Tonight I was present for the premiere of Adizokan, a collaboration between Red Sky Performance and the Toronto Symphony as part of Canada 150. It was much easier surrendering to the sounds and sights of this multi-media multi-disciplinary work than trying to talk about it. That may sound like a cop-out. I don’t say that in any way as a criticism, for there are many experiences in our lives that may be complex, that make total sense, even though they resist an explanation in words. So many of the best things I’ve seen in this our Sesquicentennial year have been works that challenge and even problematize our assumptions about Canada, particularly from the Indigenous perspective on settler culture.
And I’m not sure that it matters how it was conceived, and which came first between the music and words and dance. What’s more important is how well everything was balanced, how nicely it cohered, at times blending into something total unique. I felt a curious conversational space open up, where we could experience something about the Indigenous view of the country in the blend of native and European cultural procedures.
I often was torn, not always knowing where to look or where to focus my attention with so much going on.
The concert began with another Sesqui, a mysterious pulsing work by Carmen Braden, the perfect overture to the evening. Then came “My Roots”, a pair of stunning performances, songs that began traditionally, at least in their use of a drum pulse, although Fara Palmer’s take on Indigeneity was on the boundary between native and something resembling the blues, a wonderfully powerful invocation to set us up for what came next.
From there we were into Adizokan, and the dramaturgy became much more complex & variegated, Eliot Britton’s composition for about an hour or more; time flew by, but I only know the duration from the time on my phone. This ambitious work seemed to be a concerto for throat boxer & orchestra. .
Throat boxer? That’s the term Nelson Tagoona has coined for his original use of throat singing, a kind of indigenous hip-hop, merging throat singing and beat boxing into something new.
I’ve heard several of these attempts by the TSO to integrate something like hip hop into their original performance, and have to say this one felt more authentic and genuine than any of the others, possibly because the mash-up wasn’t violent or abrupt but really much simpler and humbler than that. I don’t know whether more credit should go to Britton or Tagoona in finding this common ground. And conductor Gary Kulesha kept everyone together.
My bias might be showing in wishing to simply hear Britton and Tagoona without the dance & video embellishments. I don’t mean to disrespect the many layers of Adizokan, including indigenous vocals coming through the PA overlaid with what Tagoona was creating, both with his brilliant vocals as well as through something that I’d guess to be digital vocording: because it sounded as though Tagoona’s voice was being overlaid in real time with additional harmonies. I am not nearly up on the state of the vocorder art, only that this was very ambient, at times very beautiful. When I say I want to hear the music without any visuals, I am thinking back to the excellent score created by Christos Hatzis for Going Home Star collaborating with Tanya Tagaq, wanting to hear this again and have a chance to digest it on its musical merits alone.
I think Britton & Tagoona created something very original. I’m reminded of two very different touchstones:
- Colin McPhee wrote several orchestral works based on the Balinese music of the gamelan, one of the earliest examples of what we might call minimalism; Britton at times gives us a minimalism with Indigenous overtones, and a very original use of the orchestra
- George Gershwin took the language of jazz and wrote piano concertos without dishonouring either tradition. I think Tagoona & Britton too found a middle ground between their own Indigenous idioms and the world of the symphony & the concerto. There were several moments, some gently meditative, some powerfully climactic, where we had the orchestra working with authentic sounding native voices, married beautifully in that middle ground.
Sandra Laronde of Red Sky Performance took the role of “curator”, and I think that title tells us more than a little about what Adizokan is. There are disparate elements, more of a quilt or a suite of different parts rather than a single unified work. The music with the dance and the video was very powerful, very moving, even if I don’t pretend to understand what it all signified (and again, that’s why I want to hear it again). There were titles to different sections but with the lights out I wasn’t able to follow along, nor to know which part was which, except to feel naturally when we were coming to the end, a segment titled “Epic Future Skies”, including images of stars on the video-screens.
All I know is that it worked for me. I found it very moving, very beautiful.
I hope we get to hear this collaboration between Britton & Tagoona again. Perhaps next time the TSO can make a recording.