In the decade leading to his death Richard Feynman, the famous physicist, challenged his friend Ralph Leighton to travel to a tiny republic that had become part of the Soviet Union. Tuva is a tiny country in Asia that is populated by what is known as Turkic people. During Feynman’s challenge, it was extremely difficult for Americans to travel to Tuva. It took years before Feynman and his friends got the requisite paper work to authorize their travel. In the end, Feynman succumbed to cancer just before he was scheduled to visit the country. His daughter took his place.
The prestige of Tuva took off after Feynman’s death. A unique and mostly rural country, Tuva has a mountainous and forbidding landscape . What dominates Tuvan culture is horses and religion. But what has been the greatest export of this tiny country is music. One of the traditions of Tuva is something that most westerners know little about. It’s called “throat singing” and most likely stems from musical prayer techniques in the Buddhist temples. By any standards, throat singing is fascinating. Also called “biphonic singing,” throat singing involves, by western standard, an odd technique that utilizes the vibrations of normal singing to create a second tone by manipulation of the vocal chords and the mouth. This produces what are called overtones which are tones related to the original tone sung by the singer.
While a technical description of throat singing could make the eyes glaze over, it’s more important to describe the actual sound of throat singing. One form of the art creates an eerie whistling sound that rises and falls as the singer manipulates lips and oral cavity. Another version creates odd low grating tones. All this sounds basically odd by western standard, but hearing throat singing is a treat.
My experience with throat singing began with a musical group called Huun Huur Tu, a group I saw three times in New York City. The group travels the world, bringing their unique style to audiences everywhere. What underlies much of the music is a compelling clip-clop rhythm that comes from their national love of horses. The instruments are also traditional with the exception of the occasional use of a guitar.
Since the allure of the music is in the hearing I’ll ask my readers to follow this link to music by Huun Huur Tu. Shortly into the song you’ll hear what sounds like a whistling sound; this is throat singing:
Just north of Mongolia, Tuva has been annexed twice in thirty years by Russia without anyone being the wiser. A large part of the population of Tuva is Russian and Russian is the official language of the country. Its ethnic makeup is complex, being made up a Mongols and other Turkic people. The working popular language is a mix of Russian, Tuvan and Mongolian.
Along with the sound of the horse moving, Tuvan music is based on multiple layers of sound expressed simultaneously. The Alash Ensemble web page describes this musical phenomenon as follows:
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.”
Throat singing allows the singer to create two or three tones simultaneously. While seemingly magical to the west, where a singer only produces one tone, it is also natural to the human body; this should expand the horizons of musical knowledge if studied correctly.
Keeping the traditions of multiple layers of tonality Hun Huur Tu has recently expanded their music to include more western instruments and even electronic music. Perhaps this small country may have a hand in the future of music both in Asia and the west.
Hun Huur Tu on KEXP: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2ovoRyv4kw&t=280s
Orphan’s Lament: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7b1egQpIjLs
Altai Sayan Tandy-Uula [Full album] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIrdoGK0-xg
Neil Douglas Newton was born and raised in New York City, growing up in Bayside, a small community in Queens. He began writing as a child, creating vivid characters to entertain friends and family. Neil is also a musician who can often be seen indulging his interest in the arcane art of finger picking guitar. He has written several songs which he has performed at local venues. The Railroad is Neil’s first novel. Like its main character Neil spent a life-changing half hour in the subway on 9/11 as the Twin Towers went down. He wears a vintage subway token on a chain to remind him of what happened to him, his city, and his country. He currently lives in Knoxville, TN, with his wife, writer Elizabeth Horton-Newton, and an assortment of rescued dogs and cats. Parent to four and grandparent to five, he and his wife enjoy traveling worldwide.