This essay is one in a series of profiles showcasing artists who will be honored in the 2018 National Sawdust Gala, to be held on May 10 at the Alhambra Ballroom in New York City. For more information, see nationalsawdust.org/gala.
“If an indigenous person makes contemporary art and it makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why it makes you uncomfortable.”—Tanya Tagaq on Twitter, April 20, 2018.
A singer-songwriter and composer for whom the terms inventive and groundbreaking somehow fall short, Tanya Tagaq has been hailed globally for her unprecedented blending of the Inuk throat-singing discipline with elements of punk rock, avant-garde classical music, electronica, and more. Her stature as an innovator is assured, as the prestigious awards and accolades she has earned attest. Having begun to explore throat singing while in high school, Tagaq has taken the practice farther than it ever had gone—in terms of both geography and intent.
Yet Tagaq’s disruption resides less in her unorthodox prowess than in the ends to which she has deployed it: both as a vehicle for therapy and catharsis, and also as a signal flare to illuminate critical life-and-death issues faced by indigenous peoples in her native Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory, and by women around the globe. Her voice cuts straight to the heart, at once a roar of furious indignation and a cry of proud resistance.
Born and raised in distant, isolated Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuuttiaq), Tagaq faced from an early age the socio-political and economic depredations imposed upon indigenous peoples. “We’ve been forced into an economic society by the government, who placed us in communities so that Canada could claim the Northwest Passage for its mineral, water, and land rights,” she said in December during an onstage conversation at National Sawdust, after participating in a live-scored screening of We Breathe Again, a documentary detailing cycles of trauma and suicide among Alaska Natives.
“To be unable to reap the benefit of our own renewable natural resources,” Tagaq continued, “means that we’re impoverished.” The impact of that situation, compounded by a growing number of servicemen returning from active military duty suffering from PTSD, has led to an epidemic of suicide, and to women faced with mortal peril. “My daughters and I are four times more likely to die by murder than any other racial demographic in Canada,” she stated in December. “And it’s our lives that we’re paying with. It’s our mothers, our fathers, people we care about.”
Developing her vocal style, then, was less an urge to innovate than a desperate need to communicate in a manner anyone might comprehend. “I found that the more I throat-sang, the more healing it was,” Tagaq said, “and people were leaving the audience knowing what it felt like to be an indigenous woman—knowing the feeling of it.” Using song as the vehicle for her message, she explained, “I’m able to be an advocate for the safety of indigenous women in particular, and women in general.”
Her goal, she said, was to equip listeners, especially young ones, with tools for coping. “I just find it incredibly important to be able to express the joy and wonder of being alive,” she said, “and also how to deal with this sensitivity of wanting to commit suicide sometimes. It’s a very sensitive thing—but very tangible, and precious.”
As National Sawdust Log ceases operation at a time of drastic challenge, editor and lead writer Steve Smith looks back at what this bold joint initiative among artists, journalists, and critics achieved.
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Vanessa Ague talks to composers Gemma Peacocke and Cassie Wieland about the music they created for a Kinds of Kings residency concert at National Sawdust in March, now postponed and awaiting rescheduling.
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Rebecca S. Lentjes looks back on the first three orchestral programs of "Project 19," the New York Philharmonic's ambitious initiative celebrating the centenary of women's suffrage with new works by 19 distinguished composers.
https://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Project-featured.jpg600900Rebecca S. Lentjeshttps://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/national-sawdust-log.pngRebecca S. Lentjes2020-03-06 18:00:432020-03-06 18:18:13New York Philharmonic: Project 19 Opens with Captivating Works
DIrector Joel Ivany and composer Michelle DiBucci talk to Olivia Giovetti about 'Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup,' the timely chamber opera Against the Grain Theatre is workshopping in residence at National Sawdust.
https://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Grain-banner.jpg8001500Olivia Giovettihttps://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/national-sawdust-log.pngOlivia Giovetti2020-02-12 11:46:272020-02-12 12:30:12Inside National Sawdust: Against the Grain Theatre in Residence