive frame. But she might not be able to do that as effectively with other musicians. No one’s the leader here: everyone initiates, trusting their bandmates’ ability to follow. (That said, Martin does serve as a de facto conductor, shaping the form of the performance from behind his drum kit, while Zubot is generally responsible for triggering the motifs from the Polaris-prize-winning album Animism that were the only recognizable parts of an otherwise improvised show.) And Tagaq’s not the only one with an expansive skill set: Martin is primarily a jazz drummer, but he’s capable of deploying stadiumworthy bombast when necessary, and if Zubot often rushes fearlessly into the electronic unknown, he can also hint at wilderness frolics with a touch of scratchy barn-dance fiddle.
So how is all this normal?
Well, for one thing, the idea of placing music within the matrix of the natural world is as old as music itself. The Neanderthal flute recently unearthed in Slovenia probably made birdlike sounds; elements of nature also appear in the Inuit throat singing that Tagaq has been inspired by, and in shamanic music worldwide. Think, too, of Claude Debussy’s La Mer or Harry Partch’s desert-inspired compositions; it’s only been within the past half-century that music has retreated indoors, and only since the rise of Auto-Tune that the human voice has been robbed of its ability to slip between the cracks in the tempered scale. Tagaq is far from alone in returning the animal, the elemental, and the unpitched to contemporary performance; that she does it in an especially enthralling way is obvious, and wonderful.