On this date in 1944, the tiny Himalayan country of Tuva, populated mainly by Buddhist nomads, voted to become part of the USSR, and it is now a republic within the Russian Federation.
In Tuva, Stalin did his best to quash indigenous cultural practices, but traditional throat singing has endured and even flourished in recent decades. It used to be practiced only by men, but women are now learning the craft.
And a weird craft it is. Tuvan throat singers produce two sounds at once: a deep, deep, buzzing drone and, simultaneously, a higher-pitched overlay, often birdlike or locust-like in tone. In this example, the fellow on the right sets up the verse, and then the second voice joins in with two more tones coming from the same throat:
It’s music meant to carry in wide-open spaces, over lonely, isolated, wind-swept plains between high mountains. The sounds not only literally resonate in the topography of that world, they also echo the actual voices of nature: the unimpeded wind, the birds, streams, the crowds of insects, and perhaps the thundering hooves of yaks and the much-admired Tuvan horses.
It’s such a different kind of singing, and it calls for such a different kind of listening, I can’t get enough of it. A blogger for Carnegie Hall notes:
a respected Tuvan musician [demonstrated] the igil, a bowed instrument with two strings tuned a fifth apart. When asked to play each string separately, he refused, saying it wouldn’t make any sense. The only meaningful sound was the combination of the two pitches played together.
Here’s one throat singer who is having a wonderful time being awesome, exotic nomad dude for a more global audience:
And here’s an extraordinary concert (the video is over an hour long) by a group of guys who open by making a sound you will never forget:
That’s my soundtrack for today. Astonishing. What are they singing about? I wish I knew! Many of the songs, I gather, are about horses and women and how excellent they are.
I wish I could make two sounds at once. I wish I could produce something and feel so placid as they seem to feel while doing it. Most of all, I wish I were better at listening to the whole of something, rather than picking out little threads and trying to make definitive sense of them in a linear fashion. It’s not as important as I think.