Testing the limits of vocal ingenuity, throat-singers can create sounds unlike anything in ordinary speech and song—carrying two musical lines simultaneously, say, or harmonizing with a waterfall
From atop one of the rocky escarpments that criss-cross the south Siberian grasslands and taiga forestsof Tuva, one’s first impression is of an unalloyed si-lence as vast as the land itself. Gradually the ear habituatesto the absence of human activity. Silence dissolves into asubtle symphony of buzzing, bleating, burbling, cheeping,whistling—our onomatopoeic shorthand for the sounds ofinsects, beasts, water, birds, wind. The polyphony unfoldsslowly, its colors and rhythms by turns damped and rever-berant as they wash over the land’s shifting contours.For the seminomadic herders who call Tuva home, thesoundscape inspires a form of music that mingles with theseambient murmurings. Ringed by mountains, far from majortrade routes and overwhelmingly rural, Tuva is like a musi-cal Olduvai Gorge—a living record of a protomusical world,where natural and human-made sounds blend.Among the many ways the pastoralists interact with andrepresent their aural environment, one stands out for itssheer ingenuity: a remarkable singing technique in which asingle vocalist produces two distinct tones simultaneously.One tone is a low, sustained fundamental pitch, similar tothe drone of a bagpipe. The second is a series of flutelikeharmonics, which resonate high above the drone and maybe musically stylized to represent such sounds as the whistleof a bird, the syncopated rhythms of a mountain stream orthe lilt of a cantering horse.In the local languages, the general term for this singing iskhöömeior khoomii,from the Mongolian word for “throat.”In English it is commonly referred to as throat-singing. Somecontemporary Western musicians also have mastered thepractice and call it overtone singing, harmonic singing orharmonic chant. Such music is at once a part of an expres-sive culture and an artifact of the acoustics of the humanvoice. Trying to understand both these aspects has been achallenge for Western students of music, and each of us—one a musical ethnographer (Levin), the other a composerwith an interest in extended vocal techniques (Edgerton)—has had to traverse the unfamiliar territory of the other.Sound MimesisIn Tuva, legends about the origins of throat-singing assertthat humankind learned to sing in such a way long ago.The very first throat-singers, it is said, sought to duplicatenatural sounds whose timbres, or tonal colors, are rich inharmonics, such as gurgling water and swishing winds. Al-though the true genesis of throat-singing as practiced today isobscure, Tuvan pastoral music is intimately connected to anancient tradition of animism, the belief that natural objectsand phenomena have souls or are inhabited by spirits.According to Tuvan animism, the spirituality of mountainsand rivers is manifested not only through their physical shapeand location but also through the sounds they produce or can80Scientific AmericanSeptember 1999The Throat-Singers of TuvaVOICE OF A HORSE in Tuvan music, the igil—played hereby Andrei Chuldum-ool on the grasslands of southern Siberia(also above)—is a two-stringed upright fiddle made fromhorse hide, hair and gut and used to re-create equine sounds.Sound mimicry, the cultural basis of Tuvan music, reaches itsculmination in throat-singing.
THE THROAT SINGERS OF TUVATesting the limits of vocal ingenuity, throat-singers can create sounds unlike anything in ordinary speech and song—carrying two musical lines simultaneously, say, or harmonizing with a waterfall