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February 2015

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Tanya Tagaq

Something a little different today: the music of Inuit "throat singer" Tanya Tagaq.

As a recent article in The New Yorker explains: "In her work, which includes collaborations with Björk and the Kronos Quartet, Tagaq uses breath and, more recently, vocalized shrieks and moans. She is known throughout Canada (her home is in Yellowknife, in the Northern Territories), and she won the 2014 Polaris Prize, beating out Drake and Arcade Fire. The album, Animism, has just been released Stateside -- her first U.S. record.

"Tagaq's mother was born and raised in an igloo on Baffin Island, in Nunavut Territory, but Tagaq, whose father is British and Polish, grew up in a house, in Cambridge Bay. She didn't hear throat singing until her mother gave her a cassette of two Inuit women doing it in the traditional manner, as a duet. 'I heard the land in the voices,' Tagaq explained." She then set out to learn how to throat sing herself -- first as a personal obsession, and then in professional performance from 2003 onwards, exploring the sound in combination with other musical forms from classical compositions to jazz and hip-hop.

In the video above, the singer discusses and demonstrates the tradition she's working in.

Below: "A String Quartet in Her Throat," her 2011 collaboration with The Kronos Quartet. The video is a window into the creative process involved in composing this piece.

And last:

"Tungijuq," a short film directed by Paul Raphaël and Félix Lajeunesse (2009). They describe it as "an organic expression of Inuit culture and traditional practices, featuring throat singer Tanya Tagaq as she goes through a transformation from human to animal."

It's strange, shamanic, and, be forewarned, rather bloody. (I don't recommend it to vegetarians!)  Not our usual Monday morning fare, but haunting and deeply rooted in the myths of the Inuit's subsistence hunting culture.

Arctic wolf


The subtle element of time

The Sun, The Moon by Germaine Arnatauyck

Here's another lovely passage from Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, this one on the nature of time:

"Long, unpunctuated hours pass for all creatures in the Arctic. No wild frenzy of feeding distinguishes the short summer. But for the sudden movement of chasing wolves and bolting caribou, the gambols of muskox calves, the scamper of an arctic fox, the swoop of a jaeger, the Arctic is a long, unbroken bow of time. Twilight Inuit Art Quarterly cover by Germaine Arnatauycklingers. There are no summer thunderstorms with bolts of lightning. The ice floes, the caribou, the muskoxen, all drift. To lie on your back somewhere on the light-drowned tundra of an Ellesmere Island valley is to feel that the ice ages might have ended but a few days ago. Without the holler of contemporary life, that constant disturbance, it is possible to feel the slope of time, how very far from Mesopotamia we have come.

"We move at such a fast clip now. We draw up geological charts in a snap, showing the possibilities for oil in Tertiary rocks in the Sverdrup Basin beneath Ellesmere's tundra. We delineate the life history of the ground squirrel. We list the butterflies: the sulphers, the arctics, a copper, a blue, the lesser fritillaries. At a snap. We enumerate the plants. We name everything. Then we fold the charts and the catalogs, as if, except for a stray fact or two, we were done with a competent description. But the land is not a painting; the image cannot be completed this way.

"Lying on your back on Ellesmere Island on rolling tundra without human trace, you can feel the silence stretching all the way to Asia. The winter face of a muskox, its unperturbed eye glistening in a halo of snow-crusted hair, looks at you over a cataract of time, an image that has endured through all the pulsations of ice.

"You can sit for a long time with the history of man like a stone in your hand. The stillness, the pure light, encourage it."

The Shaman's Apprentice & You Will Have My Father's Name by Germaine Arnatauyck

Jay Griffiths has this to say on the subject of time in her engrossing book on the subject, Pip Pip:

"Amongst many peoples, 'Time' is a matter of timing. It involves spontaneity rather than scheduling, sensitivity to a quality of time. Unclockable. The San Bushmen of the Kalahari do not plan when to hunt, but rather ‘wait for the moment to be lucky', reading and assessing animal patterns, looking for the 'right' time. Timing for many indigenous peoples, for example, the Ilongot of the Philippines, is variable and The Cycle of Life by Germaine Arnatauyckindeterminate and unpredictable. Time is a subtle element where creativity and improvisation, flexibility, fluidity and responsiveness can flourish. People's responses to timing issues are subtle and graceful. But the dominant culture, far from respecting these socially graceful ideas of time, chooses to refer disparagingly to being 'on Mexican time,' 'on Maori time', 'on Indian time.'

"What subverts the dead hand of the dominant clock? Life itself. The elastic, chancy, sensitive times chosen for hunting depend on living things: how the living moment smells. There is a 'biodiversity of time' imaged in cultures around the world, time as a lived process of nature. There is a scent-calendar in the Andaman forests, star-diaries for the Kiwi peoples of New Guinea and Aboriginal Australians who begin the cultivation season when the Pleiades appear. In Rajasthan a moment of evening is called 'cattle-dust time,' the Native American Lakota people have the 'Moon of the Snowblind.' One indigenous tribe in Madagascar refers to a moment as 'in the frying of a locust.' The English language still remembers time intrinsically connected to nature, doing something 'in two shakes of a lamb's tail' or the (arbitrary and sadly obsolete) phrase 'pissing-while.'

