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Geologist (from Animal Collective) interviews Tanya Tagaq for Brightest Young Things

Geologist Interviews Tanya Tagaq
March 12, 2010

Throat-singing, a guttural style of singing or chanting, is one of the world’s oldest forms of music. For those who think the human voice can produce only one note at a time, the resonant harmonies of throat-singing are surprising. In throat-singing, a singer can produce two or more notes simultaneously through specialized vocalization technique taking advantage of the throat’s resonance characteristics. By precise movements of the lips, tongue, jaw, velum, and larynx, throat-singers produce unique harmonies using only their bodies. (source: Smithsonian’s Folkways)

Perched on top of the throat singing celebrity world is Tanya Tagaq, a woman from the Nunavut autonomous region in northern Canada, a gateway to the North Pole, who strayed away from the traditional duet form of performing to emerge as a solo throat artist with some mainstream recognition. If we were to compare her to anyone, for your young indie-rock centric minds to relate to, it would probably be Bjork, in the sense that the music her body produces is both one of the most unusual things you’ll ever hear, and completely and utterly appealling and accessible at the same time.

With birds of a feather sticking together, it should come as no surprise to learn that everyone who is anyone in the “experimental” music universe loves her: from Björk who included her vocals on 2004’s “Medulla” album and 2005’s “Vespertine” tour, to Mike Patton whose Ipecac label released her “Auk/Blood” album, and performances with the Kronos Quartet in 2008, who called her “the Jimi Hendrix of Throat singers” (and, as any good quote it stuck).

Naturally, when we heard she was coming to DC (she is performing @ National Geographic tonight) we were

1. dead set on featuring her
2. aware we could not send JUST ANYONE to interview her

Cue Brian Weitz, aka Geologist from Animal Collective, old friend of BYT , fan of Tanya and not a fan of interviews. This is what transpired.

Geologist: What sets Inuit throat singing apart from other forms of throat singing (such as that from Tuva)?

Tanya Tagaq: From what I know, Tuva singing has a much longer exhaling technique and process where the sound comes out at the same time as one sound.

Geologist: Is it just technical, or a result of the music trying to express different ideas and emotions?

Tanya: Inuit throat singing has more inward and outward breaths and uses separate sound. That’s the technical side.

Geologist: Does Inuit throat singing have a primary purpose? For example, is it traditionally a spiritual practice or a kind of folk music used to tell stories?

Tanya: The primary purpose of traditional Inuit throat singing is a laughing game/competition to see who can last the longest without running out of breath, messing up, or laughing.

Geologist: How does your own music either fit into that tradition or stand apart from it?

Tanya: My own style of Inuit throat singing is different from the traditional style because the stories that I’m telling comes from what I’m feeling. It’s emotionally driven.

Geologist: Could you speak a bit about how and why this style of singing resonates with you and allows you to express your ideas and emotions? Related to that, how often do you use lyrics in your music versus vocal abstractions and is there a difference in how you use those tools to express yourself?

Tanya: This style resonates with me because I’m Inuk and it’s part of my culture. I find lyrics to be confining and I only use them if I really have something to say.

Geologist: How much of your music is improvised and how much is composed? Is it the same when you are recording versus playing live? I’ve been asked this many times while on the other side of the interview table, and I always found it to be kind of an uninteresting question because it is so frequently asked – but I swear I am curious!

Tanya: 90% improvised, 10% composed (Live). Recording is different, more like 50/50 because I have preset ideas before I begin recording.

Geologist: Why is Inuit throat singing traditionally a female art form?

Tanya: My suspicion is that the men would be hunting for a long period of time and the women were bored.

Geologist: Following the previous question, music in general allows for collaborations that transcend differences of gender, race, age etc. In fact, a lot of your own collaborations with other artists show this to be true. Do you feel there is still a place in the world for the performance of a specific style of music to be restricted to one group of people?

Tanya: Yes well it depends on your intentions. It sounds stranger to me if someone was doing Inuit throat singing, but not from the traditional region, that might bother me. To me it’s still sacred and nestled in the culture. But in some cases it works. Look at Genghis Blues. That was OK. He was really good at it. It depends. I do think there still is a place for specific music styles that work for a certain race, gender, or group of people.

Geologist: I’ve read that throat singing is traditionally performed as a duet between two women who compete to see who can vocalize the longest. Have you ever performed in a duet with another female throat singer in this way?

Tanya: Oh yeah I’ve performed many many times in a duet with traditional throat singers. One day I’d love to have my traditional throat singers open up for my show.

Geologist: What inspired you to take a style of music usually performed by multiple people and perform it as a solo artist?

Tanya: I perform solo because I learned it on my own. So I ended up making all of the noises by myself. When I did it alone, I found out that I could express myself in the same way as I do with my painting or my cooking. It became an outlet, so that’s what happened.

Geologist: When you collaborate with someone like Bjork or Mike Patton, do you think about the fact that you’re exposing their fans, maybe for the first time, to throat singing, and if so, do you feel any sort of responsibility to the Inuit people or to the traditions of the art form?

Tanya: When I open up my show, I always talk about the traditional throat singing first to possibly peak the audience’s interest. So hopefully they will be more inclined to check out the traditional style after they leave my performance. So I hope I’m helping.

Geologist: How would you characterize the reaction to your music, specifically in the U.S. and Europe? I ask because sometimes the public has a tendency to treat music from lesser-known cultures as some kind of cultural novelty, or something to be observed from an anthropologic standpoint. I think some of what I’ve asked in this interview is even guilty of that. Does the reaction to your music ever feel like this to you, or do audiences for the most part seem to connect to your music in a more universal way?

Tanya: For me I find that every audience is different regardless of location. Sometimes I get a standing ovation, while sometimes I get the “what the hell is she doing” reaction. It really is a performance-by-performance basis and not regional. I find if people are trying to look for the past in me they won’t find it. The audiences are so varied, sometimes intellectual based, sometimes freaks, depends on the venue.

Geologist: Lastly, when you lived in Nova Scotia, did you ever watch “Trailer Park Boys?” I was a big fan of the early seasons.

Tanya: Yes I love Trailer Park Boys. I love them. It’s hilarious. I actually know Cory Bowles.