With katajjaq, composer makes footprints in new music


AToronto composer of electronic musicsays he was “blown away” the first time he heard Inuit throat singing. One of his compositions is entitled “Footprints in New Snow,” after the NIC’s 1995 blueprint for creating Nunavut.

Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT – From the moment he first heard it five years ago, the primal cadences of Inuit throat singing have haunted and inspiredChristos Hatzis.

First, the strange rhythm of katajjaq evoked childhood memories of a locomotive steam-engine. Then, like the seesaw action of a bow on cello strings, the Greek-born composer found a metaphor for life itself: an endless cycle of creation and destruction.

After spending half of the 1990s exploring katajjaq as a contemporary art form, Hatzis now hopes to do a little inspiring himself.

CD next month

The Naxos international recording label plans to release four of Hatzis’ recent compositions on compact disc next month. Each work is based on the tradition of Inuit throat singing, a unique vocal game in which two people face each other and making guttural, harmonized sounds.

The CD incorporates samples of recordings Hatzis made of Inuit throat singing in the Baffin region in the mid-1990s.

“I think those four works now complete all that I can possibly say about this genre,” says Hatzis, who also teaches music at the University of Toronto.

“Now that they’re going to be released, I think that other people can pick up and continue.”

For the sake of Inuit musical culture, somebody sure ought to.

Unless throat singing can be made more relevant to younger listeners, Hatzis says, aspiring Inuit musicians will continue to emulate southern pop stars and country and western singers – musical styles that have little to do with native culture.

“Living cultures should produce living products. That is something that the younger generation should be sensitized to,” Hatzis says.

Blown away by throat singing

It was a CBC sound engineer who first introduced Hatzis to throat singing in 1992, while he was working on a radio documentary called The Idea of Canada.

“It just blew my mind completely,” Hatzis remembers. “And from that point on it was just a question of finding the means and a way to go up North and actually experience the culture myself,” Hatzis said.

He finally did, but was discouraged to discover that, far from thriving, throat singing seemed in danger of being lost.

On a journey to Nunavut in 1995 Hatzis asked a pair of Inuit throat singers if they could create their own song, influenced by the sounds they hear in their everyday lives.

When after a few days the young women responded apologetically that they could not, that they could merely repeat what they had learned, Hatzis’ heart sank.

“To me it kind of sounded an alarm signal,” Hatzis says.

“Yes, throat singing may survive, but then it will survive as a non-evolving thing, as a museum piece.”

Broadcast on CBC FM

Hatzis’ throat-singing tributes have been performed on several occasions in southern Canada and Europe and broadcast frequently over CBC Radio’s FM stereo network, but are unfamiliar to most northeners, who don’t have access to FM radio.

One of the pieces included in the suite, a 38-minute long radio-music documentary called Footprints in New Snow, actually borrows its name from a policy paper issued by the Nunavut Implementation Commission.

“Nunatsiaq News had just been published and the paper did an article on it,” Hatzis recalls. “We were thinking of a title for the documentary and I said, ‘Well look at this, this sounds more poetic than anything I’ve ever heard.’ ”

Piece inspired by Nunavut

Nunavut, a 21-minute long arrangement for string quartet and electronics, dates to 1994 and was originally commissioned for the Smith Quartet with grants from the Canada Council and London Arts Board.

The Inuit music’s mystic cultural roots were the inspiration behind Fertility Rites, written last year in three movements for marimba – a type of primitive xylophone of African origin – and pre-recorded throat songs.

“This has been the most succesful of all the experiments I’ve done,” says Hatzis, who describes the timbre of throat singing and marimba music as naturally complementary.

“There’s something about the almost hollow sound you get out of a rosewood bar, which almost sounds like… the kind of growly sound you get out of throat singing. When it’s played softly, it’s almost like it’s providing some kind of higher resonance into that particular sound.”

The composition, Hunter’s Dream, a one-minute “miniature” originally commissioned by Morgan Fisher, keyboardist for the now defunct British rock group Queen, will also appear on the CD.

Hatzis said copies of the CD will be distributed to Inuit organzations across Canada as soon as they are ready. He hopes his treatment of these traditional sounds may find its way into the imagination of younger Inuit musicians.

“If young kids could actually hear throat singing, see the possiblity of its evolution, of its becoming part of a larger cultural context, then more people would pick it up.”

A sample of Hatzis’ work can be found on his Internet website,http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~chatzis/

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