"For nature shimmers with time; and interestingly, many areas rich in myth and indigenous history are shown to be places of high biodiversity; living history, life at its liveliest. Both past and present equally vivacious, in a vital land."

The Power of Tunniq & When Their Was No Light by Germaine Arnatauyck

Sedna, the Sea Goddess by Germaine Arnatauyck

The art today is by the contemporary Inuit painter and printmaker Germaine Arnatauyck. Born near Igloolik, Nunavut in 1946, Arnatauyck was raised in a traditional hunting camp, educated at a Catholic mission school, then studied fine art at the University of Manitoba, graphic art at Algonquin College in Ottawa, and printmaking at Arctic College in Nunavut. Her work is inspired by Inuit myth, particularly women's stories. "I never questioned being an artist," she says. "I guess I was lucky. It seemed I knew exactly what I wanted to be."

Mother Earth & Always My Baby by Germaine Arnatauyck

Motherhood by Germaine Arnatauyck The titles of Arnatauyck's prints can be found in the picture captions. A related post: "On Time, Technology, and a Celebration of Slowness."


The sun has returned...

Morning walk

...for the moment, at least...and the Hound is back in her hills again. Perched on her rock, she reads news in the wind with the twitch of her nose and the cocking of her ears. I sit close by, my skirt tucked beneath me, a book of poems in my lap, coffee in a tin cup. Today's poem, Tilly, is this one. Hush now, stay close, and listen.

Morning walk 2


Bowing to the birds

Arctic Snowy Owl

Today, an especially beautiful passage from Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez describing tundra life in the western Brooks Range of Alaska:

"On the evening I am thinking about -- it was breezy there on the Ilingnorak Ridge, and cold; but the late-night sun, small as a kite in the northern sky, poured forth an energy that burned against my cheekbones -- it was on that evening that I went on a walk for the first time among the tundra birds. They all build their nests on the ground, so their vulnerability is extreme. I gazed down at a single horned lark no bigger than my fist. She stared back as resolute as iron. As I approached, golden plovers abandoned their nests in hysterical ploys, artfully feigning a broken wing to distract me from the woven grass cups that couched their pale, darkly speckled eggs. Their eggs glowed with a soft, pure light, like the window light in a Vermeer painting.

Golden plover beside her clutch of eggs

Lapland larkspur

Lapland longspur chick

"I walked on to find Lapland longspurs as still on their nests as stones, their dark eyes gleaming. At the nest of two snowy owls I stopped. These are more formidable animals than plovers. I stood motionless. The wild glare in their eyes receded. One owl settled back slowly over its three eggs, with an aura of primitive alertness. The other watched me -- and immediately sought a bond with my eyes if I started to move.

Snowy Owl and chick

Snowy Owl and chick

"I took to bowing on these evening walks. I would bow slightly with my hands in my pockets, towards the birds and the evidence of life in their nests -- because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because of the serene arctic light that came down over the land like a breath, like breathing.

Caribou migrating across the Alaskan tundra by Joel Satore

"I remember the wild, dedicated lives of the birds that night and also the abandon with which a small herd of caribou crossed the Kokolik River to the northwest, the incident of only a few moments. They pranced through like wild mares, kicking up sheets of water across the evening sun and shaking it off on the far side like huge dogs,  bloom of spray that glittered in the air around them like grains of mica.

Caribou herd crossing a river

Caribou calf

"I remember the press of light against my face. The explosive skitter of calves among the grazing caribou. And the warm intensity of the eggs beneath these resolute birds. Until then, perhaps because the sun was shining in the very middle of the night, so out of tune with customary perception, I had never known how benign sunlight could be. How forgiving. How run through with compassion in a land that bore so eloquently the evidence of centuries of winter."

Four plover eggs on the tundra by Joel Satore

I like to chose an author for a major re-read each winter -- by which I mean not the general re-reading that I'm always doing (in between reading books that are new to me, of course), but digging out a writer's entire backlist and reading it all at once. This kind of immersion creates a very different experience than my first encounter with those same books -- which, if the author is contemporary, took place more gradually over time as each text was written and published. Last year, you may recall, I was re-engaging with Terry Tempest William's work (oh, what a glorious re-read that was!), and this year it's Barry Lopez, starting (unchronologically, I admit, but because it's winter) with Arctic Dreams.

I find myself reading unusually slowly, savoring every page, every paragraph of his writing, which is poetic and precise in equal measure. In Japan, masters of various art forms are honored as National Living Treasures. Here in the West, surely Barry Lopez is one of ours.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Photographs above: snowy owl, golden plover with her clutch of eggs, Lapland larkspur, Lapland larkspur chick in a tundra nest, a caribou herd crossing the tundra, caribou crossing a river, a frisky caribou calf, and a golden plover nest on the tundra. The caribou herd  on the tundra and the golden plover nest are by the wildlife photographer and activist Joel Satore, whose work I highly  recommend. The other wildlife images come from Audubon and Arctic wildlife sites, photographers uncredited.