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is irresistibly attracted to the North.
In 2006 he
found himself in the Yukon, dogsledding with the Kronos Quartet
For a composer with a love of the Arctic it doesn't get better, or more surreal, than this.
A few days earlier he
had been in a Whitehorse hotel room where Kronos
was rehearsing Cercle du Nord III, which they had commissioned from him.
Walking into that first rehearsal was a pivotal moment for the thirty-one-year-old composer.
After a few days of intense work with the quartet, as well as just hanging out with them in the Arctic, Charke
found them to be so open and so intent on seeking out the very heart of his
music that he
realized they and he
were kindred spirits.
The Arctic is by no means the sole inspiration or single subject of Charke's
Among the many components that contribute to his
individual voice is his
persistent refusal to label himself with a single style or language.
A winner of the 2012 Juno Award for Classical Composition of The Year for Sepia Fragments, a string quartet commissioned by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Charke
is also an accomplished flutist and a professor of composition.
But during time spent studying in North Texas, Buffalo, London, and The Netherlands, and now living in Nova Scotia, Charke
has kept returning in body and mind to the Far North.
first visited the North in 1994 on a road trip with his
twin brother, during summer break.
The main point of the trip was simply to get away, but something in the vastness and remoteness of the Arctic took hold of him.
returned to undergraduate studies at the University of North Texas
carried those impressions with him, along with a subscription to The Inuvik Drum
, a weekly newspaper.
After graduating from North Texas and before beginning a masters in flute performance at SUNY in Buffalo, Charke returned to live in the Arctic.
This time he
could appreciate more of the idiosyncrasies that are often overshadowed by the mythology of the place, and which had become evident when he
had read the Inuvik Drum
back in Texas.
The paper had a regular feature-"like a tabloid has its cover girl page," he
"But the Inuvik
paper featured the 'traffic accident of the week.'" Such quirky anomalies of the North-which, after all only, make it more like anywhere else-were gradually becoming a part of his
larger, more complex picture of the Arctic.
And this only intensified its allure for him.
There were many moments while living in Inuvik
never wanted to leave.
But he also knew that his studies were not done, and if he was to become a professional composer and flutist, he could not stay there.
This "extends beyond pitch material itself," Charke
It is a somewhat elusive process through which, in composing, you try to find the idea that clashes in just the right way with the other musical materials that make up the piece.
"If you have a pre-compositional plan, you have to introduce the wrong note, or something quirky.
This keeps the piece vibrant.
As a listener, you never know if what you anticipate is going to fulfill itself.
That wrong note might be the Damascus moment in that piece."
trips to the North, Charke
had come across Inuit throat singing.
Throat singing's rhythmic complexity-within-simplicity suited his
musical language, and the deep, guttural expressiveness of it offered great dramatic promise.
It was during his
time at SUNY
finally had the opportunity to join his
love of the North with his
to meet him in Waterloo, where Kronos
was giving a concert.
"I drove down and met him in an Indian restaurant," Charke
In this, his
first experience of field recording, Charke
ran into some difficulties.
"From being there, I had always thought it was very quiet," he
This points to a subtle but consistent undercurrent in Charke's
We are all struck, as Charke
was, by the Arctic's mythology, the picture of a vast, unblemished, empty expanse of ice and snow.
But reality is not experienced on this mythic level.
The recordings could not block out the noise, so noise became a part of the music.
also points to the cultural ambiguities that a more idealized treatment of the subject might tune out.
"There's nothing that different about kids growing up in these places versus the rest of Canada," he
"All the younger generation want to be a part of what's happening everywhere else.
And so this whole mythology of what I originally thought of as the North, versus the reality of what it actually is, that's what I particularly found striking; and it stems back to that first time I went back to Inuvik
to start recording the sounds and saw that this is actually the reality of what the North is right now.
There's still this mythology, but they're in the twenty-first century as much as we are.
It was interesting for me to make that connection early on.
And then when I'm composing and thinking about the place, that's something that really comes into my thought process."
Having a multifaceted appreciation of the North, Charke
does not simply paint a descriptive landscape.
In spite of using site-specific recordings, some of which evoke imagery, and using cultural references like throat singing, what he
composes is not representational.
is true to his
word as an avowed writer of absolute music.
uses these referential sounds as pure musical materials, and he
molds them, connects them, chisels away at them like a sculptor.
In fact, he
is prone to compare his
method to sculpting-ideas being like clay or stone, which he
reshapes until the work is extracted from them.
In the wind-blown opening of Kronos-commissioned Cercle du Nord III-the sounds of dogs barking their complaints into the bleak cold air-the listener feels like he
is being placed in a scene; but after a minute, with the entrance of the quartet, the pictorial clarity of the scene is blown apart by the hacking sound of open strings and blasted away by a throat-song-like locomotive.
This is a purely musical event, not part of a programmatic narrative.
As the work continues along through Charke's
distinctively dramatic twists and turns, it might suggest here and there that we are situated "somewhere," but only because the sounds do, after all, come from somewhere, lending themselves to a trompe-d'oreille effect, suggesting a location, and perhaps a narrative.
In 2006 David Harrington met with Charke
and reported how happy the quartet was with Cercle du Nord III.
admits that Tundra Songs is a more idealized take on the North: the extraneous noise, the sonic grit, which he
used in Cercle du Nord III, is missing.
"I think you hear the skidoo only once in Tundra Songs," Charke
"Tundra Songs is a very personal work for me," says Charke
"Even this summer, when I was in Pond Inlet, I didn't want to return south again.
I know this is a strange thing, but I really do like being in the North, and the Far North in particular.
There's something about the location, the people, and the culture that resonates with me. Tundra Songs, I believe, expresses my own emotions of being in that place."
It is clear that his experiences with the Kronos Quartet
in Whitehorse marked a turning point for Derek Charke
, but Tanya Tagaq made a significant impact of her own.
There are differences and similarities between Charke
the composer and Tagaq
the throat singer that make for a powerful combination.
In the soundscape, Charke
uses vocal samples of Tagaq
along with his usual collection of field recordings from the North, as well as sounds that he produced by- among other tricks-rubbing pieces of styrofoam together.
recorded improvisations both as musical material and as a structural template.
likes to think of his
own process as a single thread from beginning to end.
spent three days working on five minutes of the recorded Nanook improvisation, trying to line up all the musical material with the multilayered interplay of rhythmic, melodic, and metric development between her
two improvised tracks.
is hooked on sound.
The Arctic speaks to him, sings to him, through sound.
captures those sounds in field recordings, and, through his
music, allows the North to speak to his
"I love to work with these sounds.
I love to hear them.
And I hope it comes across in the music that I really care."
Audio: Nanook of the North (Excerpt from the soundscape, 2012).
Composed by: Tanya Tagaq and Derek Charke
Image: Derek Charke
, courtesy of the artist.