Tanya Tagaq, who made her Los Angeles debut Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall performing with the Kronos Quartet, is an Inuit throat singer, although whole-body singer is more like it. And soul singer, in any sense you might care to think of that term. David Harrington, the Kronos’ first violinist and artistic director, describes her as the Jimi Hendrix of Inuit throat singing.
For “Nunavut,” which ended the first half of a program dedicated to the idea of the far north, stagehands cleared away the string quartet’s music stands and the benches for the violinist and violist. Tagaq, a beautiful woman dressed in a long white satin gown with fur lining, came on stage barefoot. First she engaged the cellist, Jeffrey Ziegler, still seated. She crouched down to his level, calling to him with guttural animal sounds, low and high, too low and too high to sound entirely human. He did his best to respond, on his instrument, in kind. And keep his cool.
Inuit throat singing began as a game between women in Nunavut, the vast Canadian territory that stretches to the Arctic Circle. Two women competitively chant into each other’s mouths, exchanging breaths, sharing vocal cavities, discovering mystic overtones, building rhythmic patterns that become physical convulsions. Sessions often dissolve into laughter. The technique developed as entertainment by women in a spectacularly cold and lonely region whose men were often out hunting. It is probably the closest two people can be without practicing sex.
Tagaq, who is from Cambridge Bay, deep in Inuit territory, stands somewhat outside tradition. She taught herself throat singing from cassettes as an art student in Nova Scotia missing the tundra. She has made her reputation in pop music through collaborating with Bjork and as a soloist.
In “Nunavut,” though, her erotic energy is unmistakable. “Nunavut” is improvised, and the singer worked her way around the quartet, individually engaging violist Hank Dutt, violinist John Sherba and finally Harrington, enticing them to build up increasingly complex interlocking textures.
Using a microphone, Tagaq generates rhythmic patterns that sound as though she has found a way to use her internal organs as percussion instruments. She has developed an entire language of moans. Like a combination of sex therapist and spiritual guide, she gets the players to do what she wants. When I first heard her perform with Kronos in Vienna a year and a half ago, the gents seemed somewhat shy. Saturday, they were definitely into it.
Tagaq appeared at the end of the evening as well for a new work by Derek Charke commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which presented the concert. Before that, the Kronos played short, engaging pieces by the Norwegian group Xploding Plastix, the popular Icelandic band Sigur Ros and the Finnish accordion and sampling duo Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen, along with an arrangement of a Swedish folk song as haunting as a Bergman film. Kronos also revived Kaija Saariaho’s “Nymphea,” a sensual sonic landscape of bows scraping on amplified strings that the Finnish composer wrote for it 21 years ago.
Charke, a Canadian composer, provided a long, compelling program note about traveling to Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, to prepare for his collaboration with Tagaq and recording nature sounds, which accompany the Kronos and the singer in “Tundra Songs.” But one remarkable aspect of this extraordinary half-hour piece in five connected sections is that you can’t tell what is what. This is music that goes far beyond the composer’s vivid descriptions of howling dogs, whizzing snowmobiles, buzzing mosquitoes, honking geese and hoof-clicking caribou.
The score also goes beyond the notes on the page. Tagaq, who sat (though hardly still) behind the quartet, had music in front of her. But her eyes were elsewhere. She seemed to take her cues from the music absorbed in her body. She became one with the strings and the prerecorded soundscape.
Charke’s style is not far out. He has a command of likable post-Minimalist techniques. He creates grooves. He matches string textures, through devices such as circular bowing, with atmospheric sounds. But he understands Tagaq’s ability to inject a life force into sound, and the piece took off. In the central movement, Tagaq recited an Inuit myth, “Sedna’s Song,” about a drowned goddess whose severed fingers became the creatures of the sea. It was mesmerizing.
“Tundra Songs” is the 600-and-somethingth piece written for Kronos over more than three decades -- and another keeper. The playing all evening was passionate and superb. If ever an ensemble has found a fountain of youth, it is this one.