Tuvan throat singers demonstrate unity

Olivia Hendricks

As part of Lawrence’s World Music Series, Tuvan throat-singing ensemble Alash performed in Harper Hall Tuesday, April 8. The event was free and open to the public, and the hall was packed with local Appleton residents, Conservatory professors and Lawrence students.
The concert began without a word. Four Tuvan musicians, dressed in traditional garb, walked onstage and picked up their instruments, including an igil, byzaanchy, chadagan and kengirge. The igil and byzaanchy are stringed, bowed instruments that sound slightly akin to a violin. The chadagan is a plucked, 16-stringed instrument that is held flat on the lap. Finally, the kengirge is a large frame drum.
In addition to these instruments, the musicians throat-sang. In throat-singing, a low bass note is sung, and then on top of this, several higher harmonic pitches are produced. According to the group’s Web site, alashensemble.com, throat-singing works in a manner similar to bagpipes. Using throat-singing, the human voice can very effectively imitate bird, wind and other nature sounds.
The technique of throat-singing was something new and fascinating in itself, but the unity of the singers was even more impressive. They breathed as one, made crescendos and decrescendos as one, and seem to intuitively change tempo and style together. There was no question about the skill of these players.
“Translating” for the performers was manager Sean Quirk. After the first piece, Quirk went over a brief background of Tuva, describing the republic as part of the Russian Federation, but having little or nothing to do with Russia politically, culturally or musically. Quirk also described Tuvans as having a nomadic past as herders and horseman that made throat-singing a good pastime and method of communication across broad taiga landscapes.
It is important to note, however, that Alash is marketed as “new-old” Tuvan music. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that many of the rhythms sounded westernized, as though they could have come off an R&B or blues album. Additionally, many comically abrupt endings to pieces were dramatic and fun, but did not seem natural to the nature of the music. It was difficult not to question exactly how true the music was to its origins and whether it had been westernized simply for the enjoyment of the audience.
Furthermore, Quirk’s comments at times seemed to detract from the emotive nature of the music. Quirk got a lot of laughs by saying love song lyrics could be translated as “meet me in the forest at midnight” or commenting that Tuvan musicians might sing about what all men are “dedicated to: good horses and beautiful women.” While funny, these sorts of comments eroded the communicative power of the musicians.
Simply by listening, even westerners could hear how the murgu instrument imitated a wolf’s howls, or how the click-clack of the percussion imitated a horse, or how the kengirge made the noises of rolling thunder. These sounds would have been expressive and engaging enough alone, had there been a greater sense of the Tuvan musicians owning their music rather than having it wittily, verbally interpreted.
Had the Tuvan musicians been given more of a lead role in presenting their music, even if that meant less verbal explanation and more critical listening required on the part of the audience, perhaps the connection between performers and audience would have been greater. The performance affirmed the concept that music, even from very different cultures, by its nature really need not be, and perhaps should not be, translated.