Throat Singing With Tagaq

As someone who enjoys a wide variety of music, it does not take much for me to become engrossed in any historical studies pertaining to music. The theoretical study of music has been occurring for thousands of years, with people of all different cultures discovering their own unique methods in creating a style that can end up being just as historically relevant as the hierarchical rulers of the past. While it is true that the rise of technology in the modern era has made most popular music universally identifiable, there remains several forms of music that are definitively tied to a group of people who proudly identify it as a component of their culture. Unique modes, distinctive rhythmic involvement, and variations in timbre are a few aspects that may determine the individuality of such an audible cultural reference and may only be ascertainable if you get private vocal lessons , but there are some styles of music that remain too unique for theoretical classification alone. Prior to listening to the newest album from Tanya Tagaq Gillis, I had no familiarity whatsoever with the art of Inuit throat singing — just like the rest of the world. Unlike most forms of throat (overtone) singing, Inuit throat singing in particular is not multiphonic. In fact, many historians are reluctant to call it “singing” in the first place, as the art mainly lies on the vocalist’s ability to master the art of inhalation and exhalation to consequently engineer and manipulate relative melodies.

If that description is too linear for you to fully grasp, then I suppose an audio sample would be the best example. While Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis may currently be best known for her collaborations with Björk, she also has the notability of being the only prominent Inuit throat singer who has been using the vocal form to produce studio music. Originally used by Inuit women as a form of entertainment, her attempt to generate recognition for the art form has been commendable in grabbing the attention of any open-minded music fan with an interest in seemingly otherworldly music. In traditional form, two women used to be involved in Inuit throat singing, with one using the mouth of the other as a resonator. With modern studio magic making things a bit easier, Gillis has the ability to play off her own vocals, with additional musical accompaniment making the situation significantly more enthralling. This actually ends up being the primary difference between her new sophomore album, Auk/Blood, and her debut album, Sinaa. The debut was more of a display of her vocal approach and skill than an actual collection of captivating songs, while Auk/Blood sees her style expand into various uses of additional instrumentation. Accessible? Hah, not even close. But there is just something about the distinctiveness that makes it so captivating.

The key to overall success of Auk/Blood is the result of Gillis opening up to collaboration. Featuring the likes of Buck 65, Mike Patton (Faith No More), and violinist Jesse Zubot, Auk/Blood is not a mere continuation upon Sinaa’s straightforward displays of vocal ability. The arrangements delve in a variety of different styles from free jazz to hip-hop, with Gillis’ striking vocal technique being the usual source of accompaniment. Buck 65 takes care of the rapping and electronic instrumentation on the two tracks with a hip-hop flair, “Gentle” and “Want”. For the most part, Zubot is a constant present on the album with his string accompaniments, an aspect that adds a new emotional flavor to Gillis’ output. They range from the charmingly simplistic on tracks like “Force” to the vigorously captivating nature of “Fire – Ikuma” and “Force”, all aided appropriately by Gillis’ semi-rhythmic vocal accompaniments. I should warn that her style may not be appealing to those in search of gratifying hooks that become recognize immediately, but an attentive listen should likely earn the respect of any individual with an appreciation for the culturally inimitable methods of creating the art of music.

Notable collaborative partner Björk has classified Gillis as a “totally emotional” artist, “like Édith Piaf or something.” Such is highly evident on Auk/Blood, especially on the odd adventure that is “Fire – Ikuma”. Guest vocalist Mike Patton adds high-pitched squeals in an alienated duet of sorts with Gillis’ backing throat singing providing an oddly entertaining form of spontaneous rhythmic and melodic components. The collection of 13 songs, most of them named after adjectives and adverbs, tend to reflect their topics at hand. The bustling rhythmic compilation contained on “Growl” sounds broodingly accurate when smattered over Gillis’ groaning and panting, crafting a miniscule depiction of mood through arrangements than are truly minimal. The serene aroma of “Tategak” makes it the most beautiful track on the album, serving as a breather between several tracks that appear to capture anguish and forbidden nostalgia in instrumentally dynamic form. The peculiarly fascinating “Fox – Tiriganiak” sees a mixture between a frog-like vocal delivery and set of high-pitched strings, the latter of which appear nearly improvised in the sentiment that they are delivered spontaneous while simultaneously keeping in time. While I cannot guarantee that Gillis’ Auk/Blood is for everyone, certain listeners will most certainly appreciate the unique appeal of it. What I can guarantee, though, is that you have likely never heard anything like the songs on Auk/Blood.


Tagaq – Tategak



Tagaq – Fox – Tiriganiak



Tagaq – Fire – Ikuma



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Mike Mineo

I'm the founder/editor of Obscure Sound, which was formed in 2006. Previously, I wrote for PopMatters and Stylus Magazine.

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