I deeply thank you for your high level work and deep humanity, you are a true teacher indeed. Would be interesting to try to create a community around your teaching method of the overtune singing technique. We’ll see. Our festival is about voice 360°… every year changes but we really felt in love with you so we could repeat the experience, never know. Take care of you, warm regards by everyone here abbracci, Claudia
On an island in the Mediterranean,
there is an incredible musical style unknown to the vast majority of
the world. Because describing music often ends up as a series of
references to other music, here’s what that style, cantu a tenòre,
evokes: one part barbershop quartet, one part traditional Mongolian
drone, one part political punk, and one part bar band. It’s also one
example of an unusual vocal strategy, one that almost doubles as a wild
anatomical experiment, that appears in scattered places around the
Cantu a tenòre is Sardinian throat singing, and it’s very, very cool.
To talk about cantu a tenòre,
we first have to talk about the human voice—a truly amazing musical
instrument, capable of an astonishing range of sounds. But it has the
same weakness as all breath-powered instruments (including woodwinds and
brass): You can only play one note at a time. Except sometimes your
voice can play two.
A little higher up, there are two
vestibular folds, sometimes called “false vocal cords.” These are, like
the regular vocal cords, mucous-covered infoldings, but they aren’t
ordinarily used for making sound. Instead, they’re kind of like guard
membranes that keep food and water out of the airway while you’re eating
and drinking. Throat singers have figured out how to control the
muscles in these folds, and can constrict or relax them to produce noise
as air passes by them. It’s almost a body hack that creates harmonies
out of some internal bits that few know can even produce sound.
The Sardinian tradition is a rarity among rarities.
Vibration of the vestibular folds can be
done either with or without vibration of the regular vocal cords. “You
can sing with only the false folds but it will not become throat singing
any more,” says Giovanni Bortoluzzi, who, along with Ilaria Orefice,
runs the Sherden Overtone Singing School,
the first and probably the only school for Sardinian throat singing in
the world. You end up instead with a growl, which may be familiar from
certain varieties of heavy metal. It’s particularly common in death
metal, and is sometimes referred to as “monster voice.” But if you can
sing or speak—using your regular vocal cords—while vibrating your
vestibular folds, you end up, incredibly, harmonizing with yourself. The
vestibular folds will vibrate at one octave lower than whatever tone
you sing. That specific difference in pitch is consistent, and even the
most experienced throat singers can’t change it.
There are multiple ways of manipulating these false folds. That harmony is called a subtone—bassu, in Sardinian—but there’s also something called contra,
which is made by tensing the false cords. You don’t end up with two
simultaneous tones, but anything sung is … changed. Bortoluzzi calls it
“metallic voice,” and it’s kind of hard to describe. It’s a sound that
can’t be produced in any other way, but it’s immediately noticeable as
Throat singing shows up in various
musical traditions, the most famous of which is probably Tuvan, or from a
remote Russian republic bordering Mongolia. For some reason, it seems
to appear most often in the native music of cold-weather communities:
the Sami people of Scandinavia, the Inuits in Canada, and among
Buddhists in Tibet. Sardinia seems to be an exception to this rule; its
climate is as Mediterranean as you can get. This makes the Sardinian
tradition a rarity among rarities.
Anyone can learn throat singing, says
Bortoluzzi, though it takes a keen ear, both for external and internal
sounds—those you hear with your ears and those your body makes. He says
it usually takes about a week to teach the technique, though some find
it easier than others. “The Sardinians, they have it in their blood, so
it’s very easy to teach Sardinians,” he says. (Bortoluzzi, unlike
Orefice, is not Sardinian, though he has spent a great deal of time in
It’s not known when cantu a
tenòre first emerged. It’s first attested, says Orefice (as translated
by Bortoluzzi), in the 15th century, though it’s likely much older than
that, possibly thousands of years older. Even though Sardinia is so
unlike many of the other places that are home to throat singing it seems
unlikely that it came there from somewhere else. Sardinia, like much of
the Mediterranean, was conquered and reconquered throughout history—by
the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and more. But Sardinia
has always been a little bit separate from those empires, with a little
bit more autonomy than its history might suggest. Even today it is a
little bit separate from the rest of Italy.
For example: All of the various languages of the Italian kingdoms—including Neapolitan and Venetian—were shunted to the side in favor of standard Italian
during the unification of the country. Of those languages, Sardinian—a
romance language, but not comprehensible to Italian speakers—is the most
widely spoken today, and a majority of Sardinians can speak it.*
Bortoluzzi says that given how fiercely
independent Sardinia is, it is all the more unlikely that throat
singing, something so fundamental to Sardinian culture, could have been
introduced. Instead it might have just been independently discovered or
evolved, the same way it was in Canada or Tibet. One thing Sardinia does
have in common with all of those other places, from Scandinavia to
Tuva: wide open spaces. Throat singing, says Bortoluzzi, is associated
with herders and shepherds, possibly as a way to communicate over long
distances, because the sound carries very far.
