Lawrence University is fortunate to host a variety of guest musicians from around the world each year. To begin the 2016-2017 World Music Concert Series, the famous Tuvan ensemble Huun Huur Tu performed traditional Tuvan folk music, incorporating ancient instrumental and vocal techniques.
Huun Huur Tu has performed all around the world since the early 1990s. They are interested in learning about the different cultures and musical styles they encounter, and they often incorporate what they find in their own recorded albums. While elements of their style are constantly evolving, they aim to preserve the practice of Tuvan throat singing by sharing it with as many audiences as possible. The ensemble’s four current members—Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, Sayan Bapa, Radik Tülüsh and Alexei Saryglar—are all from Tuva, which is located at the center of continental Asia.
Lawrence’s concert was held in Stansbury Theatre on Monday, Sept. 27. Huun Huur Tu, dressed in traditional robes, began without an introduction once the lights dimmed. They began to sing a deep chant on an open fifth, pausing when they ran out of breath.
It took a moment for everyone to understand what was happening aurally. The deep humming temporarily distracted from what the musicians were really accomplishing: they were bringing out the overtones naturally produced by their voices to create melodies and harmonies without changing the fundamental pitch. This technique, known as throat singing or overtone singing, is commonly used in Tuvan folk music. Every one of the twelve musical selections Huun Huur Tu presented incorporated it in some way, whether it was used as melody, accompaniment or a sound effect.
The second song, performed by Tülüsh alone, demonstrated how throat singing can be used to create a complete piece on its own. Between gigantic breaths, he used the technique to create arpeggiated melodies with the natural harmonic series of a single bass pitch.
Most of Huun Huur Tu’s instruments were part of the lute family. The igil sits upright between a musician’s knees and is bowed like a cello. It is often called the horse-head fiddle because of the shape of its decorative scroll. The doshpuluur, another lap-resting lute, is larger and box-shaped. Every song incorporated a large drum which could be struck or rubbed to create different sounds. The khomus, also known as the jaw harp, was used a few times to create bizarre zing sounds. Khovalyg, Bapa, Tülūsh, and Saryglar exchanged instrumental roles multiple times throughout the performance. Each musician’s instruments has unique characteristics; they had varying bow lengths and amounts of strings. Khovalyg explained that in Tuvan musical tradition, people learn to play each instrument from a young age.
Tuvan music is practical and makes obvious connections to the world around us. Several songs incorporated musical representations of animal sounds, such as clopping horse hooves and bird calls. The ensemble played with the sound of wind in the trees and murky river waters. Sometimes, lyrics described how to reach a particular place, acting as a map.
Kohvalyg, the ensemble’s most senior member, announced the program from the stage. Some of the songs were about things like warriors, peasants, mountains, seasons and a mysterious woman. The music tapped into a feeling of longing for a different place or an older time.
Huun Huur Tu taught the importance of sharing culture globally. They share their music and teach their techniques so that both may survive as long as possible. They believe that we all have much to learn from each other in performance and lifestyle. Lawrentians should be thankful that Huun Huur Tu travelled to Wisconsin to share their music with us!