Strings will sing as Inuit vocalist meets avant garde quartet

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Pair American string ensemble Kronos Quartet with throat singer Tanya Tagaq. And then, of course, practice.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Pair American string ensemble Kronos Quartet with throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

And then, of course, practice.

The San Francisco-based string quartet is in Whitehorse this week collaborating with the Nunavut-based Tagaq to create a new language of music.

It’s a cross-cultural blend of cello and violin mixed with the beautiful guttural sounds of traditional throat singing.

On Tuesday, they’ll play the Yukon Arts Centre en route to their world premier in Vancouver.

Then, in March, the unlikely duet will take the stage at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

“We’re going to make a piece together using elements of Tanya’s vocabulary and Kronos’ vocabulary and try to create words and thoughts and a story,” explained Kronos Quartet founder and violinist David Harrington in a local coffeeshop early Sunday morning.

(Tagaq missed the conversation; she was sleeping off the aftereffects of a late-night party.)

“I’m hoping that Tanya can teach Kronos how to throat sing. We will use our instruments and become like a vocalist and she will become like a member of Kronos.”

Kronos and Tagaq come from two very different musical backgrounds and have distinctly different approaches to music making.

While Tagaq was up late into the night at a local party, members of the Kronos Quartet — Harrington and John Sherba on violins, Hank Dutt on viola and Jeffrey Zeigler on cello — were up before the crack of dawn running though scores of music by Derek Charke, a Nova Scotian composer who transcribed the sounds two women make while throat singing.

Whitehorse was the perfect place to develop the music,” said Harrington.

“It seems so natural to come way far north to play this music, to come way out of our own.”

The collaboration with Tagaq was an idea four years in the making.

Harrington was listening to a new CD sampler he picked up with a magazine on an airplane when he first heard Tagaq’s music.

“I was somewhere crossing the Atlantic and all of a sudden Tanya came on, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he said.

“I spent the next six or eight hours of that flight just listening to the four-minute track.”

By the time the plane landed in Europe Harrington had decided that Tagaq and the Kronos Quartet were going to make music together.

Harrington formed Kronos in 1973, after hearing George Crumb’s Black Angels, an unorthodox, Vietnam War-inspired work featuring sounds made from water glasses and passages of spoken word.

To say the ensemble is eclectic is a flagrant understatement.

The group has kept its approach to music fresh for more than 30 years by joining forces with musical icons of all stripes from sopranos to beat poets, Mexican pop rockers to a Romanian gypsy band.

“There are musicians in every corner of the world who are creating really amazing sounds,” said Harrington.

It comes to the Tagaq collaboration fresh from releasing You’ve Stolen my Heart, a CD collaboration with legendary Bollywood singer Asha Bhosle — a 12-track album that evokes images of vibrant, jewel-covered fabrics and hot, spicy nights in Bombay.

The group has collaborated extensively with composers Terry Riley and Philip Glass.

Kronos has performed live with icons Allen Ginsberg, Tom Waits, Betty Carter and David Bowie and recorded works from rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, jazz legend Thelonious Monk, avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn and 20th century composer Bela Bartok, to name just a few.

It has also performed soundtracks for movies Requiem for a Dream, 21 Grams and Heat.

The group has recorded and released a rack of CDs and, for its efforts, has taken home a fist full of awards and nominations, including a 2004 Grammy for best chamber music performance.

Meanwhile, Tagaq was born and raised in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. She left home at 15 for high school and then studied fine arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.

While down south Tagaq missed her northern home and began emulating the sounds of Inuit throat singer music her mother sent her.

In traditional Inuit throat singing, two women face each other and make short breathing sounds or words using each other’s mouth to resonate the sound. Then they play a game.

The first establishes a pace and the other fills in the gaps — the first to run out of breath or start laughing loses.

Since Tagaq had nobody to sing with in Halifax, she developed a way of making the noises on her own.

The young singer has been performing her unique art on international stages for years — she even made her way to the Dawson Music Festival last summer.

Now Kronos intends to take the sound game to another level by acting as the second singer to Tagaq.

And have a competition of sorts with the throat singer.

“We’ve never done a piece like this,” said Harrington.

It’s all theoretical right now. And they only have two days to bring it all together, but with more than 30 years of experience under their bows, Harrington isn’t worried.

“This is the dramatic structure of the piece,” said Harrington and pulled out a scrap of folded paper with a curving line scrawled on it.

He traced the line with his finger.

“So it starts very quietly, then goes up in energy and volume, comes up and then, towards the end, it keeps going up, up, up, up,” said Harrington.

“That’s the idea I have right now.”

Armed with a rough outline and an unquenchable thirst for experimentation Kronos and Tagaq will spend the next few days sharing ideas and forming a musical dialogue.

“It’s fun, it’s why they call it ‘playing’ music,” Harrington said with a wide smile.

“I don’t feel it has to end up any certain way, I’m just glad to be here.”

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