Cantu a tenòre is a fairly rigid form. It
is exclusively a capella. It is almost always sung with four members.
And it is always, always sung in Sardinian—never Italian. This came in
handy in the past, given that Sardinia was often under the control of
some far-off power. “During the Inquisition they used to sing
revolutionary lyrics in Sardinian cantu a tenòre in a way that the
Inquisitors would not understand,” says Bortoluzzi. Rebellious or
otherwise forbidden political messages could be inserted cleverly into
songs that might appear religious—a way for Sardinians to thumb their
noses at their oppressors.
If not political in nature, cantu a
tenòre lyrics tend toward the hyper-local—often poems about townspeople.
“There are many many poets in Sardinia, and the poems become music,”
says Bortoluzzi. That local element is important, and cantu a tenòre
groups are traditionally named after their hometowns.
The name cantu a tenòre translates as
something like “singer and accompaniment.” Of the four singers in a
cantu a tenòre group, three harmonize as an accompaniment (in lieu of,
say, a guitar or drum or piano) and one sings over that. The bassu sings
with that subtone, producing the lowest sound and, an octave above
that, the third-lowest. The contra, using that “metallic voice,” sings
the second-lowest tone, in between the two bassu tones. The mesu boche
usually sings suspended fourths above the bassu, before laying on the
major third (if you know your music theory).* The three singers together
are the tenòre, and they are basically singing power chords, like in
The boche, the last of the four,
is the lead vocalist, and the only one to actually sing lyrics; the
tenòre are all singing the same nonsense syllables, like “beem, bam,
boom.” The boche’s melodies are often improvised, feathery and vaguely
Semitic-sounding. The harmonies are fairly restricted, and they are
always, says Bortoluzzi, in a major key, which leaves them sounding a
little bit like Tuvan barbershop.
The group tends to sing very close
together physically, often with their arms wrapped over each other’s
shoulders. There is a real intimacy there. Bortoluzzi says that there is
often debate about what makes a good or authentic group, but some
things are unassailable. “They all agree on one thing, and that is that
to perform cantu a tenòre, you must be very close friends,” he says.
Most cantu a tenòre groups are all-male, and none are all-female, but
women are not discouraged from singing, even the bassu part.
Mixed-gender groups are not unheard of, though it can be difficult to
find a female throat-singing teacher.
Over the past few centuries, cantu a
tenòre has become drinking and dancing music. In the recent past, you
would often, says Bortoluzzi, find a cantu a tenòre group in a local
bar, singing for friends. (This is not so common anymore.) To many older
Sardinians, this is the true form of cantu a tenòre, in the same way
that punk really ought to be played in a low-ceilinged venue that smells
defiantly of old beer.
The stubbornness of Sardinians about their musical form is not unusual for Italy in general; just try asking a Roman how to make a cacio e pepe.
But that rigidity and a lack of global visibility for Sardinia has
meant that, even as Tuvan throat singing became somehow famous in the
1990s, cantu a tenòre has stayed local. Bortoluzzi mentions a concert
for which Tuvan throat singers came to collaborate with Sardinian throat
singers, only to run into a brick wall of tradition. “The Tuvan group
accommodated a lot in terms of pitch and the choosing of the rhythm and
stuff like that,” he says, “but the cantu a tenòre group was very
stubborn. ‘Oh, we always sing like that, you should follow us, this is
the Sardinian way.’”
Bortoluzzi and Orefice’s school started in
2016, and teaches workshops in addition to putting on performances.
They have, says Bortoluzzi, more than 100 students, most of whom are in
their 30s and 40s. “Not so many young people are interested, for now,”
he says. But there are some signs of change. Young groups, such as
Tenore Su Remediu de Orosei, are stretching the form, sometimes adding
instrumentation and influences from outside Sardinia. (This song has a distinctly Southern-sounding slide guitar.)
As with any other very old
tradition, there’s a balance to be struck between remembering the way
it’s been done for centuries and exploring new ground. Either way, cantu
a tenòre feels ripe for global discovery.
* Correction: This story originally
stated that Sardinian is not taught in schools. It is, but fewer young
people speak it than in the past. The story was also updated to further
explain the tone the mesu boche sings.
II Convegno Internazionale di Foniatria – Ravenna 19 ottobre 2001
Caratteristiche fisiologiche e acustiche del Canto Difonico
Graziano G. Tisato, Andrea Ricci Maccarini, Tran Quang Hai
Il Canto Difonico (Overtone Singing o Canto delle Armoniche) è una tecnica di canto
affascinante dal punto di vista musicale, ma particolarmente interessante anche dal punto di vista scientifico. In effetti con questa tecnica si ottiene lo sdoppiamento del suono vocale in due suoni distinti: il più basso corrisponde alla voce normale, nel consueto registro del cantante, mentre il più alto è un suono flautato, corrispondente ad una delle parziali armoniche, in un registro acuto (o molto acuto). A seconda dell’altezza della fondamentale, dello stile e della bravura, l’armonica percepita può andare dalla seconda alla 18° (e anche oltre).
