When David Harrington of the world-famous Kronos Quartet first talked to the contemporary Inuit vocal phenomenon that is Tanya Tagaq, he told her he loved what she put into the notes she sang. "She kind of laughed," Harrington recounts, "and she said, 'What's a note?'"
Years later, Tagaq's innocent but probing question has become something of a talisman for Harrington and the omnicultural work he does with Kronos, one of the most innovative and far-reaching musical ensembles in the world.
"I found that a beautiful and profound question to ask," he says. "A lot of us surrounded by music think we know what notes are – but she was the first person who questioned it, who struck at the notion of what music actually is. It's a question that has remained part of my internal musical conversation ever since – a lot of the discussions I have with other musicians never stray too far from its wisdom."
The question is central to Harrington and Kronos because, in their 40-year history, they have spanned and investigated almost every form of music-making known on the planet. From contemporary western composers to rock groups, to Tunisian, Mexican, Tibetan, Chinese, Afghan and many other musicians, Kronos has tried to pierce through imponderable cultural barriers to sketch the parameters of what constitutes music for our species. That's why Tagaq's question was so central to him – because he's had to learn that music isn't notes, but forms of sound. A crucial distinction.
Kronos and Tanya Tagaq will be reunited on Wednesday at Koerner Hall in Toronto as part of the Royal Conservatory's 21C Festival for the premiere of her Snow Angel and Sivunittinni, pieces commissioned by Kronos as part of its Fifty for the Future project. This is an ultra-ambitious undertaking that will see them commission 50 new works over the next five years, with scores and educational materials freely available over the Internet, providing a new contemporary string repertoire for players young and old, accomplished and beginner. Exactly the kind of thing that was missing from their lives when they were students trying to understand the vast world of music-making on the planet. Tagaq was one of the first composers they approached.
Snow Angels began in a recording studio in San Francisco, as Tagaq improvised two tracks for the piece, in her own, inimitable, shocking, expressive, deeply personal style. Those tracks were then transcribed by Jacob Garchik and it's from his transcription and Tagaq's original recordings that Kronos is preparing their performance. For Tanya Tagaq, her experience with Harrington and the Quartet has been liberating on a number of levels, starting with their first collaboration back in 2004, with a piece called Nunavut (which will also be presented on Wednesday night).
"David Harrington was the first person who treated me like a peer," Tagaq recalls, "like a proficient musician with skills, rather than a representative of a culture, a little Inuk doll. He doesn't know how important he was for me – he gave me confidence in myself as a musician." And the process of creating Snow Angel has helped her renew and extend that confidence. "This is my own composition – it's not me lending my voice and sound to someone else's work. I was feeling more and more uncomfortable about that. This one is me."
And for Tagaq, it's important for us to know that her musical personality is much more rich and varied than one can tell from the restricting stereotypes that get applied to her. This is a woman, after all, with an English father and an Inuit mother, who heard Jimi Hendrix and Peter Tosh long before she heard throat-singing; a modern, contemporary musician at home in many cultural worlds, not confused at all by their intersections.
"Because I'm an indigenous performer, people associate me with something primal, primitive," she tells me. "But that's not who I am. I'm a person alive to many cultural influences, different ones, but I'm not afraid of that. I trust myself. I'm very secure in who I am."
It's just that confidence in expression that led Harrington to Tagaq in the first place and made her a perfect member of the Fifty for the Future project, with its educational mandate and underpinning.
"When I was a teenager," he recalls, "if there had been something like Tanya's piece and sound available to me, I would have been so thrilled and happy. The world of music would have seemed so much more cool, and beautiful and wonderful and vast. We want to get this music and these pieces out there – and there are people around the world that will want to play them and learn from their music and spirit. And then they'll find they can achieve things they never thought they could."
The 21C Festival runs May 25 to 29 at Koerner Hall in Toronto (performance.rcmusic.ca).