F rom atop one of the rocky escarpments that criss- cross the south Siberian grasslands and taiga forests of Tuva, one’s first impression is of an unalloyed si- lence as vast as the land itself. Gradually the ear habituates to the absence of human activity. Silence dissolves into a subtle symphony of buzzing, bleating, burbling, cheeping, whistling — our onomatopoeic shorthand for the sounds of insects, beasts, water, birds, wind. The polyphony unfolds slowly, its colors and rhythms by turns damped and rever- berant as they wash over the land’s shifting contours. For the seminomadic herders who call Tuva home, the soundscape inspires a form of music that mingles with these ambient murmurings. Ringed by mountains, far from major trade routes and overwhelmingly rural, Tuva is like a musi- cal Olduvai Gorge — a living record of a protomusical world, where natural and human-made sounds blend. Among the many ways the pastoralists interact with and represent their aural environment, one stands out for its sheer ingenuity: a remarkable singing technique in which a single vocalist produces two distinct tones simultaneously. One tone is a low, sustained fundamental pitch, similar to the drone of a bagpipe. The second is a series of ﬂutelike harmonics, which resonate high above the drone and may be musically stylized to represent such sounds as the whistle of a bird, the syncopated rhythms of a mountain stream or the lilt of a cantering horse. In the local languages, the general term for this singing is khöömei or khoomii, from the Mongolian word for “throat.” In English it is commonly referred to as throat-singing. Some contemporary Western musicians also have mastered the practice and call it overtone singing, harmonic singing or harmonic chant. Such music is at once a part of an expres- sive culture and an artifact of the acoustics of the human voice. Trying to understand both these aspects has been a challenge for Western students of music, and each of us — one a musical ethnographer (Levin), the other a composer with an interest in extended vocal techniques (Edgerton) — has had to traverse the unfamiliar territory of the other. Sound Mimesis I n Tuva, legends about the origins of throat-singing assert that humankind learned to sing in such a way long ago. The very first throat-singers, it is said, sought to duplicate natural sounds whose timbres, or tonal colors, are rich in harmonics, such as gurgling water and swishing winds. Al- though the true genesis of throat-singing as practiced today is obscure, Tuvan pastoral music is intimately connected to an ancient tradition of animism, the belief that natural objects and phenomena have souls or are inhabited by spirits. According to Tuvan animism, the spirituality of mountains and rivers is manifested not only through their physical shape and location but also through the sounds they produce or can 80 Scientific American September 1999 The Throat-Singers of Tuva VOICE OF A HORSE in Tuvan music, the igil — played here
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- Spring '12
- Music, Harmonics, vocal tract, vocal folds, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Overtone singing, Tuva