TANYA TAGAQ and OWEN PALLETT at Massey Hall, Tuesday, December 1. Rating: NNNNN
It feels useless trying to describe a Tanya Tagaq performance. You experience it with your body rather than your mind, and trying to find words for it seems as ineffectual (old-fashioned, even) as traditional songwriting elements like lyrics and verses and choruses do in the face of her massively impactful wordless improvisations. The Nunavut musician has flown so far away from classic anything that she’s in a realm all her own, making an experimentalist like Björk seem safe and an entertainer like Grace Jones seem mild.
At Massey Hall, Tagaq, in an elegant black gown, gradually transformed from a sweet, almost shy “small-town Eskimo” (her words) expressing love for her long-time collaborators, violinist Jesse Zubot and drummer Jean Martin, to, once Zubot’s soundscapes got underway, a possessed demonic beast, at turns animalistic and growling, tender and joyously ecstatic, embodying a kind of graceful horror as her limbs twisted and reached. Watching her, you think of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Linda Blair’s exorcism, and what it must be like to give birth or grieve a dead child or be a deer running freely through the woods.
Behind her, the 60-person Element Choir led by Christine Duncan pulsated and throbbed, chirped like birds, cooed atonally like a warped record. Green laser lights and fog made for moments scarier than a Watain concert as the set crested to its rhythmic finale, Tagaq heaving and thrashing, her dark hair wild around her head as Martin beat the hell out of his drums. There were no pauses or breaks, the hour-long performance an improvised living, breathing thing.
The Live At Massey Hall/Polaris Music Prize's pairing of Tagaq with Owen Pallett (accompanied by a string quartet) was inspired, though his opening set seemed bloodless in comparison. His music is structured and refined, compositionally impressive and executed flawlessly despite his early concern that the mix of new and old songs might lead to “a mess of a show” and “a cabaret vibe.” But he pushes envelopes, too, singing about massive genitals and his corpse getting pissed on and eating his children. And once his band joined him in the set’s last half, things got rhythmically bonkers.
His vocals were transcendent during I Am Not Afraid, and a stripped-down new song that he fingerpicked on acoustic guitar – devoid of looping pedals and the string quartet and with lyrics about his mother’s voice – left the biggest impression. Here’s hoping he and Tagaq make good on their idea to lock themselves in a cottage for five days to write something.