The layout of Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall, the venue of Tanya Tagaq’s Madison concert, necessitated audience members to sit down, and so did her performance.
The Inuk throat singer’s wide-ranging vocal techniques invoked emotions extending from tranquility to terror, making the anchor of my seat welcome throughout the roughly one-hour demonstration of her Retribution project. Having listened to recordings of Tagaq’s work, I knew to expect a concert experience unlike any I had heard before, but nothing could have prepared me for Saturday’s show.
Flanked by an electric violinist and drummer who made use of electronic percussion and sequencing, Tagaq addressed the audience prior to commencing her renowned vocalizations. Noting that her backing chorus had been assembled and trained recently, she described the development as an improvisation and praised it for its uniqueness.
Tagaq confronted the crowd, many of them older than the typical college student, with a tremendously diverse array of sounds. She utilized melodic pitch sequences, grunts, groans and other noises — far too many to enumerate. The Canadian performer informed concertgoers that her work was a contemporization of Inuit vocal practices traditionally executed by a pair of women through a friendly competition.
Throughout the demonstration, Tagaq made intense movements and vivid facial expressions which accompanied her singing. Her choreography made for a stunning visual spectacle, though watching her bandmates was fascinating as well. Closing my eyes intensified the impact of Tagaq’s sound and allowed my mind to become more imaginative, but this was at the cost of missing her profound physical displays.
A self-described freak show, she asked attendees not to photograph her in any way during her performance. No image or recording could encapsulate the experience of intaking Retribution in live fashion. Tagaq’s expressions were as courageous as they were complex; she routinely contorted her face and body into positions most wouldn’t dare attempt in the comfort of their own bedroom, let alone a stage.
Dynamic in style, volume and consistency, Tagaq’s lengthy showcase incorporated a cover of grunge icon Nirvana’s “Rape Me” into the continuum of sonic output. Having not listened to Retribution — which includes the cover in its entirety — prior to witnessing it in person, my eyes widened when I recognized Kurt Cobain’s abrasive lyrics. The rendition was chilling.
The choir, uniform in black dress but not in age, produced an assortment of support for the soloist, including clicking noises that resembled slow-moving water. They were directed by a member of the touring act who also delivered numerous vocalizations behind Tagaq. Continually mesmerized, I felt myself repeatedly appreciating the amount of preparation required for such a presentation. Other than the percussionist breaking a stick, the piece progressed without a noticeable hitch. It required immaculate counting and memorization by all parties, and the drummer regularly sequenced Tagaq’s voice along with a multitude of other tones.
As someone who has been injured in moshpits and has belted out personal favorite emo ballads from my adolescence, Tagaq’s gripping show pushed me as far emotionally as any of the three dozen concerts I’ve been to, albeit in different directions. Tagaq’s one-of-a-kind showmanship commanded the audience’s full attention throughout and received a well-deserved standing ovation to conclude.