Friday, September 12, 2008

Orchestra meets Inuit

Wednesday dawns beautifully sunny in Montréal, and I make my way to the Chapelle Historique du Bon-Pasteur, where I’ve been invited to what is described as an open rehearsal, and is really the only chance in the comparative mainstream to hear a very important, pioneering piece of work. It’s an initiative by the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, seven of whose members are on stage this morning, conducted by none other than their music director Kent Nagano. (He also conducted Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand last night, and will do it again tonight – the stamina of leading conductors never ceases to amaze me!)

What makes today’s pieces so significant is that the composers have combined orchestral sounds with the language of the Inuit people, Inuktitut, and (most strikingly) with two Inuit throat singers, Evie Mark and Taqralik Partridge. It’s Taqralik, with whom I’ve been emailing, who invited me today. Check out her My Space page, and you’ll see she combines her Inuit identity with a very contemporary urban aesthetic – very exciting and inspiring. I’d not heard throat singing live before – it’s extraordinarily visceral, physical and elemental. The singers hold one another by the elbows, staring into each other’s eyes, and alternate their tones, which are sucked rhythmically from very deep in the body. It’s intensely powerful, highly charged, and with the music evoking tundra, it gives an incredible sense of a way of living anchored in a particular and extraordinary relationship to nature.

Tomorrow, this project flies to Nunavik: the area in the north of Québec which, although it’s about the size of France, has a population of only about 10,000. Taqralik explains to me, over smoked salmon and grilled prawns, that they will have to fly between the different communities where they are performing, because there are no roads. The Inuit of Nunavik remain very isolated, and perhaps that is no bad thing. You have to make a very special effort to contact them, as the MSO has done here. Nor is this just a case of “Let’s play music to the Inuit” – Taqralik and Evie make this a full collaboration, and the MSO has worked with the Inuit Cultural Institute Avataq, which is run by Inuit Elders. It’s a very inspiring piece of inter-cultural dialogue; and I feel very privileged to be there.

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