Kronos Quartet, Tanya Tagaq and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory / Derek Charke's 'Tundra Songs'

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Kronos Quartet, Tanya Tagaq and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory
Tundra Songs
Composer: Derek Charke
Centrediscs (

A deep relationship with the far north has found its way into many of Canadian composer Derek Charke's new millennial works, but nowhere so organically or with such intensity as in Tundra Songs. In addition to being one of the most fascinating interdisciplinary recordings to come out in a long time, it documents a return to genuine indigenism for its star performers: the Kronos Quartet, whose atlas grows with each new adventure. Giving us a taste of the quartet's directions are four selections from Charke's "22 Inuit Throat Song Games" (2002/2005). Based on the Katajak, or competitive song games, these pieces require stamina and precision from the performers, who face an array of extended techniques, including circle and vertical bowing and instrument preparation. By means of an overlapping hocketing technique, strings take on the manner of voices and of the natural phenomena they are meant to emulate. The resulting sounds are guttural, compact, and all the more robust for their lack of ornament. In the final piece, “Dogs,” levels of evocation reach their peak. I can think of none better, save for the Inuit singers themselves, to bring this music across with such force of intuition.

"Dogs" (excerpt)

Charke has more in store as the program introduces electro-acoustic elements. The 2005 montage "Cercle du Nord III" combines field recordings taken by the composer that same year during a trip to the Northwest Territories, where his microphones captured the changing landscape and its allowances of modern machinery and popular culture. Sounds of snow and sled dogs recall certain musique concrète assemblages, such as Lionel Marchetti's Portrait d'un glacier, while the percussive tendencies of other prerecorded material provide Kronos with compass points as the quartet bands together in chorus or lobs motifs over a lawn-sprinkler beat of maraca. The surprisingly urban milieu that emerges is humanized by snippets of conversation, cathartic playing from lead violinist David Harrington, and the spate of laugher that ends the piece. It is a true anthropological machine, a character study of distant life, an ethnography of ethnography. It's worth noting, too, that this is one of the final recordings with cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, who joined Kronos in 2005 and was replaced by Sunny Yang in 2013. It is a fitting way to end his tenure, for his grounding presence adds so much to this piece in particular.

"Cercle du Nord III" (excerpt)

The heart of the album is the 30-minute title piece. Composed in 2007, it features the throat singing of Tanya Tagaq and narration by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, who shares her version of a Greenlandic creation myth. Field recordings are once more a vital part of the music's ecosystem, these taken in Iqaluit, capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. The effect is even more beautifully integrated than in "Cercle du Nord," and made all the more tactile by its two vocalists. Tagaq's circular throat singing must be heard to be believed, and has the added quality of being at once otherworldly and decidedly of his earth. An undercurrent of bass drum provides reference for the quartet's melodic spear, which it wields like a master hunter above the ice.

"Tundra Songs" (excerpt)

Going deeper, we encounter Bathory's embodied tale, the details of which I leave to the listener to discover for fear of tainting their gift. Suffice it to say that composer and performers alike navigate its turgid waters with due respect. Aside from being a phenomenal sonic experience, Tundra Songs enlarges the environmental scope of the string quartet as a true global ensemble. Charke approaches his work like a skillful set designer. Every panel has its place, while the actors walk paths as ephemeral as the aurora borealis.

"Tundra Songs" (excerpt)

And in that spirit the album ends with “Sassuma Arnaa: The Woman Down There,” Bathory's creation myth told without any accompaniment but the rhythms of her own body, so that we might recognize them in ourselves. - Tyran Grillo

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