“Tundra Songs” = Works of DEREK CHARKE – Kronos Quartet & others – Centrediscs

“Tundra Songs” = DEREK CHARKE: 22 Inuit Throat Song Games; Cercle du Nord III; Tundra Songs; Sassuma Arnaa: The Woman Down There – Kronos Quartet/Tanya Tagaq, vocals/Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, speaker – Centrediscs CMCCD 21015 [Distr. by Naxos], 55:07 (3/10/15) ****:

I give constant props and highest praise to the Kronos Quartet for continuing their decades long foray into finding music by composers and from cultures that we probably do not know much of. Similarly, the Canadian Music Centre has done a spectacular job of finding and showcasing music by composers from their country that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

This is another outstanding example. Derek Charke is a flutist and composer who teaches at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and who has a strong connection to the CMC. His music has been played in a number of impressive venues including those of the Toronto Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

His program here, especially the signature work, Tundra Songs, is a result of Charke’s fascination with the indigenous music and culture of the Arctic circle and his resultant trip to Iqaluit, the capital of the Nunavut territory.

Tundra Songs is a stunning work, written in four movements and featuring the Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq. The sounds produced and the frenetic pace throughout almost defies description. Tanya’s vocalizations, a type of Inuit traditional technique involving rapid bursts of breathing with the most amazing array of pitches, gasps, grunts and almost whispered sighs in between are very tightly metrically aligned with Charke’s incredible string lines. Honestly, I have some examples of this type of vocalizing and I don’t know how the person does not hyper-ventilate and pass out!

The music itself and as a listening product is fascinating. The four movements depict the feelings or auras of the four seasons as they might be experienced at the Arctic edge. “Ice” features sounds like ice cracking and drumming. “Water” contains whale-like calls in recognition of spring. “Sedna’s Song” includes a recited story by Canadian ethno-historian and performer Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory about the coming of age of a young lady in Greenland told in the tale “Sassua Arnaa.”  (Laakkuluk’s talents are utilized again in a closing reading of this tale to conclude this album.) The fourth movement, “Lament of the Dogs” is representative of fall and we hear dog howls sampled, which happen to be in the key of D-sharp minor. The tone becomes more worrisome and frantic throughout. The return of winter (for there is no ‘true’ summer as we know it) is depicted in “The Trickster Tulagaq” The quartet is called upon to use circular bowing and this dark, atmospheric movement includes some sampled raven calls that morph into a backdrop for the whole. This piece is honestly one of the most dramatically and musically satisfying blends of vocalization, recitation, sampled sounds and acoustical-traditional playing I have ever encountered.

There are four short excerpts from Charke’s 22 Inuit Throat Song Games that utilize special string techniques and are quite interesting unto themselves.

The other fairly large work here, Cercle du Nord II, is similarly extracted from the composer’s transcriptions of Katajak (Inuit throat singing games) and features a pre-recorded electronic backdrop of sounds from the human and nature produced sources of the region. Charke also very cleverly pays homage to the changing popular music landscape of this very old and somewhat isolated culture: fiddle music (similar to that found in Appalachia) gradually gives way to a very basic kind of rock (raw; ‘garage-band’-like)

I absolutely loved Tundra Songs and felt quite positive about Cercle du Nord III as well. I found Laakkuluk’s reading and her obvious passion intriguing. This album is not just one of the most musically stunning things I have heard from Kronos (and they’ve done several!) but also a very fine snapshot examination of a culture and musical/oral tradition that few westerners know anything about. That’s the beauty of music and kudos to Derek Charke and the Kronos Quartet.

Highly recommended!

—Daniel Coombs

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