5 Questions to Alexina Louie (composer) and Evie Mark (throat singer)

Is it possible for Inuit-Western musical collaborations to be equitable and equal? The commission and composition of Alexina Louie’s Take The Dog Sled (2008) is an answer to that question. Its creation is one of several small and important steps by Western classical musicians to establish reciprocal and respectful connections with Inuit throat singers. Composed in consultation with Inuit throat singer Evie Mark for two Inuit throat singers and seven instrumentalists, Take The Dog Sled was commissioned for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s first tour of Nunavik. The album, released in November 2020 on Centrediscs, features Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik with members of the Esprit Orchestra under conductor and music director Alex Pauk.

Alexina, I really enjoyed reading your blog on composing Take The Dog Sled. Could you share with our readers how Inuit throat singing timbres and techniques informed your approach to the piece?

Of the many commission requests that I have received, Take The Dog Sled (a work combining the skills of two Inuit throat singers with seven instrumentalists) has been one of the most challenging. One of the first issues I had to deal with was the question of pitch relationships between the singers, who don’t read music, and the musicians of the ensemble. Crucial to the way the writing eventually unfolded was my decision to have the instrumental music build on the notes that are the natural starting pitches of the singers. Rather than being left to chance, the pitch relationships of soloists and ensemble would be set, not improvised.

Inuit throat singing is a game of call and response between two women. Over the course of each traditional song, spontaneous changes take place as the singers try to trip each other up with small variations in the rhythms and vocalizations. To echo the wonderful interplay between the singers, I paired various instruments in hocket-like exchanges with each other as well as with the singers. The music began to take on a playful tone in keeping with the game-playing aspect of the songs.

Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik in a live performance of Take The Dog Sled--Photo by Malcolm Cook

Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik in a live performance of Take The Dog Sled–Photo by Malcolm Cook

Five of the work’s eight movements incorporate throat songs. Each of these depicts an aspect of life in the Arctic: “Sharpening The Runners On The Dog Sled,” “Snow Goose,” “Mosquito,” “River,” and “Dog Sled (The Puppy).” In each movement of Take The Dog Sled, you might feel the rush of the dog sled, hear the sound of the snow goose, feel the irritation of the mosquito, or experience eternity in the flow of the river.

Evie, how did you and Alexina Louie’s acknowledgement of each other’s lack of experience with the other’s tradition aid the collaborative and rehearsal phases?

I can’t speak for Alexina, but for myself, I saw that she was very dedicated to music, and very experienced and knowledgeable about writing music as a composer. She has a keen interest in different styles of music and the sounds that we sing.

I am very interested in understanding my cultural background through throat singing. Throat singing has sounds that imitate nature and animals. I think our unique knowledge of the two different styles of music complement each other.

Alexina, in the album’s virtual launch, you brought up the importance of having the piece on CD. What was the process of getting this work recorded?

Take The Dog Sled was recorded the day after it was performed by Esprit Orchestra with Alex Pauk conducting on November 28, 2018 in Toronto. Due to the unusual combination of Inuit throat singers performing with players whose instrumental parts are intricate and technically challenging, there might be limited possibilities for numerous further live performances. I was relieved at the thought that the piece would be “in the can” for future reference and available to listeners for years to come. The throat singers are amplified during the performance. Unlike instrumentalists, throat singers cannot adjust the dynamics of their vocalizations. This necessitates a live mix in order to achieve the correct balance in volume between the singers and the instrumentalists. The score indicates adjustments in the volume of the singers’ amplification for each movement. The desired effect is heard in the mix on the recording.

Alexina Louie--Photo by Shin Sugino

Alexina Louie–Photo by Shin Sugino

From its first performances, I was convinced that Take The Dog Sled was an important piece in my catalogue of works. It took a lot of problem solving to address the challenge of bringing two seemingly disparate musical traditions together to create a meaningful piece that respects both traditions without one subsuming the other. A fine recording with committed performances by throat singers Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik and the musicians of Esprit Orchestra led with vibrancy and detailed attention by conductor Alex Pauk (who has led performances on numerous occasions) resulted in an inspired version that crackles with energy. This recording is an excellent reference for other performers. Its existence ensures that the work will continue to be appreciated.

Evie, considering cultural appropriation and colonization are still serious issues, how are throat singer-classical musician collaborations like Take The Dog Sled helping to disseminate Inuit throat singing to Inuit audiences?

Take The Dog Sled will certainly captivate avid listeners of throat singing and of classical music, whatever their cultural background is. That said, it is not likely to trigger attention from a large Inuit audience. If I were to throat sing with Akinisie in the form of a competition with classical music playing in the background, for example, then perhaps Inuit listeners would be interested to see who would struggle to win–who can make the strong guttural sounds that come from the diaphragm and manipulation of the throat. The root, or the heart of throat singing is a game, a competition.

Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik--Photo by Robert Frechette

Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik–Photo by Robert Frechette

Because Take The Dog Sled is more of a combination of styles rather than traditional throat singing, it is not necessarily going to attract a large Inuit audience. But it will attract and intrigue those who practice, or are avid listeners of throat singing, as well as avid classical music listeners–it will certainly captivate them!

Alexina, when can listeners expect recording number two?

Because of the unique nature of Take The Dog Sled, another recording of it has not been planned, making this premiere recording significant in my recorded output. Many of my operatic, vocal, orchestral, chamber, and solo works are available on film, recordings, and the internet.


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