Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Last night Swarthmore hosted a performance by Huun-Huur-Tu, the world’s most accomplished Tuvan ensemble. In a packed upper Tarble, the audience of students, faculty and community members listened as the group executed the famed throat-singing technique. The music also included traditional string and percussion instruments. The group will remain on campus Friday to present a how-to workshop about throat singing.
Early arrivals were treated to an opening slide show of pictures from Professor David Harrison’s research visit to Tuva. Then the event began with a short lecture by Theodore Levin of Dartmouth College. Levin, an ethnomusicologist specializing in the music of Central Asia, explained the significant context in which Tuvan music is traditionally performed. Tuva is an autonomous federal subject (republic) of Russia, located in the geographic center of Asia. Their music reflects Tuva’s animist religious tradition; much of the music attempts to imitate the sounds of nature. Singing is seen as a way of interacting with nature in order to become a part of the world as a whole.
Throat singing has been developed by nomadic herders with an emphasis on personal expression. A short video clip of a retired founding member of Huun-Huur-Tu was shown. The audience listened with hushed surprise as a man beside a stream began to create a stream-like sound. At first it was only a low drone, but then a simultaneous whistling overtone mingled with the burbling water.
Huun-Huur-Tu then took the stage in traditional garb. Each song was named for a Tuvan animal, place, or human experience. Tuvan style makes heavy use mimetic scene painting. The sound of the flute evoked soft winds while the percussion often reproduced the hoof beats of horses. Banjo-like string instruments were either bowed or strummed to recreate whistling winds, howling wolves, or the cries of eagles. Above these contextual pictorializations soared the unmistakable sound of khoomei, or throat singing. Each of the four members would create a low drone, above which resonated a birdlike call.
Occasionally an alternate technique would project a pitch well below the range of the normal voice. The sounds of Tuva are unmistakable. The night ended with a powerful depiction of a sacred mountain. The echoing beat of the shaman drum combined with mournful strings to portray a solitary, windswept mountain. The addition of the flute and both khoomei techniques culminated in the precise rendering of animal calls. Trilling birds and howling wolves populated the solitary mountain.
In addition to the performance, Mark van Tongeren gave one of Professor Harrison’s classes further insight into throat singing. Tongeren is an ethnomusicologist who met Professor Harrison in Tuva while doing field work. The multiple pitches throat-singing is known for are created through a process similar to the differentiation of vowels. The sound created by the vocal cords is filtered to emphasize specific overtones. These overtones exist at discrete intervals above the fundamental pitch. As the shape of a throat-singers mouth changes, a melody can be created through the emphasis of different overtones. The class was coached through trying this on their own.
But don’t worry if you missed it! A workshop will be conducted Friday at 3:00 pm in Lang Concert Hall. Huun-Huur-Tu as well as Theodore Levin and Mark van Tongeren will be there to help each and every Swattie produce these amazing sounds. No musical experience is necessary- physics finds your pitches for you. Everyone is encourage to attend and learn about this unique musical tradition.