Perfect Sound Forever

Christos Hatzis and the Katajjaq

Hatzis in 2007

by W.C. Bamberger
(August 2009)

RECORDINGS OF THROAT singing from the Asian steppes swept through World Music consciousness some 20 years ago. They presented sounds as sinewy and strong as the Tuvans who produced them. The only time I experienced this kind of throat singing live was in the person of a Mongolian man who shared a stage with singer Patti Smith. He stood near Smith, his hands at his sides, looking hesitant and distinctly nerd-like next to the relaxed energy of Smith and her guitarists, Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray. But when he opened his mouth, his stiff body became a hollow vessel, a human trumpet of bone and cartilage given over entirely to the gathering and projecting of the droning, whistling sounds that seemed to rise up out of the earth itself, through the polished wood of the stage, and move through him like a flame of sound. But there are other throat singing traditions, some athletic or social, some with spiritual dimensions.

In the Canadian arctic a tradition of Inuit throat singing has been revived as a kind of social and cultural compass point. Inuit singers aren't interested in producing transcendent flames, but in playing games. The sound of the Inuit throat singing doesn't evoke the body of the earth, but the transient action of elements on its surface: the flare of sun on ice, the persistent audible pass of the wind, the cries of birds, the climate where the weather can change at a half-a-moment's notice beneath a sky of weeks-long days and endless nights, and of the necessary cohesive social dynamics of the people navigating through this arctic world. The quick guttural inhaling/exhaling songs of two competing singers meet and match in their games, one following the other like quick birds racing in flight, and end not on a note of triumph, but with the mutual release of laughter.

Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis has written several works exploring the interaction of this atavistic style with modern Western music and recording techniques. Among these are String Quartet no. 1 (The Awakening) (1994), and the radio documentary Footprints in New Snow (1996).1

Hatzis grew up in Greece under the rule of a military junta. He studied music in the U.S. and immigrated to Canada in 1982. A decade later, he heard the news that Canada's aboriginal people had been officially denied their wish to be granted recognition as a distinct society (the two cultures had difficulty even finding common terms for negotiations on self-government, the central government insisting on a detailed list of powers, something the aboriginal governments resisted; and the central government insisting it would "grant" rights, while the aboriginals held that if something was granted it was not a "right"). Another sobering item that caught his attention was the news of a sudden increase in suicide rates among Inuit youth during the winter of 1994. Suicide rates among the Inuit and other aboriginal peoples have long approached three times that of the European-Canadian population. Studies listed factors such as poverty and "despiritualization." It was also found that suicide rates were higher in the more southerly regions, where the Inuit had more contact with the dominant culture, and the native culture was particularly frayed.2 Frontiers can often be dangerous places. But they can also be fertile ones. Hatzis has said that it was the news of the suicide rate that "set the tone" for his first string quartet; set him exploring along the frontier where news and memory, modern technology and traditional culture meet.

Only two years earlier, in 1992, during this period when the disintegration of Inuit society was becoming particularly visible, Hatzis first heard recordings of Inuit throat singing, in the Katajjaq. The Katajjaq is a two-person game, usually played by women. The pair stands very close, facing one another. One singer leads, while the other follows, with the follower imitating or filling in the gaps of the sounds of the leader. The sounds can be Inuit words, imitations of natural or other sounds; the singing is guttural, repetitive. Sounds are made both while inhaling and exhaling, in bucksaw-rough, cut-time-sounding patterns, a kind of chuffing (one ethnomusicology student's online posting describes the singers as being "canonically crossdephased like pistons in action!").3 The game goes on until the follower can't keep up or the leader runs out of ideas, and the singers begin to laugh as a sign that the game is over. This tradition had become nearly extinct, but in the last 30 years has undergone a revival among the Inuit. A number of websites now feature sound or video clips of these games (Hatzis is not the only composer to use these sounds in or as inspiration for composition; others include T. Patrick Carrabre's Inuit Games, and Derek Charke's Twenty-two Inuit throat song games (Katajak) 4).

Hatzis's first work to incorporate the sounds of Katajjaq was the string quartet, The Awakening. This was written in 1994, and has been released on CD in two versions, the first time in 2002 by a quartet including Annalee Patipatanakoon from the Gryphon Trio, and again at the end of 2004 by the St. Lawrence String Quartet.5 As the work is for string quartet and prepared tape, the performances are virtually the same length, and the recorded sounds--of trains, Inuit singers, and more--are (theoretically) identical. Still, I have a slight preference for the first version (which I heard second), as the dryness of the production captures the sound of the instruments as strings over wooden bodies, and the sound of voices as shaped by the muscular irregularity of human throats. The production of the second adds a slight shimmer so that the strings and the voices are closer to pure sounds, without the organic husk heard on the other, and the clatter of the trains is closer to our ears. The second is slightly spookier, with the strings closer to wires vibrating in a cold wind, and the sounds of the trains having distinct overtones of descending helicopters, a particularly frightening sound to those of us who have had the sounds of modern warfare broadcast into our homes.

The quartet opens with a duet of times, with the recorded huffing of a train underlying a violin in real time, playing a three-note figure in staggered repetitions. The trains, for Hatzis, represent the inexorable force of progress as it moved across Canada. The train fades and a recording of an Inuit singer takes its place among the stirrings of the quartet. Hatzis has said that he organized the three elements--the string quartet, the recording of the Katajjaq and the recording of the trains--as "a synthesis that is not necessarily logical." The voices are meant "in a sense," to be exorcising the trains, but they give ground only grudgingly. Initially, the strings circle together in a middle space, halfway between the mechanical ghostliness of the trains and the resistant vocal power of the singers. The strings again and again offer three note figures, with a sound at once plaintive and rising in the hesitant swells of wings trying to open. Toward the end of the first movement, the violins move into a range as high as the borealis, while the lower strings take up the rhythmic ground the now-absent trains had staked out, and the movement ends with a tilde of uncertainty.

The second movement opens with a rosiny burr of strings, aural bolls of cotton or ice fog. The high strings contribute a descending figure like a watch unwinding. The low strings bow their way into a lovely melody, shadowed by recorded sounds of arctic wind. The entire movement proceeds by way of beauty and the melancholy of perseverance as the theme and variations work their way up through the quartet's range, ending in a high jangling over a low rasp of warning. The third movement opens like a flock of anxious birds calling for a bearing: the up/down pulse as shrill clatter (think Psycho theme without its joy in hovering over violence.) The driving strings and voices offer direction, and the movement is a tug of war between their directing pulse and the strings' skittering anxiety. In the movement's concluding moments, the pell-mell clatter of the trains returns.

The main melody returns to open the fourth movement, and a minute and a half in the music shakes itself and begins to swell with energy. The quartet ends on a note as shimmering and high as Polaris over ice.

Hatzis writes that,

[All] these sounds--the locomotives, the locomotive-like throat singing, and the constant up-bow, down-bow articulations of the strings--become a metaphor for the endless cycles of creation and destruction which determines the fate of individuals, nations and humanity as a whole.6
But it is the gripping string writing that holds the listener's attention, and pulls at our emotions. The taped elements, dominant in their ear-catching novelty when they are present and never completely forgotten when they are "off-stage," actually play only a modest role in the music itself. Hatzis uses them to suggest a cultural context--and conflict--without ever letting them reduce the quartet to background music for Grand Intentions. In synopsis, The Awakening can sound like program music, but it is tough, emotional and absolutely unique "pure" music.

IT WASN'T UNTIL the year after he wrote this first "string quartet with prepared tape" that Hatzis experienced the Katajjaq first-hand. In June of 1995, Hatzis and a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer traveled to Baffin Island to collect sounds. There they recorded eight throat singers and conducted interviews with members of the Island's population. They also recorded ambient sounds--wind, melting ice, huskies, birds, airplanes, wolves and, yes, the sound of footprints in new snow. Using these recordings Hatzis produced the radio documentary Footprints in New Snow. The title was borrowed from a policy paper issued by natives working out how their new territory might look7 (borrowing the title was little different from the other field recordings the pair made on the same trip: the reproduction of a sound from the humanscape).

In assembling the documentary Hatzis--who, "in spite of [his] intense interest in Inuit culture... was racially an 'outsider'"--had his first sustained engagement with questions of "cultural appropriation."8 Contrast this, from Hatzis' brief note for the CD of Footprints (2002),

This CD is the result of my encounter with a culture and a people who have left a lasting impression on me... The magic of the arctic north, its people and particularly their vocal games have become an obsession with me for a number of years and the works in this CD are the creative testimony of this obsession.
To this, from the CD Awakening, written three years later:
[The Awakening] was influenced by my personal awakening to the richness of Canada's native cultures, and to how immigrant cultures like my own confronted and nearly destroyed them.
A few word changes, a large shift in outlook. How does a composer's personal obsession become marbled with this kind of second-hand cultural guilt? Hatzis himself had been the victim of the junta's oppression in his home country. Why does he choose to associate himself with the "immigrant cultures" that victimized the native populations? "White European guilt"? Whatever the answer to this question, however deep his hesitation, the lure of working along this newly discovered artistic frontier pushed him forward even as some of his doubts lingered:
[Incorporating] cultural aspects of the north into a work which was partly a documentary and partly a creative artistic statement, was a novel concept and a potentially controversial one. 9
And there was another element, another aspect of the equation in addition to the questions of appropriation and creativity, one which at first must have seemed specific to the form of radio documentary, but in the end, had much larger implications. This element was the question and power of context. Concert recordings of throat singers had previously been broadcast by the CBC, but had prompted barely a ripple of response. CBC approached Hatzis hoping he would act as a "cultural translator," who would present Inuit throat singing--and an accompaniment of interpretation and comment--in a way that would engage their listeners more fully. Hatzis accepted the challenge, but it made him uneasy even as he did so. He asked himself, was this "Postmodernism or Cultural Appropriation?"10 And his grappling with this question is only one facet of the encounter between Katajjaq and the immigrant culture that has alternately tried to exterminate, then to elevate the style.

Why the sound of Katajjaq nearly vanished is due to a number of things--with a deep conviction about the wishes of God being a major reason. Hatzis includes the words of a bishop in Nunavut as part of the audio scrimshaw of Footprints In New Snow, and the bishop points specifically to missionaries out of England.

I think the missionaries came down very strongly on anything which was allied with shamanism. They saw this as necessary to make a complete break with the old way of life. I think nowadays, perhaps, we're a bit more regretful that they did this. But, you can't blame them. They were Victorian gentlemen, whose ideas of the Gospel were often circumvented by their own Victorian ideas. . . .
And perhaps it is as a reminder to himself that Hatzis includes in Footprints in New Snow this and a further comment by the same bishop:
That's the way it was in those days. You brought your own religion, and, on its coattails, you brought much of your culture, as well.
Hatzis certainly means to bring his Christian faith to everything he does, but it is largely invisible here. What matters more is that he necessarily brings his (specialized musical) culture with him when he composes. A quick inventory of everything Hatzis includes not just in the audio artifact that is Footprints in new Snow, but in its creation as well, would include at the very least the following: Arctic traditions, postmodern techniques, the human voice at its most direct, electronic manipulation of sound, at least two languages, documentary distance and emotional investment, identification with the land and an outsider's alienation, man-made and natural sounds, original and borrowed materials, the fragility of lives at a frontier and strategies to bring what had been isolated to a world-wide audience. No Victorian gentleman he. This list may sound over-blown, but it is by no means complete.

The documentary opens with "Welcoming Song." The sound of the opening is as narrow and flat as that of an old radio or walkie-talkie, but it soon blooms into full fidelity--as if to evoke a gradual approach to the sound from the far side of a cultural frontier. The documentary consists of ambient noises interleaved with the voices of the natives of Baffin Island as they speak about their idea of the arctic, the wind, the smell of the earth, the mosses and lichens, the limitless horizon. They also talk about throat singing, even offer some thought-provoking contrasts to Western music when comparing the games to fireworks:

I always thought that when white people talk about climaxing, they see fireworks... We didn't have any fireworks, or that kind of thing. It was never practiced for many, many years. It now has become a great entertainment... and keeping our culture at what it is today.
This almost says that throat-singing games are like sex. But this same speaker, Jonah Kelly, an elder of the Iqaluit community, also admits,
I don't know [what the singers are saying], I've never really gone into the details of it... I would be embarrassed to say exactly what they did, if I'd known...
And here is a paradox: the emigrants, the Victorians, tried to stamp out the singing because they felt it had a meaning that would keep the Inuit tightly knit. And the heavy hand of the Victorians smothered at least some of the original meaning and intent. The Inuit, have saved the form of the singing, but the original meaning--verbal and social--has largely been lost. For most of the Inuit listeners at least, it is now entertainment only. For others, it is a way of helping to maintain pride in their culture. This new meaning is a post-modern, self-conscious one.

A cold eye would see this revival as cultural theatre; the present Inuit culture in a direct line from a hundred years ago is in fact a culture of snowmobiles and ipods. Hatzis avoids this artificiality by using the voices in a context that openly declares it has nothing to do with the Inuit culture. A case might even be made that the use of found sound to create new ideas is, arguably, a more valuable, even a more alive tradition than that of the staged recreations of the traditional games.

So finally, it is with questions of identity that both the Inuit and Hatzis concern themselves here in their music. Identities--emigrant or native, white man or Inuit--are not lost or burdened by Hatzis's work, nor by the postmodern tradition project of the Inuit, who are using the Katajjaq in adapting to their new reality. In both cases the music is expanded, "culturally translated" (in the CBC's phrase), and given new life.

In Hatzis's case in particular, questions of guilt are marginalized, of appropriation negated, by the power of the music and documentary collage he has created. Neither the lives nor the music--not the Katajjaq; not the Western string quartet--remain the same as they were before Hatzis brought them together. Hatzis's frontier is a place not of suicide, neither physical nor cultural, but of illumination and new and deeper life for all the elements--again, tradition and technology, Inuit song and string quartet, survival and innovation, and more--that meet there to create a new music.


1. A full recording of The Awakening, by the Cassatt Quartet for a Winnipeg new music festival in January 2003, and other of the works mentioned here are available on the Canadian Music Centre's website, at Other recordings are available on the CDs listed below.

2. See, for example, James B. Waldram, "Aboriginal Peoples of Canada: Colonialism and Mental Health," in Ihsan Al-Issa and Michael Tousignant (ed.), Ethnicity, Immigration and Psychopathy (N.Y.: Plenum Books, 1997), 173, 181.

3. Robert Beahrs,

4. A recording of Carrabre's piece, and the score of Charke's songs are also available at Chakre also has sound clips available on his website.

5. The first recording, released as part of the double CD Everlasting Light/Footprints in New Snow (CBC Records MVCD 11562) actually does not give a recording date. 2002 is the release date. The second, Awakening (EMI 7243 5 58038 2 5), released in 2005, gives December 1518 2004 as a recording date. Yet another recording, by the Cassatt Quartet, is available on the Canadian Music Centre website (see n1). The full, dry sound of the recording is closer to the Footprints version than to the EMI. Footprints also includes two shorter works that incorporate recordings of Inuit singers.

6. From the composer's notes for the EMI recording.

7. See note 5 for CD details.

8. Hatzis, "Footprints in New Snow: Postmodernism or Cultural Appropriation?" Posted on Hatzis's website, The papers posted here show that in addition to being a composer, Hatzis is an accomplished writer on subjects ranging from musical history to sociology to his Christian faith to philosophy.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

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