Alexina Louie’s “Take the Dog Sled”, A Musical Iditarod for Inuit Throat Singers and Ensemble


Centrediscs CDCCD 28320

Ah, those sneaky Canadians. This disc was surreptitiously slipped in with another mailing of a disc sent for review. The sender, aware of my interest and admiration for Canadian art music sent me this little gem of a recording. It is a fine example of cultural incorporation (as opposed to the pejorative, “cultural appropriation”). It is about the celebration of “first nations” people and their culture rather than the exploitation of it.

“Take the Dog Sled” (2008) by Alexina Louie is in eight movements that clock in at 21:48 total time making this a sort of CD single. And I’m happy to say that this is a happy little musical journey much in the spirit of Leopold Mozart’s “Musikalische Schlittenfahrt” or (“Musical Sleigh Ride” in English), an unusual piece of program music from 1755 (the year before the birth of his ultimately more famous son, Wolfgang). In fact these two works might make for an interesting program heard back to back.

Alexina Louie (1949- ) is a justly much lauded Canadian composer. Her prolific output includes orchestral, chamber, solo music, and film scores. She is a living artistic treasure and the recipient of Canada’s highest civilian honor when she was named an “Officer of the Order of Canada” in 2005. This is just one of many awards and she continues to produce exciting music in a variety of genres and has demonstrated facility with electronics as well as conventional acoustic instruments.

But first a word about “throat singers”. Many people familiar with this term have probably heard the singing of Tibetan Monks who produce multiple tones via their ability to emphasize one or more of the natural overtones of the fundamental note they are singing. (The process is beyond this writer’s understanding of vocal physiology and, if you haven’t heard it, you probably can’t imagine it.) But the point of this is that there are different varieties of “throat singers” and, while I can’t tell you the specifics of what makes them different, the listener should be aware that the singers heard here do not sound like Tibetan Monks or Tuvan Throat Singers or David Hykes and his Harmonic Choir. Rather you will hear the Inuit style of throat singing.

The throat singers are featured in movements 2, 3, 5, 7, and 8. Movements 1, 4, and 6 are given solely to the seven piece chamber orchestra, the amazing Espirit Orchestra. All are conducted by the the wonderful conductor, educator, and advocate of Canadian composers, (and spouse of the composer) Alex Pauk. The singers Evie Mark and Akinise Sivuarapik are both natives of northern Quebec (“Nunavik” in their native language) and life long throat singers and their collaboration with Louie is a delightful accomplishment.

This piece was written in response to a commission from the fine conductor Kent Nagano in conjunction with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (where he was principal conductor at the time) for a performance in three towns (Inukjuak, Kangiqsujuak, and Kuujjuuaq) in far northern Quebec (Nunavik). Ms. Louie worked with the throat singers, listening to their songs, talking with them and, ultimately, choosing the songs which would become a part of this piece.

Not surprisingly these performances were well received and listeners are in for a treat with this recording. It does honor to first nations folk artistry and effectively includes them in the definition of music as a whole, incorporating traditions and instruments in the traditional classical sphere while still doing honor to the traditions from which they sprung. The music is accessible but never trite and reflects what appears to have been a respectful collaboration. One hopes that this will not be their last collaboration. You may or may not want to take a ride on a dog sled but give a listen and find the delight from which it draws.

The Shaman: Spectacular New Canadian Orchestral Music


vho

I don’t know what it is about political borders and the arts but there must be some kind of walls up that prevent musical immigration from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, etc.  In short there is a strong Eurocentric/American flavor to the classical music distributed here.

 

One of the issues with which the large colonial countries such as the United States and Canada grappled was the tendency for all their composers to sound like second rate European composers.  With the dawn of the 20th Century there was the obligatory attention to folksong but that is also arguably Eurocentric…not bad, mind you, just leaving out the Native Americans or, using the elegant Canadian term, First Peoples.

Eventually both the U.S. and Canada began to pay attention to indigenous traditions of the peoples they had conquered.  One suspects that an appreciation of the social and spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples also encouraged a different view of the very landscapes.  In Canada the composer most closely associated with the post Eurocentric traditions would have to be Raymond Murray Schafer whose incorporation of the vast landscapes of his country embraced it musically and dramatically in a way that no one had previously.

So along comes this disc from composer Vincent Ho (1975- ) born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  He was educated variously at Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music, a Bachelor of Music from the University of Calgary, an MM from the University of Toronto, and a DMA from the University of Southern California.  His mentors have included Allan Bell, David Eagle, Christos Hatzis, Walter Buczynski, and Stephen Hartke. In 1997, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Schola Cantorum Summer Composition Program in Paris, where he received further training in analysis, composition, counterpoint, and harmony, supervised by David Diamond, Philip Lasser, and Narcis Bonet.

Vince8

Vincent Ho

 

Impressive credentials for sure but this album demonstrates the very impressive work of a composer who would seem to be poised to take on the mantle of the next generation of artists working to create music that represents the entire country in this generation.  This is a man with formidable skills in writing for large ensembles.  No doubt his facility with writing music allows him to create convincingly for any size ensemble.  A quick look at the composer’s catalog of works inspired the mini polemic with which this review begins.  How can so much wonderful music go unnoticed south of the border here in the U.S.?  (End rant.)

Finally to the disc at hand.  This is a beautifully recorded live concert of two major works by Mr. Ho, “The Shaman” (2011) and Arctic Symphony (2010).  Both are for large orchestra and inhabit a very listenable realm melodically and harmonically.  That is NOT to say that these are ordinary or simple works.  In fact they clearly embody the work of a well trained and thoughtful artist.  This is exciting music and the audience response at the end of each work was highly approving.

Your reviewer heard the Carnegie Hall broadcast of The Shaman and jumped at the opportunity to review this disc.  Dame Evelyn Glennie is reason enough to pay attention.  This (essentially) Concerto for Percussion was written for her and she is ostensibly the shaman of the work’s title.  Her performance is simply spellbinding.  The piece has three numbered movements and an interlude.  I will leave it to the program note readers to plumb the additional depths of meaning embodied in the concerto but I will tell you that if you are not enthralled by the “fire dance” finale you may very well be dead.

The Arctic Symphony is another animal.  It is a programmatic work inspired by the composer’s experience on a research vessel, the Amundsen, exploring various arctic regions and describing the different areas of research being done.  There are environmental themes here for sure and also an incorporation of Inuit songs transcribed by the composer and sonic evocations of various aspects of the composer’s experience of the journey (wind, silence, the strange sounds of uncertain causes that one apparently hears in these nether regions.  The five movements fit pretty comfortably into the basic classical forms that comprise symphonies.  There are chorales, variations, a nice scherzo in the Amundsen (3rd movement).  It is, like the concerto, a very entertaining and exciting piece.

The Winnipeg Symphony and it’s talented conductor, Alexander Mickelthwate must be mentioned for their skill at holding this complex music together.  In both works they provided readings that were both accurate and stimulating.  One can’t imagine any audience failing to enjoy this music.

One can’t help but wonder about the confluences between the work of Mr. Ho and that of John Luther Adams.  Both deal with arctic landscapes and both express environmental concerns.  Well I invite listeners to do their part in eliminating the weird musical apartheid that appears to exist by buying this album.  It is excellent.