Meet PIQSIQ, Inuit-style throat-singing sisters and inventors of a new instrument called 'the death harp'
Inuksuk Mackay and Tiffany Ayalik craft spellbinding music through improvisation and intimacy
Growing up in Yellowknife, N.W.T., Inuksuk Mackay and Tiffany Ayalik were typical siblings who played and fought constantly. But even as children, they recognized that they were in constant negotiation with each other and so they formalized their relationship.
"We had these agreements that were kind of like rainbow-marker versions of contracts, where we had these clauses and subclauses and 'I shall agree' and we would amend them as needed," Mackay tells CBC Music over Zoom while her sister laughs
"As little kids we did this because we were just like, 'No one's giving us guidance on how to be in relationship to each other, we gotta figure this out,'" Ayalik adds. "'We gotta lawyer up ourselves and figure this out.' We didn't want to fight and we were just constantly fighting. It was on that yellow foolscap paper with the blue lines."
"We had so many friends," Mackay deadpans. "Clearly."
Once it stopped being the two of them against each other, it was the two of them against the world. And in many ways, that's the foundational magic of PIQSIQ [pronounced PILK-SILK].
The siblings have roots in Nunavut's Kitikmeot and Kivalliq regions, but grew up in Yellowknife. Their Nunavut cousins would send them cassette recordings of ancient, traditional throat singing, or katajjaq. Inuit throat singing features two girls or women, standing very close together, face to face — a perfect fit for two creative and curious sisters compelled to practice their culture and participate in their own history.
At the core of it, we're making weird sounds and looping them around and trying to blow people's minds.- Tiffany Ayalik
As Mackay and Ayalik honed their skills over years of hard work, they learned about the Canadian government and Catholic church's attempts to punish, ban and shame Inuit throat singing into near extinction. Throat singing became a radical act of reclamation, music as cultural revitalization, and the sisters were faithful to the traditional elements of throat singing for a long time.
"For years growing up, we only sang the songs in a traditional format, exactly as we had been taught them," Mackay remembers. "And as we got older, we started to realize that we're not traditional, I mean, like, let's be real, we're not living how Inuit lived even, you know, 50, 100 years ago. It truly has changed. And so our focus started to shift, I think. When we were younger, we wanted to soak up every drop of traditional knowledge that we could get our hands on. And then, when we started to become adults, we started to think along the lines of, 'How do we evolve this practice to something that feels authentic to us, as Inuit today?' That's when we started to think about playing with technology, and we're doing these choral arrangements, but it's just the two of us. So how can we enhance this with technology? And so it grew out from there."
Mackay says it became a trust exercise between her and Ayalik, and she feels that comes through in their performance. Each has a deep understanding of celebrating the other's strengths and differences, which helps fuel the experimental nature of their music. PIQSIQ's mesmerizing and complex rhythms, beats and harmonies fuse the digital expanse of electronic music with the intimate, traditional and embodied — Inuit-style throat singing — to create a circle of time, at once ancient, contemporary, and futuristic.
"It's pretty exciting," Mackay says. "I mean, you're taking a pretty big risk every time you perform. You know, it could go any way. The thing that we have on our side is that we're really in sync, we're pretty good at reading what the other person's thinking and are going to do next. So in that way, we're pretty tuned in."
"Yeah, and we really love the electricity that happens when we do the improvised performances," Ayalik says. "Every time it's a great exercise in play and relinquishing control over where you think something should go, because in the moment, the improv gods may have other ideas, and you just have to kind of go with that and see what gifts are offered in the moment. And, you know, there's a thematic life lesson in there as well."
With traditional throat singing — katajjaq — you're inspired by just the ordinary sounds around you in a day.- Inuksuk Mackay
"It also goes kind of against our obsession with perfection, which I really love," Mackay adds. "I mean, the idea that you have to have this perfectly manicured deliverable or it's somehow not acceptable is like — we're quite obsessed with perfection in today's culture, so I feel like it kind of flies in the face of that a little bit."
