Inside Scoop: Take The Dog Sled (Part 1)

Would I write a piece for two Inuit throat singers and ensemble for the Montreal Symphony’s first tour of Nunavik, Northern Arctic Quebec? When I got that call saying that Kent Nagano would be pleased if I accepted, my heart skipped a beat, but I was frozen – yes, frozen with fear.

I thought through the obvious challenge quickly. I had loved throat singing since I was a graduate student in California where I had come across that now famous CBC LP (yes, LP not CD) of a documentary recording of throat singing. The lovely thing about LPs is that they are BIG so the back cover had photos and a lot of information. I remember being mesmerized by the sound and the power and the unusual nature of this incredible tradition.

But how do you take such a powerful tradition, which is aural, and make a whole new meaningful composition with musicians of a fine symphony orchestra? The singers don’t read music and symphony musicians don’t usually improvise.

The MSO brought me to Montreal for a special meeting with Kent Nagano. There were some other realities that I should take into consideration. The tour would take place in three Northern Arctic communities and the touring group would be travelling in a small twin engine Air Inuit plane. The ensemble would be limited to the same instrumentation as the additional piece on the program, Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, so that meant seven instrumentalists. I could not write for my usual large percussion battery (no room on the plane!). There was a lot to consider. The percussion for the Stravinsky was ‘modest’. Could I be happy with that limitation to the colour of my new work?

The main problem was how to make a composition that integrated fully the sound world of two great traditions. That’s what froze me to the core. If I didn’t find the right solution, it would be a horrible disaster. You cannot take one tradition and just stick it onto another. How do you fully and imaginatively integrate the two?

What were the salient features of throat singing? What characterized their sound and their songs? How long could they go on without stopping? What were these traditional songs about?

I was so focused on finding the right solution that I listened to throat singing literally day and night for two months. It was our family’s dinner music. It was playing in the car as we drove our children to their music lessons. I just could not find my way ‘in’.

Then one day, I had the recording playing while I was sitting at the piano and that was when the light finally went on. I remember that moment so clearly. When that breakthrough happens in the creative process, I cannot begin to tell you what a relief that is. It’s a relief and it’s a beautiful moment.

I began to check off the other challenges once the basic premise was found. The limited  number of percussion instruments became a new way for me to become inventive.

Think small. Think portable. Think found.

Blog Written By: Alexina Louie O.C.

To read Part 2 of this blog series, click here

Take The Dog Sled is now available as an album! Visit the CMC Centrediscs store to purchase your copy today, or stream on Spotify and Apple Music.