Guest Post: Throat Singing

Guest post by Neil Douglas Newton

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.


Additional links:

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


Bio:
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.

For more content from Neil, visit his blog and check out his Amazon author page.

Guest Post: Interview with Musician Gaelynn Lea

Guest Post by Neil Douglas Newton

Gaelynn Lea Credit to EvrGlo Media
Gaelynn Lea Credit to EvrGlo Media

Gaelynn Lea is musician unique to her age group and her time. While most women engaged in acoustic music would be treading the singer songwriter path, Gaelynn weaves a fascinating tapestry of personal themes and clearly Celtic musical sensibilities. Her songs and her voice are haunting, her lyrics poetic and reminiscent of another time. Gaelynn plays the violin but there are times when she makes it more than an ensemble instrument; she can make it a powerful foundation of a song as powerful as full band.

For those with a passion for unique, personally fueled music, outside of the mainstream, Gaelynn is a find. Her playing as a violinist is impressive with a vibrato as sweet as a any classically trained musician. At the basic of her musical DNA is Celtic music, something she played consistently through college. What puts her farther outside the musical norm is an affinity for fiddle tunes, a body of work that is popular for aficionados of traditional folk music, something that is a bridge between the dance music of older Europe and the traditional mountain music of the United States. Listening to her music you can hear the eerie strains of Appalachia

Yet Gaelynn possesses a modern sensibility. Her song “Lost in the Woods” has the deep feeling of her other songs and is about the modern dilemma of maintaining one’s integrity amid the complexity and stress of modern life.

The following are several questions that Gaelynn was kind enough to answer:

Gaelynn Lea Credit Richard Carter
Gaelynn Lea Credit Richard Carter

NDN: Are you influenced by Celtic music since it seems to be within the sound of your music?

GL: Yes, I played in a Celtic musical group all the way through college. My first album is about 80% Celtic fiddle Tunes! I know that it has influenced my style over the years.

NDN: I am almost 60. The mixture of Celtic music and fiddle tunes was extremely popular. What brought you to what might be considered old school folk music?

GL: I really enjoyed learning them in a group setting. My very first exposure to fiddle tunes was through a jam at a local bar in our town. It was much more relaxed the classical music scene and music became a social activity for me in a way that it hadn’t been it before. I think that’s what drew me in initially!

NDN: I saw your video for “Lost in the Woods.” My experience tells me that while a musician’s message seems to be obvious, it’s always worth asking the musician themselves exactly what he or she meant. What does the song mean to you?

GL: That song is about holding onto your identity & your integrity no matter what. It’s harder and harder to do that when life is busy and you are traveling, so even though I wrote the song before I won the Tiny Desk Contest. It has even more meaning for me today.

NDN: Your voice is beautiful. Like any other instrument, you make decisions to develop your sound. What influences formed your vocal technique?

GL: To be honest my voice is just my voice. I haven’t had any vocal training, but I do think performing a lot has helped it to become a little more refined. I think what inspired me was hearing Iris DeMent sing “Our Town.” She has such a unique voice and it helped me to realize that you don’t have to have a stereotypically beautiful voice to have an impact.

NDN: Do you plan to stay in the musical area that you are currently in or are you interested in expanding to other genres and perhaps even mashups?

GL: I am releasing a new album in September and that will be with a full band. So the style is a bit more pop or indie rock, but I always love to experiment. I’m not sure where my career will go in terms of musical style, but I think one thing that keeps me interested in music is that there is always room to learn and grow and change.

NDN: What advice would you give to fledgling musicians who might take a non-mainstream route in terms of how they would form their voice.

GL: Just remember that your voice is a muscle and it gets stronger with time. I used to have a very limited vocal range but that has changed in the last couple years. It all comes down to using your voice as much as you can! And pushing the air out from your diaphragm instead of your throat so you don’t strain your vocal chords. 🙂

NDN: We’ve just seen severe financial issues for franchises like Guitar Center and a filing of chapter eleven by Gibson Guitars. Autotune and electronically processed music seems to be leaving acoustic and even standard electric music in the dust. Have you considered becoming more mainstream or will you stay with your standard musicianship?

GL: I love using old instruments like violins and I have a big interest in the harp. So I don’t think I will ever stray entirely from those sorts of traditional instruments. But what I think is really cool is how you can blend technology and ancient instruments to make something new. Even though my first album is almost all the traditional fiddle tunes, I used a modern looping pedal to layer up the sounds. That changes the game a lot. I think you have to be open to both sides! And of course do what you love. 🙂


For more information on Gaelynn Lea, visit her website.

Bio:
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.

For more content from Neil, visit his blog and check out his Amazon author page.


Notes:

  • Neil will have another guest post coming up soon.
  • About his blog, he offers the caveat that some of the content may be controversial.
  • All links in this post will open in a new window, so be sure to disable your pop-up blockers or press the “ctrl” button (on PC) when you click the link.