The crowd on Granville Street filed into the Vogue and scrambled for seats nearly an hour before the show was to start. Presented by the inaugural Vancouver Opera Festival and sold-out days before, the bustling theatre was patiently waiting for Tanya Tagaq, the Polaris Prize-winning Inuk experimental musician, visual artist and accomplished throat singer.
After a long wait, the lights dimmed and a handful of people stepped onto the stage, taking their place on the riser at the back. Looking nervously off stage from where they had just come, they waited as a few more followed. Trickling out over the next few minutes and building the anticipation in the theatre, a choir amassed, eventually spanning the entire back of the stage in three rows — at least 50 strong.
Then, after another moment of suspense, Tagaq strode out, joined by choir leader Christine Duncan of the Element Choir, drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot. “Sorry, we were downstairs in the green room,” said Tagaq. “We had no idea. We were just chatting away.”
Before playing, Tagaq took a moment to address the audience. Casually, she explained that the set would be entirely improvised, and that maybe, only maybe, would they find themselves playing something from her latest record Retribution. Tagaq also drew attention to her long crimson dress, explaining that is was made for her by Indigenous designer Tishna Marlowe. The bodice was decorated with her own birth stones, as well as her mother’s and daughter’s, and the red colour represented missing and murdered Aboriginal women. “Please, never be silent about that,” she said. “Okay, now for some music.”
Slowly, they began. Sparsely scraping and tapping his drums, sending the sounds through delays and distortions, Martin created a soft and dark wash of sound. Zubot lightly droned his violin, dragging his bow across the strings to unveil rich and dissonant textures and squeaks. As the two musicians gradually built up a deep and foreboding sonic atmosphere, Tagaq stood at centre stage, with her head bowed, swaying as if entering a trance. Finally, as the soundscape reached a crescendo, Tagaq joined in. Her guttural, breathy and never static throat singing cut through the wash of sound and impregnated the music with urgency and vitality.
With her back to the audience, Duncan, waved hand signals at the choir and brought their voices to life. I’d never seen a choir improvise before. Keeping rhythm in staccato bursts or shrieking to heighten a moment’s intensity, the choir filled out the stage without the need for harmony or lyrics, directed by Duncan’s deft movements.
In one continuous surge, Tagaq and her support warped and weaved their sounds together, never fully blending in and never wholly standing out. They moved through the set as if they’d done it a thousand times before, but still with the excitement of not knowing what was coming next. Tagaq was never still, twisting and contorting her body to the music, physically becoming part of the sound. At one point, Tagaq even drifted off the stage, still singing from behind the curtain, as if the music had consumed her, and all that remained was her voice.
The crowd around me was entranced. Most sat still, eyes wide and mouth open to the almost instinctual display of musicality on stage, while others let their eyes close, and their head roll and bob around, completely engrossed in sound.
After over an hour-long torrent of music, the band went quiet. After a moment of disorientation, the audience snapped out of the trance and gave a standing ovation. Martin and Zubot bowed and left the stage, and Tagaq brought out Shamik for an all-vocal encore. While Duncan led the choir, Tagaq almost conversationally throat sang to the beatboxing Shamik. While it definitely lacked the power and emotional resonance of the main performance, it showed a playfulness and versatility to Tagaq’s otherwise intense sound.
In a daze, the crowd slowly shuffled down the aisles, and out of the theatre.