Per quanto riguarda la letteratura scientifica, il Canto Difonico compare per la prima
volta in una memoria presentata da Manuel Garcia di fronte all’Accademia delle Scienze a Parigi il 16 novembre 1840, relativa alla difonia ascoltata da cantanti Bashiri negli Urali (Garcia, 1847).
In un trattato di acustica pubblicato qualche decennio più tardi (Radau, 1880), la realtà di questo tipo di canto è messa in discussione: “…Si deve classificare fra i miracoli ciò che Garcia racconta dei contadini russi da cui avrebbe sentito cantare contemporaneamente una melodia con voce di petto e un’altra con voce di testa”.
Deve trascorrere quasi un secolo dal 1840 prima che si ottenga un riscontro obbiettivo
della verità del rapporto di Garcia, con le registrazioni fatte nel 1934, fra i Tuva, da etnologi russi. Di fronte all’evidenza della analisi compiuta nel 1964 da Aksenov su quelle registrazioni, i ricercatori cominciarono a prendere in considerazione il problema del Canto Difonico (Aksenov, 1964, 1967, 1973). Aksenov è il primo ad attribuire la spiegazione del fenomeno al filtraggio selettivo dell’inviluppo formantico del tratto vocale sul suono glottico, e a paragonarlo allo scacciapensieri (con la differenza che la lamina di questo strumento può ovviamente produrre solo una fondamentale fissa). In quel periodo compare anche un articolo sul Journal of Acoustical Society of America (JASA) sulla difonia nel canto di alcune sette buddiste tibetane, in cui gli autori interpretano correttamente l’azione delle formanti sulla sorgente glottica, senza
tuttavia riuscire a spiegare come i monaci possano produrre fondamentali così basse (Smith et al., 1967).
A partire dal 1969, Leipp con il Gruppo di Acustica Musicale (GAM) dell’Università
Paris VI s’interessa al fenomeno dal punto di vista acustico (Leipp, 1971). Tran Quang Hai, del Musée de l’Homme di Parigi, intraprende in quel periodo una serie di ricerche sistematiche, che portano alla scoperta della presenza del Canto Difonico in un numero insospettato di tradizioni culturali diverse (Tran Quang,1975, 1980, 1989, 1991a, 1991b, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, e il sito Web http://www.baotram.ovh.org). L’aspetto distintivo della ricerca di Tran Quang Hai è la sperimentazione e verifica sulla propria voce delle diverse tecniche e stili di canto, che gli ha permesso la messa a punto di metodi facili di apprendimento (Tran Quang, 1989). Nel 1989 Tisato analizza e sintetizza il Canto Difonico con un modello LPC, dimostrando per questa via che la percezione degli armonici dipende esclusivamente dalle risonanze del tratto vocale (Tisato, 1989a, 1991). Nello stesso anno anche il rilevamento endoscopico delle corde vocali di Tran Quang Hai confermava la normalità della vibrazione laringea (Sauvage, 1989, Pailler, 1989). Nel 1992 compare uno studio più approfondito dal punto di vista fonetico e percettivo,
che mette in risalto la funzione della nasalizzazione nella percezione della difonia, la presenza di una adduzione molto forte delle corde vocali e una loro chiusura prolungata (Bloothooft et al., 1992). Gli autori contestano l’ipotesi fatta da Dmitriev che il Canto Difonico sia una diplofonia, con due sorgenti sonore prodotte dalle vere e dalle false corde vocali (Dmitriev et al., 1983). Nel 1999 Levin pubblica sul sito Web di Scientific American un articolo particolarmente interessante per gli esempi musicali che si possono ascoltare, le radiografie filmate della posizione degli articolatori e della lingua, e la spiegazione delle tecniche di produzione dei vari stili del Canto Difonico (Levin et al., 1999, http://www.sciam.com/1999/0999issue/0999levin.html).
Il lavoro che presentiamo qui è il risultato di una recente sessione di lavoro con Tran
Quang Hai (ottobre 2001), in cui abbiamo esaminato i meccanismi di produzione del canto difonico con fibroendoscopia. La strumentazione utilizzata era costituita da un fibroendoscopio flessibile collegato ad una fonte di luce stroboscopica, per valutare quello che succedeva a livello della faringe e della laringe, e un’ottica rigida 0°, collegata ad una fonte di luce alogena, per esaminare il cavo orale.
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
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 friendship.
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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