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About this Piece

Derek Charke is a composer, flutist, and professor of music at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, Charke completed a Ph.D. in composition and a Master’s in flute performance at SUNY Buffalo. A recipient of the NUFFIC grant by the Dutch government, he also received a BMI student composer award and a special mention from the Kubik Prize. Charke is an associate composer of the Canadian Music Centre.

Tundra Songs is the second piece composed by Charke for the Kronos Quartet; the first, Cercle du Nord III, has been performed by Kronos over 30 times throughout Europe and North America. Charke has also written extensively for the flute; WARNING! Gustnadoes Ahead was commissioned for the 2008 National Flute Association Convention. His works have been broadcast internationally and nationally on CBC Radio Two and on Radio-Canada.

Charke and Tanya Tagaq first met in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, where Kronos and Tagaq were developing Nunavut, allowing each to hear each other’s work and to establish this musical relationship. About Tundra Songs, Charke writes:

“I’ve been fascinated with the Arctic for as long as I can remember. I’ve lived there, I met my wife there, and I continue to return as often as I can. Naturally I was thrilled when David Harrington asked me to write a new work for Kronos and Tanya Tagaq based on the north. The first step was to collect as many sounds as possible.

“In March 2007 I traveled to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. Fresh off the plane, and in –30° weather, I hooked up with Polar Explorer Matty McNair for a two-day trip out on the ice by dog sled. Leaving town I recorded the dogs and the sled. We went to a polynia, an open area of water surrounded by ice. Dropping my hydrophone into the water, I recorded sounds of shrimp, krill, seals, and other marine life. Later that day, as the dogs rested, we went on a short hike to take in the scenery; magnificent sheets of ice lined the walls of the valley where the tide had receded. We camped that night in a cabin at the edge of the frozen ocean. It was remarkably clear and the aurora borealis decided to give us a beautiful show. I left my microphone outside all evening to capture any sounds that might have occurred. The next morning I set the microphone on an ice floe and recorded the cracking ice; huge chunks of ice grinding together as the tide came in pushing the entire frozen ocean up. Later that afternoon, when we had arrived back in town, I positioned a microphone in the center of some dog food to attract the ravens. Just like clockwork as soon as the food appeared the ravens swarmed. I recorded their calls and shrieks, their wings flapping in the frigid weather.

“Over the next week, I wandered the streets with my recording gear capturing daily life in the north; a group of kids playing shimmy street hockey, snowmobiles racing around town, airplanes coming and going, a dog sled race, someone carving a soapstone sculpture, the beeps of the water trucks backing up, howling wind, and dogs tied up in front of homes. I was invited to a country feast. We ate polar bear, seal, caribou, whale, and arctic char. After the feast the tale of Sedna, the Inuit goddess who created all living beings, was vividly recounted.

“I wasn’t able to get all the sounds I needed from this one trip. In particular I didn’t have recordings of mosquitoes. So I created a bug recorder. It’s a plastic container with a hole for the microphone. You simply add one mosquito and voilà! During the summer of 2007 I recorded kayak sounds, waves, and paddle noises, as well as birds, geese, ptarmigan, and other wildlife. Some sounds were difficult to find, the caribou with their hoofs clicking for example, and in lieu of the real thing you’ll hear a castanet. Other sounds were produced in my home studio including drums, shakers, some of the whale sounds, and the various processed effects.

Tundra Songs is divided into five continuous movements. Each section explores a specific sound world. In addition the form roughly follows the seasons. Two primary ‘extended’ techniques are explored: circle bowing and vertical bowing. Using these methods of tone production it is possible to make the string quartet sound similar to Inuit throat singing. Throat singing is a game usually played between two women. Tanya Tagaq is unique because she does this on her own. The sounds are raw and guttural. The singing is rhythmic and emulates sounds of animals, birds, and other natural or man-made sounds. Paired with the sounds on the soundtrack, and Tanya’s singing, the effect is highly evocative of northern Canada.”

About the individual movements, Charke writes:

“I. Ice. Winter/Ukiuq – Sounds of drums and cracking ice are heard from a distance. Quickly they get closer. The string quartet enters. Circle bowing, grinding, and vertical bowing techniques over a static harmonic backdrop begin the work. A systematic increase in tempos occurs until at just over four minutes a final flourish and Tanya is left singing on her own with just the ice to accompany her. Four main rhythmic sections alternate with slower regions where we can hear the sounds of the raw ice cracking as the tides recede.

“II. Water. Spring/Upirngaksaaq – A whale call starts us off. More whale calls ensue, heard as descending harmonic sounds. Seals grunt, shrimp crackle, and streaming water is heard flowing under the arctic ice. An atmospheric and rhythmic backdrop accompanies a jazzy string quartet. The tempo increases and we hear the opening whale call again. The seal grunts are transformed to become a rhythmic backing track. The string quartet hockets similar material back and forth as the energy increases. The string quartet is left on its own for a moment before we are plunged into the depths of the ocean once more. A high beep signals the last part of this movement. Water, whales, and ice are heard as the string quartet plays a march-like rhythm in unison, pizzicato or col legno battuto (with the wood of the bow). Synthesized sounds are included, a choir, shakers, and drums. Geese honks signal the arrival of summer, and a clash of thunder signals the transition to the third movement.

“III. Sedna’s Song. Summer/Aujaq – ‘Lakaluk would like to tell us a story,’ kids are playing hockey, ‘What a goal!’ and a snowmobile whizzes along. Birds, wildlife, and a band-saw used for carving are in the background. The string quartet plays pizzicato. A folksy solo melody on the violin accompanies the story. Castanets emulate caribou hooves clicking. The story takes an unexpected turn and the music becomes more virulent, more chromaticism ensues. Eventually things calm down, birds and wildlife return as the movement comes to its conclusion.

“IV. Lament of the Dogs. Fall/Ukiaqsaak – The sound of dogs howling is very sad. These particular dogs are singing in pitch, in the key of D-sharp minor to be exact; a dark, remorseful key. The cries are stretched in time and layered to create a pad of sounds to accompany the strings. A lachrymose melody is heard in the viola while fast arpeggiated figures are passed between the other voices. The momentum builds; more dog cries are heard. Voices, a children’s song in Inuktitut (the main language of Nunavut), filter through. The arpeggios win over from the melody and build in intensity. Eventually the melody returns, first in the violin, and then the cello, transformed and stretched we come to the end of the movement. A quick modulation and the sound of a Ravens begin.

“V. The Trickster Tulugaq. Winter is coming/Ukiaq – Ravens squawk as they fight for food. Wings flap overhead. Mosquitoes swarm as they live their last moments in search of blood. Raven sounds are transformed until they become a rhythmic backdrop. The string quartet takes up some circle bowing techniques, a few harmonics before settling into a longer passage in a triplet feel and quick change of mode. A synthesized organ enters and the mood changes. Finally a honky-tonk ending ensues, complete with ravens and the buzzing of mosquitoes. Strings play a flurry of open strings. Ice joins the mix for the last time, as the cycle completes itself. Winter, once again, settles in.”

Derek Charke’s Tundra Songs was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet and Tanya Tagaq by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director.