Tuvan Tunes

Pedestrians passing the University of Chicago’s International House on the evening of April 14 may have noticed the bellows emanating from the building’s top floor. Did the University host a didgeridoo competition or rent a few elephants, you ask? Surely not–in reality, Alash, a professional Tuvan throat singing group, and a motley group of students and aficionados produced the thundering roars. In an open-ended training session led by four master throat singers, audience members learned the basics of the practice with feedback and assistance from the masters and their translator and manager, Sean Quirk.

According to the group’s webpage, throat singing originated among the nomadic tribesmen of the tiny Central Asian republic of Tuva. The practice consists of several different techniques, each meant to mimic the sounds of a different part of nature; in the workshop, audience members attempted the xoomei style, which produces a low drone and a high whistle simultaneously, and the kargyraa style, which produces up to six simultaneous pitches in a low register. According to the group’s translator, “in order to truly learn [Tuvan throat singing], you must start on the path correctly, then practice, listen, and repeat until you are confident.” The small audience of 25 tried valiantly to learn the underpinnings of this style, growling and howling to the best of each man, woman, and child’s ability, creating, according to Quirk, “all of the horrible noises that new practitioners necessarily make.”

Our futile attempts, though applauded by the members of Alash, paled in comparison to the precise and beautiful performances put on by the masters. Throat singing, performed correctly, utilizes the constriction of the vocal folds to produce overtones of varying frequencies and pitches with little to no mouth movement. Accompanied by strings, flutes and harp-like instruments, the subtle notes combine to form haunting melodies.

All third-generation singers, the members of Alash came together in 1999 and began to tour the U.S. in 2006. The group has also performed in various locales in Asia and Europe. Although most masters begin their studies of throat singing at a very young age, it is possible to learn the practice later in life. The most important thing, according to Quirk, is “to have an honest ear in order to self-improve.”