Alash: A Preview of Tuvan-throat singing

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.

This Wednesday, Swarthmore students will have an opportunity to attend a unique musical performance. At 7:00 pm on the main stage of LPAC, the college welcomes Alash, a musical group that will perform a cultural repertoire of Tuvan-throat singing.

Sponsored by the Music and Linguistics Departments, Alash is a musical group from Tuva, a small country in Inner Asia at the south of Siberia with ties to Chinese and Mongolian culture. Their music is distinguished by a long tradition of throat singing, called xöömei in Tuvan. On the contrary, the term “throat singing,” is a misnomer, since the vocalist does not strain his or her voice.

Throat singing focuses on timbral richness rather than absolute pitch or melody, blending a variety of sonorities into a whole. Pentatonic scales enrich the sound into an exotic yet harmonious mixture. To accomplish the blending effect, singers begin with a low drone, and then amplify few select overtones to create additional pitches. Although listeners may be used to searching for a distinct melody, Tuvans listen to the array of pitches, hums and buzzes as one sound. During the performance, try to listen to the low drone, and then search for the middle drone to bring the surrounding sounds in focus. If you would like to hear an excerpt, check out http://www.alashensemble.com/.

Because Tuva has a prevalent nomadic society, their music and worldview is greatly influenced by their pastoral lifestyle. For example, Tuvans greatly love horses, and thus it is not uncommon for them to praise the beauty and speed of a horse as they are to express love for a beautiful woman.

Although Tuvan music is dominated by the voice, additional instruments often accompany performances. Attendees will notice an igil, a bowed instrument with two strings tuned a fifth apart. Although one may wonder why the player does not bow the strings separately, Tuvans believe the sound is only meaningful when the two pitches are played together. It is also common for their instruments to be decorated with traditionally carved horses’ heads.

The Linguistics Department offers students a chance to explore the language by taking Ling. 64, “The Structure of Tuvan.” Tuva is a Siberian Turkic language spoken by less than 300,000 people in Siberia and small communities in Mongolia and China. Swarthmore College is currently the only institution that teaches the language outside of Tuva.

“Alash represents a cultural bridge between nomadic steppe culture and the post-modern world, fusing both traditions. They are true virtuosos, and we are lucky to have them here at the college for a concert and vocal master class,” comments K. David Harrison, Associate Professor of the Linguistics Department, who currently teaches Tuvan. In addition to sponsoring the performance, Professor Harrison has worked with students to host a Tuvan-English online talking dictionary, which can be found at www.tuvan.swarthmore.edu.

This is a rare opportunity for Swarthmore students to supplement their linguistics course with a live cultural performance. Even for students not in the course, Alash is a rare opportunity to hear not only a blend of timbre and drone, but of traditional and post-modern, a unification of two distinct cultures.

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