It’s arguable that not a single member of the sizable audience this past Monday night at the Performing Arts Center watched the show without a perpetually open jaw. A jaw that needed to be pushed back into place when the house lights came on.
What it is — and it’s been touring the country to huge acclaim, and was grabbed up for an evening here by the Yard’s artistic director, David R. White, and co-producer Alison Manning — is a screening of the iconic first documentary, silent of course, released in 1922 to wild enthusiasm, “Nanook of the North,” accompanied on this recent night by awardwinning First Nations vocalist Tanya Tagaq, violinist Jesse Zubot, and percussionist Jean Martin.
There are controversies about “Nanook”: The native cast members were made to seem naive, such as in the scene where the protagonist, great hunter Nanook (he actually had another, real name), is presented with a gramophone and, handed a vinyl record, tries to bite it like a huge round cracker. The players were encouraged to mug and smile for the camera, something considered not strictly comme il faut for documentaries. Also, by the early 20th century, the Inuit used rifles to hunt, but were asked by director Robert Flaherty to deploy spears for a flavor of aboriginal authenticity. Well, they used the spears with convincing expertise, and, as Roger Ebert wrote in a not-too-long-ago review, not only did they slay a real walrus, but “the walrus hadn’t seen the script.”
We can put these quibbles aside because Tagaq’s ensemble creates an unworldly sound, unlike any we’ve ever heard before, almost as if we’ve been flooshed through a wormhole, shot out into another world where all is both ethereal and demonic in tableaux of unyielding wind and snow, a frozen and brief spellbinding period of time when we’re one with beings who spend every second of their lives battling supernatural elements to keep themselves and their loved ones alive.
It’s difficult to go along with the custom of calling throat singing throat singing. It’s not as if the chants and growls and melodically high notes are all compressed in the esophagus. You can log onto YouTube and watch a tutorial by Ms. Tagaq herself, demonstrating what’s involved: Inhalations and exhalations produce different sounds, running all the way up from the diaphragm to the top-of-the-crown for a soprano’s high C. The special trick is that a husky gasp you feel in the throat and chest can be followed instantaneously by a princessy tinkle, and the high and low notes come so fast and furious it’s hard to believe a solitary singer utters them. Combine these sounds with an equally diffuse range of violin notes, and all manner of twangs, plinks, and basso thumps from the drums, and suddenly you’re a part of the blustery, frigid landscape. And yet the experience is inexplicably, ethereally beautiful.
Some fun facts: Sled dogs are very much a part of the family’s pack, and Nanook builds a special small igloo for the puppies. Wolves come around when a seal is captured and eviscerated, while Ms. Tagaq throws back her head and channels a primeval wolf howl. Each catch from the sea is slashed open and devoured in raw, sushi chunks. At night the clan crawl under animal skins naked — yes, these Inuits disrobe; why? Well, a lot of us seemed to be discussing this on the way out of the theater, and an informed answer seemed to be that the best way to share our 98.6° body heat is to funnel it directly into a puppy pile of humans ganging up together. Nothing smutty about this; it’s pure physics.
Tanya Tagaq was born in 1975 within the Arctic Circle, on Victoria Island in Northern Quebec. While she was attracted at a young age to the traditional throat-singing music of her people, the Inuits (whose throat singing is not to be confused with that of other cultures such as Mongolian and Tibetan), she brought new iterations to the genre, and now she’s recognized for her elements of punk, metal, and electronica that make her sound very contemporary indeed. In 2014 she won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize. Her recent release, “Retribution,” won a four-star review in Rolling Stone.
Tagaq, Martin, and Zubot’s performance in concert with “Nanook of the North” was first commissioned in 2012 by the Toronto Film Festival. Since then the company and “Nanook” have performed at such venues as Lincoln Center and the Helsinki Festival.
And now Martha’s Vineyard has received the full treatment. Bring it back, Mr. White and Ms. Manning. This is your third winter program, and we’d all be well-served if we could see this again, and bring our friends and neighbors to have their minds blown by it, year after year.