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The region known as Nunavut (which means “our land” in Inuit) is the newest and largest of the Canadian territories and has been home to the indigenous Inuit population for more than 4,000 years. Inuit throat singing is not singing per se, but more closely associated with vocal games or breathing games. Two women usually face each other – one leads, while the other responds – the leader produces a short rhythmic motif that is repeated with a short silent gap in between, while the other rhythmically fills in the gaps. Each singer uses the other's mouth cavity as a resonator. Sounds are either voiced or unvoiced through inhalation or exhalation. Thus, singers develop a breathing technique, somewhat comparable to circular breathing. Words and meaningless syllables are used in the songs – the words can simply be names of ancestors and the syllables often represent sounds of nature or cries of animals and birds. The game is such that both singers try to show their vocal abilities in competition, by exchanging these vocal motives. The first to run out of breath, or to be unable to maintain the pace of the other singer, will start to laugh or simply stop and lose the game.
Kronos’ violinist and artistic director, David Harrington, first heard Inuit throat singing in 1981, and became convinced that the art form held great potential for a collaboration with Kronos; Harrington says, “Inuit throat singing is one of the most string-like sounds that I’ve ever heard come from the human voice.” However, it was not until 2002 that he discovered a recording of Tanya Tagaq and realized immediately that he had found his collaborator. “She made every other Inuit throat singer sound like Mozart,” Harrington explains. "”It was clear that Tanya was the Jimi Hendrix of Inuit throat singing. Her voice sounded like four voices – it was as if she were carrying around a quartet in her voice!”
To compose Nunavut, Kronos recorded a broad range of Tagaq’s sounds in order to map out her stylistic vocabulary. From there, Kronos created an underlying compositional structure out of Tagaq’s “alphabet of sounds,” a set of building blocks that allows for improvisation on the part of both quartet and singer. The performers engage in a call-and-response exchange, with the instruments of the quartet acting as the second voice in the throat song game.
Kronos extends special thanks to Osvaldo Golijov and Jeremy Flower for their contributions to the creative process that resulted in this new work.
Henry Kolenko/Kolenko Productions was the Executive Producer of the world premiere tour of Nunavut.
Nunavut by Tanya Tagaq and the Kronos Quartet was commissioned by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at UBC, CBC Television, the Canada Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts.