FERTILITY RITES for five-octave marimba and tape. 1997. Commissioned by Beverley Johnston with funds from the Grants To Composers Program of the Toronto Arts Council. Score, part and CD available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.




Fertility Rites.

Beverley Johnston, marimba.
Angela Atagootak and Pauline Kyak, throat singers

Fertility Rites for five-octave marimba and tape is part of a series of works all written in the 1990-ies. The connecting thread that runs through all of these works is Inuit throat singing. My fascination with the Inuit and their culture started in 1992 during the course of creating a radio documentary/composition for CBC Radio called The Idea of Canada. That was the first time I heard this strange and haunting music. A few years later I got myself involved in a similar project this time focusing entirely on Inuit culture and throat singing in particular. This latter project took CBC producer Keith Horner and me to Baffin Island in arctic Canada where we spent two weeks recording throat singers and interviewing elders of the Inuit communities in Iqaluit and Cape Dorset. The recorded material was eventually used in four compositions (including this one) the other three being Footprints in New Snow, a thirty-eight minute radio documentary/composition, Nunavut for string quartet and tape and Hunter's Dream, an one-minute miniature commissioned by rock keyboardist Morgan Fisher for a compact disc of miniatures he was producing at the time in Japan.

The title of the work derives from the throat songs themselves. In one of our interviews in Iqaluit Keith and I learned that throat songs were originally a fertility ritual, a shamanistic mating call which the women performed while the men were out hunting. The katajjaq (vocal games) in this piece are used to evoke this primordial practice. Their sexual suggestiveness is further enhanced by electronic processing (lowering the pitch by an octave or more transforms the original sound into a semblance of heavy breathing), or through juxtaposing the katajjaq against other types of amorous music stylistically more familiar to the listener, such as the 'French-sounding' second movement or the tango-like music of the third. In addition to the katajjaq samples, the tape part consists of prerecorded marimba sounds (normal, 'bent' and bowed) which both in terms of timbre and musical treatment represent a virtual extension of the instrument's abilities. In a programmatic sense they represent the performer's 'thoughts' or 'instincts' in contrast to the instrument on stage which represents the performer's 'voice'. Sometimes what is being 'felt' and what is being 'said' are diametrically opposed, like in the first movement where the gentle, non-possessive music for the marimba and the dark, longing calls on the tape contradict each other. But in the end both inner and outer worlds merge into uninhibited abandon and celebration of sexuality and life.

Premiere performance: April 4, 1997; Faculty Artist Series, Walter Hall, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. Beverley Johnston, marimba.

Reviews and Comments:


Sonic magic with a joyous groove
The program's other piece incorporating vocal sounds was Christos Hatzis's Fertility Rites (1997), which put them to different use. The work is for five-octave marimba and tape, with the tape's raw materials being marimba sounds and snippets of Inuit throat-singing (katajjaq). Both sources are electronically manipulated and distorted in various ways. The sound environment is a fascinating one. The marimba elements of the tape part sounded, in performance, as though they emanated from the live instrument, which consequently could do all sorts of impossible things. It was fascinating, for example, to see a mallet hit a note and then hear the decaying pitch bounce up and down as it faded, or spawn a cloud of ghostly echoes of itself. Bowed marimba elements came in too, contributing an aura of rich, sustained sounds that occasionally verged on the New Age-ish. Hatzis writes that the katajjaq elements, derived from Inuit fertility chants, are "sexually suggestive," especially since the electronic processing lowers their pitch to create a "semblance of heavy breathing." Having heard this sort of material used in embarrassingly lame fashion in rather a lot of tape-based music, I admit that I braced myself for more of the same. Actually, the chants were put to amazingly effective use. Several times Hatzis set up an irresistible groove that combined with the live and virtual marimbas in a rush of increasingly chaotic and joyous energy. (For one long stretch the super-marimba overlaid the groove with a sort of deliriously elaborated café music.) In Hatzis's programmatic conceit, the live player's "voice" is the instrument, the taped sounds his "thoughts" and "instincts." The piece made vivid the complex feedback between thinking, saying, thinking about the utterance, uttering the thought. It was a compositional tour de force. And a playerly one, too: Marimbist Mario Boivin attacked his part with spectacular control and flair. Michelle Dulak Thomson  SAN FRANCISCO CLASSICAL VOICE (USA) October 14, 2006

Percussionist Johnston brilliant on Fertility Rites

Wednesday night’s Scotia Festival concert in the Sir James Dunn Theatre with the Super Nova Quartet and percussionist Beverley Johnston showed something of the imaginative range of composer-in-residence Christos Hatzis. Fertility Rites featured the virtuosic musical energy of Beverley Johnston. It’s for five-octave marimba and tape and is one of four works Hatzis composed which were inspired by Inuit throat-singing. Taking part in what is both a game and a fertility rite, throat-singers face each other and pant hoarsely back and forth, setting up patterns at top speed and trying to make each other miss a beat. The implications are sexual. The tape consisted of throat singing and marimba effects so skillfully merged into the score that at times the ear fails to discover whether the sound is coming from the real-time instrument or the tape. It builds in complexity over two movements to a stunning final movement which sounds like a be-bop jazz improvisation in a tremendous explosion of energy played with unparalleled brilliance by Johnston. Stephen Pedersen, THE CHRONICLE-HERALD (Canada) June 1, 2007

It was, by any standard, an incredible night. Nearly 500 people packed Neptune Theatre's sold-out Fountain Hall on Saturday night...At the end after a profoundly moving musical collage of works by Scotia Festival composer-in-residence Christos Hatzis that was based on Cape Dorset throat singing, they rose as one to shout bravo and whack their hands together as only those do who have undergone the emotional sea change wrought in the heart by the sublime. In Fertility Rites, the incomparable Canadian percussionist Beverly Johnston, for whom the work was written, created utter simplicity out of a ferociously complex interplay of rhythms both in her own part and in her interaction with the equally complex tape. Nunavut, played by the Blue Engine String Quartet against both the persistent ground of altered throat song and a tape of strings enhanced by the most delicate kind of resonances, was the final work on the program...This musical double entendre infused the sweet lyricism of some passages with a subtle but irresistible melancholy that caused many members of the audience to weep silently in their seats. the concert...was touched with genius. It was a unique experience, a kind of psychological chemical reaction caused by bringing all its creative artistic elements into contact with one another...The music...connected us to a powerful and concrete sense of life in the North, to its discernible roots in the ancient past, and to that sense of vastness that haunts our country and deeply permeates the subconscious of all Canadians. If that's not sublime, what is? Stephen Pedersen, THE CHRONICLE-HERALD (Canada) June 1998


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