• Ivan Otis
  • Tanya Tagaq

I spent the past weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee, attending the Big Ears Festival, an unabashedly eclectic three-day extravaganza focused on the intersection of contemporary classical, improvisation, experimental rock, and international music that’s unlike any other music fest in the U.S. I took in quite a bit of music, including a killer set by Chicago’s own Ryley Walker (who plays a record-release show tonight at the Chopin), Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, and a crushingly loud and visceral multimedia blitz by Holly Herndon (who makes her Chicago debut Tuesday at the Empty Bottle). I wouldn’t call the performance I caught by the Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq the best thing I saw by any stretch, but it sure was the most gripping.

The singer from Victoria Island, way up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, deep within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, is the best-known exponent of Inuit throat singing, but like Tuvan throat singer Sainkho Namtchylak she’s subverted traditional sounds in radical ways. When I first heard her about a decade ago she seemed to be angling for a position in the world music scene, but over the years she’s embraced a far more experimental side—perhaps encouraged by her collaborations with Bjork (Tagaq contributed to the Icelandic singer’s all-vocal album Medulla from 2004).

Her most recent album Animism, issued last year in Canada but only getting its U.S. release in January, is her most daring recording—made with percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot—and she mostly performed music from that effort when I saw her on Saturday afternoon. As on the album, Tagaq’s pieces don’t feel particularly whole or compositional so much as they’re seething, wide-open platforms for her vocals, which range from utterly demonic groans (which could out-death metal most death-metal singers) to the sweetest, most soulful curlicues. She casts a deeply sexual presence manifest in the way she contorts and shakes and in the manner her voice conveys a seemingly infinite range of human expression. On Sunday I caught her in a more restrained performance, collaborating with the festival’s artists-in-residence Kronos Quartet, playing music from the new album Tundra Songs (Centrediscs)—but it was her dynamic turn on Saturday that I’m still thinking about. Today’s 12 O’Clock Track is “Uja,” a song taken from Animism.