A real-life sister act
It's interesting to note that all of those dynamics closely parallel sisterhood, too.
"On so many levels!" Ayalik agrees. "We're constantly navigating multiple, multiple layers of relationship, like our big sister, little sister, you know, having tons of history, tons of conflict, all throughout our lives, tons of resolution all throughout our lives. We have a 100 per cent success rate of resolving conflict. You know, business partners, project managers...then just sisters and friends, and at times co-parents for each other [laughs] and being each other's parents."
Ayalik says the pair transition between all of these "hats" as gracefully and fluidly as possible, but they keep everything in perspective by remembering that they're "two dorks that like having fun, creating music, living our little Gothic fantasy and playing make-believe, which is the best. At the core of it, that's what we're doing: we're making weird sounds and looping them around and trying to blow people's minds."
From PIQSIQ's debut EP, 2018's Altering the Timeline, minds have been blown. Their newest single, which dropped just last week, features the pair in collaboration with another duo, Finnish band VILDÁ, which combines ancient Sámi singing and the accordion. The powerful track "Ovddos / Hivumuuniq" is part of a project by Folk Music Canada pairing Canadian bands with international acts to collaborate to write and produce a song together.
And PIQSIQ has more new music ahead, including the two new compositions the sisters shared with CBC Music's The Intro, hosted by Saroja Coelho. The songs haven't been performed publicly before, and the only thing Mackay and Ayalik can say in this interview is that they know the names of the songs. First, is "Seascape."
"In true PIQSIQ fashion, we're going to make it up on the spot!" Mackay laughs.
"We know the world of sound that we'll draw from and a lot of the time when we're performing we'll riff on a theme," Ayalik explains. "So you know, we'll say we'll get together before a set and be like, 'Hey, what are we feeling today?' And we'll just sort of make these notes. Even just one-word inspirations so that we're on the same page, in the same universe. And then we'll run with it from there."
The second song is called "Run," and Ayalik acknowledges that both are "quite evocative," which is useful when they write their setlists. The sisters the titles as prompts, and that "gentle framework" is its own kind of liberation.
"That's how we construct the improvisational part of our music," Ayalik explains. "And then we do have pre-recorded songs that we also perform. But at least those words have been pretty steadily evocative and inspiring. Things to work from because they also are quite open. 'Run' is just like a fun run in the wilderness, or are you running from danger? Are you running towards something? Are you running away from something?"
"And that's pretty true to the form, too," Mackay says. "I mean, we, with traditional throat singing — katajjaq — you're inspired by just the ordinary sounds around you in a day. So chores, animals, emotions, you know, anything that you hear happening around you in the aural world. So taking those little everyday inspirations and transforming them into something kind of magical, is how we also do our modern-day sets. It's that same spirit."
Inventing a whole new sound
PIQSIQ are also working on a unique labour of love for their next record. They are inventing their own instrument made up of two fully mounted skull and caribou antler pieces, fit together and strung up like a harp. It can be plucked like a harp and also bowed like a cello. They call it the "death harp."
"We also have two whale ribs that we're constructing and two bows, so that we can also play our bow made from a whale baleen and a whale bone," Ayalik says. "So it's going to be this beautiful, viscerally, incredibly stunning piece of music instrument technology, that's going to be a blend of the land and the sea."
They don't know exactly what the death harp will sound like yet, but Ayalik anticipates a "gnarly electric guitar. We're hoping that it's got kind of a nice edge to it as well. But then the nice thing about being able to play with a bow is that we'll be able to create these drones and have lots of texture introduced. I think we'll be able to get an octave out of the strings."
"You just wake up one morning, have a cup of coffee and you're like, 'I want a death harp,'" Mackay says, laughing. "You know, standard stuff."
Well, standard stuff when you're PIQSIQ, at least.