In a world of Autotune and Garageband, it’s hard to distinguish between the real sound of an artist and quality sound engineering. But make no mistake, the soothing, natural sound of throat singing is real—and has been around for decades. One of the most distinguished Tuvan throat singing groups in the world, Alash, is performing this Saturday in Skinner.
Tuva is a region of Russia, northwest of Mongolia. In the region, throat singing is referred to as Khöömei. It is a form of circular breathing that allows the singer to hold multiple notes at a time. Singers are trained from a very young age on how to manipulate throat muscles and reverberations.
“Imagine a subsonic growl, a bullfrog’s croak, some electric barber’s clippers and a high-frequency whistle—all reverberating out of a single larynx at once,” wrote Marshall Allen in a 2007 review for the Washington Post.
Tuvan throat singing often imitates the sounds of Tuvan natural surroundings—animals, mountains, streams and the harsh winds of the steppe. Once a folk tradition, Khöömei is now an emblem of Tuvan culture and identity.
Alash is composed of three musicians— Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik. The group, along with their manager and translator Sean Quirk, are on their 16th U.S. tour. According to Allen, “The young quartet specializes in an ancient vocal style cultivated by the shepherds and horsemen of central Asia who discovered ways of singing three or four notes simultaneously.”
The group’s visit to Vassar is funded primarily from the Dickinson-Kayden Fund. According to Associate Director of Alumni Relations May Lee, “The Dickinson-Kayden Fund was established in 1966 honor of Professor Emeritus of Music, George Sherman Dickinson, by Mildred and Bernard H. Kayden to enrich the cultural life of the College as a whole by bringing to it a series of events which relate music to the other humanities or sciences.”
Khöömei does just that. In many ways, it represents Tuvan society and values. And Alash bridges those with the West. According to a Lancaster, Pa. concertgoer, “Sean Quirk was an unexpectedly brilliant surprise. He is superb at relating to an audience and explaining the culture of Tuva…Really, it was an unforgettable experience.”
Alash first came to the U.S. for the Open World Leadership program of the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts. They have been back many times since to perform, teach and promote understanding between cultures at many conservatories, colleges and venues.
Part of this understanding is fostered by some of the contemporary styles of music Alash has integrated into their performances. According to their website biography, “They paid close attention to new trends coming out of the West. They have borrowed new ideas that mesh well with the sound and feel of traditional Tuvan music, but they have never sacrificed the integrity of their own heritage in an effort to make their music more hip.”
The art of Tuvan throat singing may not be as niche of a genre as one would expect. According to Adjunct Assistant Professor in Music Justin Patch, “Throat singing has been brought up as a good addition to the concert series before– and we had [Grammy-winning vocal ensemble] Roomful of Teeth two years ago.”
Euphonium player of the Vassar Wind Ensemble John Silk ’18 was already familiar with throat singing as well after a group of Tibetan monks performed at his high school. “[It’s] amazing. The singers use their throats to create two pitches at once: the main pitch and a pitch over that.”