Febuary 2016, Centre in the Square, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
I wasn’t prepared for Tanya Tagaq.
Oh, I had my concert tickets, which is good, because both her shows were complete sellouts. And I knew she was an Inuit singer who had her own take on traditional throat singing. I remembered her winning the Polaris prize in 2014.
But I hadn’t listened to any of her music in advance.
And thank goodness for that! Because you can only hear Tanya Tagaq for the very first time once in your life, and what better way than seeing her live, from just a few feet away? (We were in the second row.)
The problem is, I have no idea how to describe her sound and performance to you. I’ve never heard anyone else do anything like what she does. As we were revelling in her show afterward, Jean made an attempt: “It’s like she took you on a journey through a whole lifetime of dreams.”
This is traditional throat singing:
Tagaq does use this technique, but—in own words—in a completely punk way. She plays with pitch, vocal styling, breathing, making no literal sense but clearly conveying emotion. And she puts her whole body into it, swaying, gesturing, sinking to the floor. It’s just mesmerizing.
And how does that work with the symphony? Well, first they prepared us to hear some unusual sounds by presenting the works of two Canadian composers (both in attendance, both women), along with a version of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that was so rockin’ it rivaled The Who’s take on the same.
They then let Tanya Tagaq do her thing on her own, totally improvised.
Next was a work by another Canadian composer, Rodney Sharman, (“I texted with him today,” said Tagaq. “He seems nice.”), and she improvised over that soundtrack.
Finally, Tagaq and orchestra came together on a chamber music piece written for her, called “Cercle du Nord III”. Ms. Tagaq said that the fuller sound provided by the larger symphony (vs. original string quartet) gave the piece another dimension.
(Her personality is quite charming, by the way. For example, she was taken aback at having to come back and acknowledge the rapturous applause she was receiving. She was unsure to do, she said. What does she normally do? “I go out for dinner,” she answered. She then told us, mock sternly: “OK, I’m leaving now. Don’t make me come back out again!”)
A few years ago, Edwin Outwater, Musical Director of the KWS and this concert’s conductor, gave a Ted Talk in which he argued that rock / pop music wasn’t the music of rebels anymore. That classical music was.
I think he has a point. Much as I still love rock music, there isn’t much danger or innovation in it anymore, is there? What is more choreographed, corporate, and scripted than a big, modern rock show? Who can improvise when everyone has to play to same click track?
Whereas tonight’s Tanya Tagaq concert could be a whole different experience than last night’s.
And this is following on two other KW Symphony shows we saw recently, in which they:
- Completely reconceived German opera Die Fleidermaus with local references, a hilarious narration absent in the original, and even a special guest spot for a former mayor.
- Along with the Art of Time, presented the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper not just orchestrated, but truly rearranged such that every song was both familiar and strange (though wonderfully so, in my opinion).
As rock retreats to safety, the traditional symphony is taking it to the edge. Don’t let the strings and horns fool you: today, this is punk.
Also see: A Barenaked Christmas