For many people, the Arctic Circle represents one of this planet’s last frontiers. A land covered by snow and ice most of the year, where the sun doesn’t set in the peak of summer and doesn’t rise in the depths of winter, it is a harsh environment that few of us will ever experience first hand. In part because of this physical and psychological remoteness, it also stands in as one of the most widely-used barometers for our planet’s well-being: a pristine environment that makes the news for the melting of glacial ice, the endangered nature of iconic species such as the polar bear and beluga whales, and (sometimes) the precarious state of its indigenous peoples’ traditional lifestyle.
As is often the case, the reality on the ground is more complex than the simplified images we form in our minds. Yes, the environment is pristine but endangered, and many indigenous peoples still live off the land. But it is also a place where its inhabitants move around by Ski-doos, trucks, and airplanes, live in modern homes, and connect to the world through satellite television and the internet. The peoples of the Arctic also walk in two worlds musically: rock, heavy metal, and electronica now serve as the musical vernacular, but traditional Inuit throat-singing has also made a global resurgence, perhaps best exemplified by the Polaris Prize winning work of Tanya Tagaq.
The San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet delivers its own unique take on this modern Arctic landscape in their most recent work, Tundra Songs. This album, released in March 2015, combines the renowned string quartet’s penchant for experimentation with the orchestration of composer Derek Charke, the mesmerizing throat-singing of Tagaq, and the storytelling of Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. Through six beautifully composed and rendered pieces, the artists take the listener on a sonical journey through the modern Arctic, making stops at traditional Katajak throat-singing games, sled dog trips, and even an Inuit creation story. Along the way, we hear the Quartet melding the sounds of classical string instruments with throat-singing voices, and experience a kaleidoscope of sounds from daily life, from singing birds and barking dogs to the revving of the Ski-doos. The result is a crisp, buoyant amalgam that sounds new and adventurous, while maintaining a clear link to centuries-old traditions.
The piece that perhaps best exemplifies this mixture of many voices is “Cercle du Nord III”, a 13-minute track near the beginning of the album. The composition opens with the sounds of sled dogs and ice skating, and soon layers a light violin melody on top of a rhythmic line provided by throat singers. This latter sound is truly one of the unique elements of Arctic music: Two singers stand face to face, with one pushing out air while the other inhales. As the singers alternate, the resulting sound resembles an otherworldly string of eighth notes, which serves as the foundation for the rest of the melody. The Kronos Quartet soon transitions to emulating this driving beat with their own string instruments, providing a sense of forward momentum as a background chorus provides a soaring, ambient melody.
The piece then transitions again with the sounds of sled dogs and their trainer, before evolving into a more intense version of the driving beat and melody. Around the 6:30 mark of the track, the reward of mixing modern classical music with traditional Inuit throat singing fully reveals itself. For the next two minutes, the Quartet builds up intensity with an increasingly insistent rhythmic beat and a gradually rising melody. The tension reaches an outlet around the 8:30 mark, where the melody drops out and the throat-singing voices are reintroduced. This interlude focuses on the rhythmic play between the Quartet and throat singers, with the string players delivering their own take on the throat singing beat. Finally, the piece closes with a brisk, full string melody accompanied by background throat singing. Here, it is the throat singers who adapt to modern classical rhythms, stopping and starting at irregular points throughout the melody to mirror the Quartet. The result is a (literally) breath-taking exploration of what modern classical and traditional Arctic musical styles can contribute to each other: the classical string melodies convey a sense of exploration, while the throat singing provides a sense of urgency and rootedness.
The other major piece on the album, “Tundra Songs”, provides an even fuller picture of the Arctic and the possibilities it offers for musical exploration. This work is structured more like a typical classical suite, with distinct movements representing the different seasons of the Arctic – almost like a modern, northern take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. In contrast to the more structured, rhythmic format of “Cercle du Nord III”, this more expansive piece allows for freer range amongst all its performers. The renowned Tanya Tagaq lays the foundation with a constantly evolving throat-singing beat, and the Kronos Quartet is freer in its melodic explorations. Tempos and melodies seem to change almost on a dime, with some electronic and recorded natural sounds adding colour to the song’s progress. After about 10 minutes, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory tells an Inuit creation story that takes a violent turn, matched by increased dissonance from the Quartet in the background. Interestingly, the story exemplifies the concept of animalism – the idea that all things have a spirit, and that humans and animals are spiritually linked to each other, sometimes taking on each other’s form.
That often ephemeral interconnectedness also serves as an apt description for the musical links forged in this album, one that hopefully will be further explored in various artistic forms over the coming years. While the Arctic continues to serve as a powerful mental image for so many discussions on the state of the planet, true dialogue connecting the region with other global traditions can only open our eyes to new ways of understanding of our world.
For a good source of information on all things Arctic, including politics, environment, culture, and science, check out Radio-Canada’s “Eye on the Arctic” blog.