ON THE MAGIC OF OVERTONE SINGING
Studi in onore di Franco Ferrero, 2003
Piero Cosi, Graziano Tisato
*ISTC-SFD – (ex IFD) CNR
Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione – Sezione di Fonetica e Dialettologia
(ex Istituto di Fonetica e Dialettologia) – Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche
e-mail: email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
I really like to remember that Franco was the first person I met when I
approached the “Centro di Studio per le Ricerche di Fonetica” and I still
have a greatly pleasant and happy sensation of that our first warm and
unexpectedly informal talk. It is quite obvious and it seems rhetorical to say
that I will never forget a man like Franco, but it is true, and that is, a part
from his quite relevant scientific work, mostly for his great heart and sincere
For “special people” scientific interests sometimes co-occur with personal “hobbies”. I remember Franco talking to me about the “magic atmosphere” raised by the voice of Demetrio Stratos, David Hykes or Tuvan Khomei1 singers and I still have clear in my mind Franco’s attitude towards these “strange harmonic sounds”. It was more than a hobby but it was also more than a scientific interest. I have to admit that Franco inspired my “almost hidden”, a part from few very close “desperate” family members, training in Overtone Singing2. This overview about this wonderful musical art, without the aim to be a complete scientific work, would like to be a small descriptive contribute to honor and remember Franco’s wonderful friendship.
2. THE THROAT-SINGING TRADITION
“Khomei” or “Throat-Singing” is the name used in Tuva and Mongolia to describe a
large family of singing styles and techniques, in which a single vocalist simultaneously produces two (or more) distinct tones. The lower one is the usual fundamental tone of the voice and sounds as a sustained drone or a Scottish bagpipe sound. The second corresponds to one of the harmonic partials and is like a resonating whistle in a high, or very high, register. For convenience we will call it “diphonic” sound and “diphonia” this kind of phenomenon.
Throat-Singing has almost entirely been an unknown form of art until rumours about Tuva and the peculiar Tuvan musical culture spread in the West, especially in North America, thanks to Richard Feynman 3, a distinguished American physicist, who was an ardent devotee of Tuvan matters.
1 We transcribe in the simplest way the Tuvan term, for the lack of agreement between the different authors: Khomei, Khöömii, Ho-Mi, Hö-Mi, Chöömej, Chöömij, Xöömij.
2 This is the term used in the musical contest to indicate the diphonic vocal techniques.
This singing tradition is mostly practiced in the Central Asia regions including
Bashkortostan or Bashkiria (near Ural mountains), Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Altai and Tuva (two autonomous republics of the Russian Federation), Khakassia and Mongolia (Fig. 1), but we can find examples worldwide: in South Africa between Xosa women , in the Tibetan Buddhist chants and in Rajastan.
The Tuvan people developed numerous different styles. The most important are:
Kargyraa (chant with very low fundamentals), Khomei (it is the name generally used to indicate the Throat-Singing and also a particular type of singing), Borbangnadyr (similar to Kargyraa, with higher fundamentals), Ezengileer (recognizable by the quick rhythmical shifts between the diphonic harmonics), Sygyt (like a whistle, with a weak fundamental)
. According to Tuvan tradition, all things have a soul or are inhabited by spiritual
entities. The legends narrate that Tuvan learnt to sing Khomei to establish a contact and assimilate their power trough the imitation of natural sounds. Tuvan people believe in fact that the sound is the way preferred by the spirits of nature to reveal themselves and to communicate with the other living beings.
Figure 1. Diffusion of the Throat-Singing in Central Asia regions.
In Mongolia most Throat-Singing styles take the name from the part of the body where they suppose to feel the vibratory resonance: Xamryn Xöömi (nasal Xöömi), Bagalzuuryn Xöömi (throat Xöömi), Tseedznii Xöömi (chest Xöömi), Kevliin Xöömi (ventral Xöömi, see
Fig. 13), Xarkiraa Xöömi (similar to the Tuvan Kargyraa), Isgerex (rarely used style: it sounds like a flute). It happens that the singers itself confuse the different styles . Some very famous Mongol artists (Sundui and Ganbold, for example) use a deep vibrato, which is not traditional, may be to imitate the Western singers (Fig. 13).
The Khakash people practice three types of Throat-Singing (Kargirar, Kuveder or
Kilenge and Sigirtip), equivalent to the Tuvan styles Kargyraa, Ezengileer and Sygyt.
3 Today, partly because of Feynman’s influence, there exists a society called “Friends of
Tuva” in California, which circulates news about Tuva in the West .
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