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  • Carnegie Hall Presents
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Everything You Wanted to Know About Tuvan Throat Singing and Were Afraid to Ask

On February 16, Alash, from the Siberian Republic of Tuva—known for its remarkable throat-singing technique, holding true to the tradition of its ancestors and inspired by master musicians of Central Asia—come to Carnegie Hall for a Zankel Hall concert. Here's a short primer on Tuvan throat singing.

Tuva is a tiny republic in the heart of Central Asia that sits at the southern edge of Siberia, with Mongolia to its south. Over the centuries, Tuva has been part of Chinese and Mongolian empires, and shares many cultural ties with Mongolia. In 1944, it became part of the USSR, and until the late physicist Richard Feynman drew attention to it, was largely unknown to Westerners. Tuva is now a member of the Russian Federation.

The Tuvan way of making music is based on appreciation of complex sounds with multiple layers. Whereas the Western cellist aims to produce a focused, pure tone, the Tuvan igil player enjoys breaking the tone into a spray of sounds and textures. Absolute pitch is less important than richness of texture. Multiple sonorities are heard together as an inseparable whole. This idea may be illustrated by an anecdote about a respected Tuvan musician who was demonstrating the igil, a bowed instrument with two strings tuned a fifth apart. When asked to play each string separately, he refused, saying it wouldn't make any sense. The only meaningful sound was the combination of the two pitches played together.

Tuva's best-known musical genre is the ancient tradition of throat singing (xöömei), a remarkable technique for singing multiple pitches at the same time. The effect has been compared to that of a bagpipe. The singer starts with a low drone. Then, by subtle manipulations of his vocal tract and keen listening, he breaks up the sound, amplifying one or more overtones enough so that they can be heard as additional pitches. The Tuvan listener enjoys the entire array of pitches, hums, and buzzes as aspects of one sound, like facets of a diamond. To listen in this way, a newcomer to throat singing is advised not to focus on the highest pitch (which is the most prominent and often produces a little melody), but rather to listen to the low drone, then bring the middle into focus, then appreciate the entire surrounding sound.

This tradition developed among the nomadic herdsmen of Central Asia—people who lived in yurts; rode horses, raised yaks, sheep, and camels; and had a close spiritual relationship with nature. Throat singing traditionally was done outdoors, and only recently was brought into the concert hall. Singers use their voices to mimic and interact with the sounds of the natural world—whistling birds, bubbling streams, howling wolves, and wind. Throat singing is most commonly done by men. Although custom and superstition have discouraged women from throat singing, this taboo has recently begun to break down.

In Tuvan songs, the complex textures of xöömei often alternate with a simpler melodic use of the voice. Tuvans are great admirers of horses, and their songs are as likely to extol the virtues of fast horses as they are to express love for beautiful women. Just as Western cowboys play guitar or banjo, Tuvan cowboys often accompany themselves with stringed instruments, either plucked or bowed. Many songs are performed to the rhythms of horses trotting or cantering across the open land, and instruments often are decorated with carved horses' heads.

Alash performs "Ekki Attar" ("Good Horses")

For most of the 20th century, Tuva was isolated from the rest of the world by its remote location and Soviet-era travel restrictions. That began to change in the 1980s, when Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton set out on a quest to visit Tuva, a country which for years was known to the West only for its unusual triangular stamps. Feynman and Leighton became early fans of throat singing and brought it to the attention of Europeans and Americans. American ethnomusicologist Ted Levin traveled to Tuva in the late 1980s and brought the group Huun-Huur-Tu to the United States. Throat singing gained a wider Western audience with the release of the Academy Award–nominated film Genghis Blues, which documented the musical journey of the blind American bluesman Paul Pena, who taught himself to throat-sing and traveled to Tuva to take part in a music festival.

Today, Tuvan musical groups—such as Huun-Huur-Tu, Alash, Chirgilchin, and Tyva Kyzy—regularly tour Europe and the US, as well as throughout Russia. Music festivals and throat-singing competitions draw hundreds of international musicians and fans to Tuva each summer. Tuvan musicians, scholars, and organizations are working to preserve the country's unique musical heritage and encouraging young singers to keep it alive.

Related: February 16, Alash