Tanya Tagaq’s triumph at the Polaris Gala this year surprised a good number of people (ourselves included…whoops). We’re embarrassed to say it was kind of like wading through the seven stages of grief: the die-hard Mac Demarco and Drake fans among us spent several days in their basements with the respective albums on repeat (“but, he spent so much time on the intro!”) crying in the fetal position and ordering Funyuns on Amazon.
While Tagaq’s Animism isn’t necessarily the most accessible Canadian album of the year, it is very likely the most ambitious one—and definitely the most original. We would also be remiss to ignore what her career represents for a vastly under-appreciated segment of Canadian culture. Listening to Tagaq’s music requires many of us to leave our comfort zones, and the initial harshness of her traditional Inuit throat singing compels us to understand that tradition a little better.
So we’ll get off the soapbox and, you know, try to do that. It helps that throat singing is responsible for the absolutely baffling ability of some performers to sing multiple notes at the same time. Here’s a brief survey of what throat singing’s all about, and why it’s uniquely awesome.
Overtone Singing in Pop Culture
Tagaq’s evocative and jarring vocals aren’t the only example of throat singing to enter the popular fold recently—a video portraying the uncanny and almost magical possibilities inherent to a technique known as “overtone singing” went viral this month. Watch this master of the craft sing multiple notes, and even interweaving melodies, at the same time:
If you’ve ever listened to popular a capella group Pentatonix, then you’ve heard the sheer profundity that is Avi Kaplan’s bass vocal range. Avi has also mastered the technique and sometimes shows it off in concert:
Our personal favorite example of someone singing more than one note at a time comes from two titans of the modern R&B scene. During a live collaboration between superband Snarky Puppy and Lalah Hathaway, daughter of the legendary Donny Hathaway, Lalah shocked an entire room full of musicians (and a nice chuck of the interwebs) when she inexplicably sang full chords during an already impressive vocal solo (skip to 6:00 if you’re a heartless and impatient person):
It’s pretty mystifying, and we’d be lying if we claimed to know what the hell is going on here, but overtones themselves are actually not as rare as they might seem from these vocal acrobatics. We hear them all the time: whenever someone plucks a note on the guitar, for example, you’re actually hearing several different overtone “copies” of that note simultaneously—different frequencies that typically translate to the same note in several octaves. This phenomenon contributes to the better-known concept of playing “harmonics” on a guitar, a tool that has helped kids make awful metal guitar demos on YouTube for a good while now. Overtones are also partly responsible for the distinctive timbres of voices and instruments—the reason you can tell the difference between a trumpet and a piano, or a shitty trumpet player and a good trumpet player.
Traditional Overtone Singing
Overtone singing may not sound a whole lot like Tanya Tagaq’s work unless you know about its historical origins. The method was pioneered by Tibetan and Mongolian throat singers—often monks for whom throat singing is a spiritual and meditative exercise:
The most impressive form of this tradition is probably Tuvan throat singing, the diversity of which this dude demonstrates pretty thoroughly:
Tanya Tagaq’s throat singing is emblematic of an Inuit tradition that features primarily women and doesn’t make much use of overtones, but has an equally interesting historical role in Inuit culture. Women apparently developed this singing style as a form of entertainment when men were off on hunting trips, and they were typically performed as a kind of competitive duet:
Tanya is rare in using this technique as part of a contemporary solo act. Here, a demonstration of the technique as she employs it: