The vocal games of Canadian Inuit women are nothing like the overtone songs of the Central Asians, yet in English they’re both called throat-singing. Tuvans may whistle and vibrate but Tagaq growls and grunts and snarls and huffs, panting like a huge tiger long past the point at which the average person would have hyperventilated themselves onto the carpet into a state of graceless unconsciousness, leaving friends hovering around wondering how to wake them up again.
The game used to be played while the men were away hunting. Two women would stand face to face, sometimes so close that one could make her voice resonate inside the cave of the other woman’s mouth. They’d begin to make patterns of noises at one another. The winner was the one who could keep doing this the longest without cracking up. It was frowned on by missionaries, suppressed and stifled, then recently revived. Nowadays they even have throat-singing festivals.
It is not, however, a vocal style that suits itself easily to solo careers, nor to albums. How do you turn the sound of one person grunting into something that people outside the culture would listen to for enjoyment, not simply out of anthropological curiosity? Tagaq tackled that problem in her first album, Sinaa, which came out in 2005 after she had appeared on Björk’s Medulla. It might have been Medulla that gave her the answer. The songs on Sinaa, like the songs on the Icelander’s album, were built up in layers, voice over voice, a quilt of whispers, murmurs, gasps, buzzing. For Auk/Blood she’s taken the same idea and added cellos and sound effects, fleshing out the first album’s skeletal sound, creating contrasts not only between one piece of vocal work and another, but between her own human zuzz and the inhuman sounds of chamber strings, animals, and mechanical pistons.
This new approach starts off the album with a piece of atmospheric spookiness named “Fox”. First we hear strings lifting themselves out of the silence. They’re accompanied by the distant sound of some thin-voiced seabird, as though we’re on the beach at dawn and the cellos are the sun rising out of the ocean. Tagaq’s voice comes up over this landscape like a thundercloud. A dog barks and the cellos throw themselves upwards in arches, high-pitched, somewhat Chinese in their adamantine delicacy, sliding over the woman’s roughened voice. A new sound comes in, human but strange, a controlled version of a hysterical whimper. The growl changes pace. The separate grunts become distinct. Each one curls in an aural moue. The promises implicit in this beginning are amazing, brilliant, enough to make your hair stand on end. If the rest of the album doesn’t always live up to them, well, neither do the albums of most other musicians.
The tracks have expressive, one-word titles: “Want”, “Burst”, “Force”, “Hunger”, “Growth”. There are few lyrics. This is meant to be an album of moods rather than meanings explicitly explained. “Force” is a tug of war between the voice and the cello. “Growth” is tangled. “Burst” builds from a keyed-up panting into a piston noise. “Hunger” is more diffuse, a series of overlapping murmurs. To write it down the way it sounds you’d have to stagger the words across the page:
The softest touch
Softest touch softest touch
Arrangements like this one give Auk/Blood the feel of a poetry reading, something in a closed theatre, hermetic and impressionistic. The album would be better if not for the rapper who comes in on two of the tracks reporting his misfortunes, which boil down to a vaguely alienated grumpiness and the impression that life would be better if he got laid, now, please. We’re better off with the title song, strings and gasps whipping upwards in hysteria, enough to leaves us wondering if Auk doesn’t deserve a different name: Orgasm.