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Huun Huur Tu

October 2, 2010

Some cultures are known for their art more than anything else. These cultures would have little chance of being noticed by more than a handful of academic people, were it not for some unique art they possess and for some talented people carrying the art to the outside world. The first example that springs to mind is Tuva (aka Tyva) and the Tuvan (Tyvan) throat singing.

Tuva is a Russian autonomous republic in East Siberia on the Mongolian border. Tuvan is a Northeastern (or Siberian) Turkic language, spoken by 200,000 people in Tuva plus some in Mongolia and China. It is closely related to the Khakas and Altai languages. The Mongolian and Russian influences on it have been quite strong too. In the past, Tuvans used to write with Mongolian script. The Latin-based alphabet for Tuvan was devised in 1930 by a Buddhist monk, Mongush Lopsang-Chinmit. A few books and newspapers, including primers intended to teach adults to read, were printed using this writing system. But then Lopsang-Chinmit was executed in Stalinist purges on December 31, 1941. A new Cyrillic-based alphabet was introduced by decree in 1943 and is still in use.

It was not the writing system of Tuvan that particularly interested me, however, but the phonetic system, because I thought there must be something about the language itself that gave birth to the unique art of throat singing – a style of singing in which two or more pitches sound simultaneously over a fundamental, very low pitch, sound. This musical art is related to the overtone singing/chanting done in Tibet and Mongolia, especially by Buddhist monks, but the Tuvans have taken it further, to the point where some Tuvans can even produce three audible tones simultaneously.

At the root of throat singing is human mimicry of nature’s sounds. Tuvan tradition is that of herdsmen living in the steppe. The open landscape of Tuva allows for the sounds to carry a great distance. Often, singers will travel far into the countryside looking for the right river, or will go up to the steppes of the mountainside to create the proper environment for throat singing.

I went to the concert of the most internationally known Tuvan music group called Huun Huur Tu here in Perm in July this year. The Opera House, where they were performing, was packed despite the 35 degree heat outside and no air conditioning inside. These musicians have a lot of devoted fans across the world and they are almost always on tour.

A little skeptical at first, I was glad to discover that it was more than just a circus trick. It was real art. The musicians combine throat singing with other types of singing, and their voices and instruments blend to produce a mesmerizing effect. I was soon carried away to another reality. During one particularly sound-rich song, I closed my eyes and experienced a sort of trance. I saw huge black birds darting overhead, animals rushing wildly across the steppe, I heard a waterfall rumbling in the distance… A grandiose shamanic ritual was taking place by the riverside, the shaman and his people performing a weird dance. I saw it all vividly like in a movie. That’s one healthy way to get high!

Anyway, it’s better to see once, so here is a bit of their performance at the 2006 Philadelphia Folk Festival. It is not the same song that entranced me at the concert but still a great one. (Nor does it demonstrate the whole gamut of possibilities of throat singing, but search Youtube to hear more).

What about the phonetics of the language then? Is the language itself responsible for the appearance of this genre of singing? Here is what I have found out.

Vowels in Tuvan exist in three varieties: short, long and short with low pitch. Contrastive low pitch may occur on short vowels, and when it does, it causes them to increase in duration by at least one-half. When using low pitch, Tuvan speakers employ a pitch that is at the very low end of their modal voice pitch. For some speakers, it is even lower and they use what is phonetically known as ‘creaky voice’. When a vowel in a monosyllabic word has low pitch, speakers apply low pitch only to the first half of that vowel. This is followed by a noticeable pitch rise in the second half of the vowel. The acoustic impression is similar to that of a rising tone in Mandarin, although the Tuvan pitch begins much lower. Despite the similarity, Tuvan is considered a pitch accent language with contrastive low pitch instead of a tonal language. These low pitch vowels were previously referred to in the literature as either kargyraa or pharyngealized vowels.

So it seems that the language itself trains Tuvans to combine various pitch levels and makes them capable throat singers. But it does require special talent to take this trick to the level of art, and that is why I admire Huun Huur Tu. Between the songs, they also tell their audiences about Tuvans, their language and traditions. They have done a lot to make their small nation with its wonderful culture known to the world.

P.S. Curiously, while googling for throat singing I discovered that another ethnic group famous for such skill is Inuits of Canada. And their performers are usually women!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. jacobtullos permalink
    October 2, 2010 4:24 pm

    Wow, fascinating people and language! So in order to pronounce their language correctly, you’d have to learn to throat sing as well? Hmm, that doesn’t seem too hard, but surely interesting. Thanks for this post.

  2. October 2, 2010 8:20 pm

    Glad you liked the post Jacob. It’s not that you have to learn to throat sing in order to speak the language but it’s that being able to speak the language seems to facilitate becoming a throat singer. I would disagree with ‘not too hard’; as far as I know it is extremely hard to master for most mortals. Here are some details from wikipedia:

    “To understand how Tuvan throat singing works, one must first understand some basic sound and singing physics. Sound is a wave of moving air. When people speak or sing, the sound is created when the air flowing into or out of the lungs is disturbed by the larynx, or voice box. The vocal folds open and close to produce these oscillating waves which create sound. The vocal tract is a tube through which sound travels and reaches the outside. This tube has certain resonance at certain frequencies. When people speak or sing, this is what is heard. In throat singing, an overtone, or harmonic, is generated above the fundamental resonating frequency.

    Throat singers produce their harmonics through a process called biofeedback. This means they raise and lower the fundamental frequency until they get maximum resonance on the harmonics sounding above, like moving a ladder up and down to achieve a desired height. They achieve this by controlling the manner in which the vocal folds open and close. When throat singing, the singer keeps the folds open for a shorter period and closed for longer. The abrupt closure puts greater energy into the upper harmonics, resulting in a clearer sound.

    In addition to controlling the rate at which the vocal folds open and close, throat singers also manipulate the fundamental frequency through moving their jaws forward, and narrowing or protruding their lips.”

  3. Michael Farris permalink
    October 3, 2010 12:28 pm

    I used to have an album of Inuit throat singing and it really has nothing in common with those traditions from northeast central Asia.

    Inuit throat singers are all women who ‘sing’ in duets, traditionally they faced each other very closely and used each other’s mouths as resonating chambers as they chanted nonsense syllables (often meant to evoke natural phenomena).
    It was actually more of a game than an art from as the goal was to outlast your partner (here, ‘outlast’ means ‘don’t start laughing’).
    It’s been institutionalized and turned into a performing art though.

    A couple of youtube clips

    There are kinds of singing with overtones is found outside of Asia, including in Sardinia.

  4. October 3, 2010 8:11 pm

    Thanks for the links Michael! The Inuit singing is fun but far less pleasing to my ears than Tuvan. I enjoyed the Sardinian songs. Reminded me of Georgian singing (former Soviet Georgia), except there are overtones here.

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