|Alash Ensemble at Merkin Hall|
It can be rewarding to step outside of one's comfort zone in the interest of broadening one's taste horizons. For this reason we found ourselves at Merkin Hall last night for our first exposure to Tuvan throat singing. The adventure was a success.
We had never even heard of Tuva before but the pleasure of listening to such unique music led to some online investigation. Tuva is a Republic in southern Siberia with ties to the Soviet Union and its population speaks a Turkic language. It is evident from their music that they have a unique culture which seems worth preserving in a time when so many cultures are becoming Americanized, or Europeanized.
The people of Tuva are nomads and live in yurts. Their folkloric music refers mainly to natural elements--rivers, mountains, and horses. The percussionist used wooden blocks to recreate the unmistakeable sound of hoofbeats. We weren't sure about the sound of reindeer herding.
The instruments are exotic. One resembles a Chinese er-hu with it's two strings, which are bowed, but the register is much lower. Another resembles a balalaika with three strings. There was a wooden flute which was played vertically and placed at the side of the player's mouth. Also making its presence felt was a Russian accordion and a Western guitar. There seems to be an intent to join Tuvan music with some Western influences.
What makes this music so special are the vocal effects. One does not ask a magician how he creates certain illusions, nor can one ask these incredible musicians how they create such strange and beautiful sounds. They are reported to be two pitches but, to our ears, it sounded more like overtones. Often we could not determine which of the three men was producing which sound. One musician produced a sound at such a low register that even Sparafucile would have been daunted.
One of the songs with hoofbeats ended with an unmistakeable "whinny". Another cascade of unusual sounds was only heard in one song in which a tiny nearly invisible reed of some kind was placed in the musician's mouth and twanged while he was vocalizing.
What struck us in terms of the vocalism is that in opera the mouth is open and the throat relaxed. In Tuvan throat singing, the mouth is often nearly closed and there is a great deal going on in the throat.
The end result of all that twanging, plucking, bowing, and beating left us feeling very happy to have been exposed to such an exotic culture. The concert was presented by the World Music Institute which has many similarly compelling concerts to offer this season, which they have been doing for over three decades.
(c) meche kroop