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February 20, 2015

New Album: Tundra Songs Songs - Music of Derek Charke

On Tuesday, March 10, Centrediscs, the label of the Canadian Music Centre, releases Tundra Songs, featuring Kronos Quartet in a trio of works by Canadian composer Derek Charke. Guest artist Tanya Tagaq, the charismatic Polaris Prize-winning Inuit throat singer, appears on the 30-minute title track, which David Harrington, Artistic Director of Kronos, describes as “really one of the major, spectacular pieces that has ever been written for Kronos.” The disc also includes Cercle du Nord III which, like Tundra Songs, incorporates environmental sounds from northern Canada; and four of Charke’s series of Inuit Throat Song Games. All of these pieces were commissioned and premiered by the Kronos Quartet to critical acclaim in North America and Europe.

Tundra SongsBorn in 1974, Charke is noted for works that address current environmental issues, including climate change and the impact of oil exploration in the tar sands. Tundra Songs and Cercle du Nord III both feature field recordings he made on trips to Canada’s far North.

For Tundra Songs, Charke traveled with his gear to the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit on Baffin Island, proceeding to a two-day trip out on the ice by dog sled. There he recorded sounds of cracking and grinding ice sheets, shrimp, krill, and other marine life (via hydrophone), the shrieks of ravens, and various sounds of daily life in the region’s communities. Tundra Songs weaves these environmental samples into an often propulsive texture that also incorporates vocal sounds from Tanya Tagaq, who has developed the ability to sing call-and-response Inuit throat song games (also known as Katajak) on her own, and from the quartet itself, which employs circular bowing techniques that evoke throat singing. The work’s five movements move through the region’s cycle of seasons, focusing in turn on ice, water sounds, a folk tale with an unexpected twist, the howls of dogs, and the airborne sounds of ravens and insects. Wrote Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times, “[Charke] has a command of likable post-Minimalist techniques. He creates grooves. He matches string textures, through devices such as circular bowing, with atmospheric sounds…. Tundra Songs is the 600-and-somethingth piece written for Kronos over more than three decades – and another keeper.”

Cercle du Nord III draws on sounds recorded in Canada’s Northwest Territories, including birds, dogs and dog sledding, walking and running in the snow and wind. Says Charke, “As I was trying to capture these sounds I found the sounds of modern life infiltrating the pristine environment. Snowmobiles, trucks driving on the ice roads, and a pervasive hum of the Inuvik power plant.” As in Tundra Songs, the string writing is inspired by the hocket-like technique of the Katajak games played between two singers. As the piece progresses, synthesizer sounds are added into the texture. The ancient and the new collide as they do in the region itself: “As the younger generation returns to their cultural roots they do so with a twist; bringing with them influences of popular culture… World globalization is taking hold and the north is not excluded.” Allan Kozinn of The New York Times called Cercle du Nord III “inventive, richly textured.”

The Inuit Throat Song Games represent Charke’s earliest use of the circular bowing techniques featured in the other pieces. Notes Charke, “Working with violinist Carter Williams I stumbled on a technique that emulated guttural sounds I had heard in the Katajak. To produce the desired effect players grip the bow with a fist-like grip and bow in circular or vertical movements. The performer also uses an unusual amount of pressure resulting in a sound that is coarse and grinding. To enhance the effect the instruments can be prepared with miniature clothespins. These are placed near the bridge and on the string. Similar to a prepared piano the notes played on these strings have a different, grittier sound.”

Centrediscs is distributed by Naxos of America & Canada.

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