Tanya Tagaq enthralls her audience in Vancouver

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      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.



      Tom Hall

      Mar 4, 2015 at 8:33pm

      Thought that was a great review of an artist I am very biased in my appreciation of (don't mean to take away from the band mates which you did a great job praising). I am so glad you focused on the movements. I think those have developed more and more as she has gone along and it is such a strong part of the message she is putting forward on stage. Even the hand movements are awfully evocative to me. I know a little sign language and sometimes she seems about as expressive with her hands as a native signer!

      I do see one thing differently, though. You mention her “embodying male and female principles in her voice.“ For me she is more revealing exactly how much power can be embodied in the (very!) feminine. Even the deepest growls still sound like an extremely feminine projection of power we normally, maybe somewhat reflexively, assign to being a principle of the “male.”

      But maybe I'm nitpicking there. The best part of her ultimate effect, for me, is the ability to go beyond male and female to the profoundly human core of our species.

      You mention bone flutes -I have been looking into cave painting lately.

      So we are sitting with the 25-50 people we're trying to make it through the winter with deep in a cave with firelight playing on the masterpieces of bison and horses on the cave walls all around us while bone flute and percussion is supporting a Proto-Tagaq belting out an early version of “Surge” that reverberates off the walls and through our bone marrow.

      Best. Concert. Ever.

      How many artists today are doing things that could seamlessly fit, both in terms of technique and instrumentation (even if not culturally or geographically), with human populations throughout our entire history as a species (what could be more normal than that)? And she won the Polaris Prize with it.

      Seems kinda on the impressive side, yeah.

      Sorry if my comment got about as long as your review –point being I thought it was a great review!

      Andrea Klering

      Mar 5, 2015 at 10:11am

      Tom Hall, I totally agree that Alexander Varty's review is just really great! For me it was a pleasure reading both his review and your comment, both of you used beautiful descriptions / transliterations (?? I'm not sure which word is the appropriate one here, English is not my mother tongue). Just as if you were painting with your words. So, thanks to both of you for giving me two beautiful paintings to look at.

      Tom Hall

      Mar 5, 2015 at 11:04pm

      Andrea Klering, Wow, if English is not your first language you are doing incredibly well! I have struggled to learn bits and pieces of other languages, have some idea of how hard it is, and am very impressed with how wonderful you are doing.

      Thank you for your kind words. If you are interested in this kind of stuff enough to look at some short films, there is “Sirmilik,” (http://www.nationalparksproject.ca/#/park/4/film) which is an ode to one of Canada's National Parks that Ms. Tagaq is in. There are some just stunning visuals of the land in it (the last shot is burned into my bald little head). Plus the little “making of” video (http://www.mcnabbconnolly.ca/titles/5231/sirmilik___2_13) has this brief burst of Ms. Tagaq standing on a rock belting out a cry that echos off some of the imposing rock faces of the that region. Not quite in a cave, but getting interestingly close to my fantasy concert above ;-). There is also what to me is a riveting little discussion of Ms. Tagaq's approach to food INCLUDING, near as I can tell, a striking behind the scenes story from the making of that short film (https://vimeo.com/84979351).

      Already may be more than anyone, anywhere would want to know, but I feel the need to mention a film that DOES NOT have Ms. Tagaq in it. If you are interested in artistic expression of the disconnect from nature inherent in modern society, the refusal to rely on cramming vision into syllables, etc. I have to recommend my favorite film, Koyaanisqatsi (http://www.hulu.com/search?q=Koyaanisqatsi). I have to watch it every once in a while and the last time I kept hearing Ms. Tagaq's singing ringing in my head through a lot of the film!

      Again, sorry for the wordiness.