- Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North by Tanya Tagaq, Robert J. Flaherty
Tanya Tagaq bantered with the audience as she opened her New York City run at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. Performing with Robert Flaherty’s controversial silent 1922 film Nanook of the North, the Polaris-prize winning singer and prominent Indigenous activist warmly introduced her band: Jean Martin on drums, Jesse Zubot on violin, and Jeffrey Zeigler on cello. From the stage, side by side with her ensemble, she calibrated rapport with the audience through story, recounting her own roots 300 miles from the magnetic North Pole and her family’s memories of colonization, from her mother’s birth in an igloo to forced relocation and settlement. Tagaq’s searingly beautiful improvisations, “singing back” to Nanook—a renowned black-and-white feature-length film laboriously recorded nearly a century ago in Inukjuak, in Quebec’s far north—reconfigured musical accompaniment for silent film as an Indigenized site of political, as well as artistic intervention. A virtuosa who combines nontraditional Innu throat singing and free improvisation, Tagaq introduced Nanook as the world’s “first glimpse of our culture,” its spectacular images of ice and snow accompanied by troubling depictions of her culture and people. The concert intervenes performatively in a long history of ethnographic films made by white explorers, and in doing so she honors the film’s Indigenous collaborators, performing a keening disruption of settler cultural archives and hierarchies while celebrating the luminous beauty of place shared by the record.
Improvising with this suspect archive, long criticized for its “fakeries,” reenactments, and fabulations, Tagaq’s vocal gestures and breathy embodiments danced a fleshy resonance with, and counterpoint to, these celluloid politics. Reaching beyond her body into the air, her fingers seemed to dance her vocal technique, pulling her spine into gesture. She raised her head, twisted her torso, and opened her voice. Moving otherwise afforded Tagaq a different sonic potential as well as a politics of decolonization—singing on the in-breath, as well as the exhalation. Her dancerly connection to movement highlights a false Euro-American conceptual binary between body and voice, singing and standing. As an artist traversing colonial concepts of genre through practices of voice she draws from multiple traditions and is fixed by none. Breaking both metaphorical and technological quiet with her lush sonic worlds, Tagaq’s sensorial reconfiguration of Nanook troubles its privileging of a technological, colonial gaze by inviting a shared play of spectatorial attention between the vast, silvery screen and twenty-first-century performers who, with eyes on monitors, played Nanook as their score. This collaboration activated not simply technological, but historico-cultural silence, notably regarding abuse and colonization in the Arctic, amplifying the film’s dramatic tensions with soaring sounds, daring leaps between ice floes, and wrenching scenes of the hunt. The film’s complicated status as a cinematic masterpiece was not let off the hook, yet Tagaq’s disruptions of the ethnographic film’s premises of recording a vanishing way of life were inevitably superseded by her occupation of the stage.
On stage at the Public, Tagaq’s creation of sonic resonance with the film’s subjects both human and nonhuman, whether icy rifts, cold huskies, walruses, harpoon lines, or furs, performed a felt politics that arced from high notes to pulses and gasps. As Flaherty’s brew of heroizing, yet primitivizing portraits of reenacted “traditional” Inuit life at the turn of the last century played out on a giant screen above and behind the band, Tagaq’s sung responses to its stereotypical imagery and fabulations potently entangled her work with the history of music technology, as well as those of cinema and colonial policy. As the film showed Inuit actor Allakariallak, who played Nanook, biting down on a gramophone record in a staged scene historically misunderstood as the hunter’s incomprehension of Euro-American [End Page 649] technologies, Tagaq’s voice thrummed in cross-timbral solidarity, performing a cross...