Performance Saturday, February 16, 2013 | 10 PM


Zankel Hall
Alash, from the Siberian Republic of Tuva, is known for its remarkable throat-singing technique, holding true to the tradition of its ancestors and inspired by master musicians of Central Asia.

This concert is part of Late Nights at Zankel Hall.


  • Alash


  • Alash

    Alash, a trio of master throat singers (xöömeizhi) from Tuva, takes its name from the Alash River, which runs through the northwestern region of Tuva. Inspired by the music of their grandparents, great-grandparents, and the great musicians of Tuva and Central Asia, the Alash members have also been influenced by such Western artists as Sun Ra and Jimi Hendrix. All members of Alash were trained in traditional Tuvan music since childhood, first learning from their families, and later becoming students of master throat singers. In 1999, as students at the Kyzyl Arts College, they formed a group called Changy-Xaya that soon became the resident traditional ensemble on campus. At the same time, they learned about Western music, practiced on hybrid Tuvan-European instruments, and listened to new trends coming out of America. Under the guidance of Kongar-ool Ondar (best known to Western audiences for his role in the film Genghis Blues), they began to forge a new musical identity. They introduced the guitar and sometimes even the Russian bayan (accordion) into their arrangements, alongside their traditional Tuvan instruments. They experimented with new harmonies and song structures, producing an intriguing mixture of old and new.

    Alash's inaugural US tour was sponsored in 2006 by the Open World Leadership program of the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since then, the ensemble has toured extensively. Working across musical genres, Alash has collaborated with such diverse groups as the Sun Ra Arkestra, The Horse Flies, and musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's Student Producers program. They also made a guest appearance on the Grammy-winning holiday CD Jingle All the Way by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

    Both the Alash ensemble and individual members have won top honors in throat singing competitions. The ensemble was awarded first prize in Tuva's International Xöömei Symposium competition in 2004. Alash members play in the Tuvan National Orchestra, which has won both first prize and grand prize in the All-Russia National Orchestra and Ensemble Competition.

    Bady-Dorzhu Ondar
    was born in 1984 in the small village of Iyme. At age four, he was discovered by Kongar-ool Ondar, who took him on as a student. A few years later, Kongar-ool brought along his young protégé when he toured the United States, where they appeared on the David Letterman and Chevy Chase shows. Bady-Dorzhu has a bachelor's degree from the Kyzyl Arts College and master's degree from the East Siberia State Academy of Culture and Art in Ulan-Ude. He has toured Russia, Europe, Canada, and the United States. He won best soloist at the 2005 All-Russia National Orchestra and Ensemble Competition, and best in competition at the 2006 Maxim Dakpai xöömei contest. In 2007, he was named a "People's Xöömeizhi" of the Republic of Tuva, the youngest person ever to receive this prestigious award for throat singing. At the 2008 Xöömei Symposium, Bady-Dorzhu was awarded grand prize. He specializes in the kargyraa style of throat singing, and is especially accomplished on the igil and the guitar, being a great fan of Jimi Hendrix.

    Ayan-ool Sam
    was born in 1983 in the Erzin Kozhuun region of Tuva. When he was in the fourth grade, he began studying with Kongar-ool Ondar at the Republic School for the Arts in Kyzyl. After completing a bachelor's degree at the Kyzyl Arts College, he continued his studies at the Moscow State Pedagogical University. Ayan-ool has toured Russia, Taiwan, Europe, and the United States. He was awarded first prize for throat singing at the 2008 Xöömei Symposium, and grand prize at Dembildei in 2010 and 2012. He performs all styles of Tuvan throat singing and is best known for his exceptional ezenggileer style. He plays all the traditional Tuvan instruments, with particular emphasis on the doshpuluur.

    Ayan Shirizhik was born in 1982 in Bai-Xaak, and started singing when he was very young. When his family moved to Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva, he began studying and performing with Andrei Mongush, the singer from Huun-Huur-Tu. He completed a bachelor's degree at the Kyzyl Arts College and a master's at the East Siberia State Academy of Culture and Art in Ulan-Ude. Ayan has toured Russia, Europe, and the United States. He was awarded second prize for throat singing at the 2008 Xöömei Symposium, and in 2009 he was awarded the title "Merited Artist of Tuva." He performs all styles of Tuvan throat singing and is particularly noted for his mastery of borbangnadyr. He plays all the traditional Tuvan instruments and is especially accomplished on the kengirge.

    Sean Quirk
    came to Tuva on a Fulbright fellowship in 2003 and has remained there since, becoming a Distinguished Artist of Tuva in 2008.

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The Reindeer Herder's Song
Alash Ensemble

About Tuvan Music and 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.

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 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.
Presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with World Music Institute.
This performance is part of World Views.

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