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Throat Singing – An Overview

Throat singing, or overtone singing, overtone chanting, or harmonic singing, is a type of singing in which the singer manipulates the resonances (or formants) created as air travels from the lungs, past the vocal folds, and out the lips to produce a melody.

A Brief History

Tuva is a small autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. The history of Tuvan throat singing reaches very far back. Many of the male herders can throat sing, and women are beginning to practice the technique as well. The popularity of throat singing among Tuvans seems to have arisen as a result of geographic location and culture. The open landscape of Tuva allows for the sounds to carry a great distance. Ethnomusicologists studying throat singing in these areas mark khoomei as an integral part in the ancient pastoral animism that is still practiced today. Often, singers will travel far into the countryside looking for the right river, or will go up to the steppes of the mountainside to create the proper environment for throat-singing.

The animistic world view of this region identifies the spirituality of objects in nature, not just in their shape or location, but in their sound as well. Thus, human mimicry of nature’s sounds is seen as the root of throat singing. (An example is the Mongolian story of the waterfall above the Buyan Gol (Deer River), where mysterious harmonic sounds are said to have attracted deer to bask in the waters, and where it is said harmonic sounds were first revealed to people.) Indeed, the cultures in this part of Asia have developed many instruments and techniques to mimic the sounds of animals, wind, and water. While the cultures of this region share throat singing, their styles vary in breadth of development.

It is simply the harmonized sounds that they are able to produce from deep within their throats. Ordinarily, melodies are created by isolating the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 12th partial in accordance with the harmonic series (if fundamental frequency were C3, the overtones would be: G5, Bb5, C6, D6, E6, G6). The base pitch is typically around a G below Middle C.

Techniques

The people of Tuva have a wide range of throat singing vocalizations, and were the pioneers of six pitch harmonics. There are several different classification schemes for Tuvan throat singing. In one, the three basic styles are khoomei, kargyraa and sygyt, while the sub-styles include borbangnadyr, chylandyk, dumchuktaar, ezengileer and kanzip. In another, there are five basic styles: khoomei, sygyt, kargyraa, borbangnadyr and ezengileer. The substyles include chylandyk, despeng borbang, opei khoomei, buga khoomei, kanzyp, khovu kargyraazy, kozhagar kargyraazy, dag kargyraazy, Oidupaa kargyraazy, uyangylaar, damyraktaar, kishteer, serlennedyr and byrlannadyr.

These schemes all use Tuvan terminology:

“Sygyt” (written in Cyrillic: Сыгыт) meaning whistling, a technique that utilizes a mid-range fundamental and produces a high-pitched, rather piercing harmonic reminiscent of whistling. The technique is different from khoomei as the fundamental is completely attenuated, and has a higher pitch. The tone sounds very bright and clear. Also described as an imitation of the gentle breezes of summer, the songs of birds.

“Kargyraa” (written in Cyrillic: Каргыраа) a deep undertone technique. The vestibular folds, also known as the false vocal folds, are vibrated to produce an undertone exactly half the frequency of the fundamental produced by the vocal folds, and the mouth cavity is shaped to select harmonics of both the fundamental and the undertone, producing from four to six pitches simultaneously. There are two main kargyraa styles, dag kargyraa and khovu kargyraa. The dag or “mountain” kargyraa is the lower of the two. There are also the distinctive kargyraa styles of Vladimir Oidupaa and Albert Kuvezin, the latter also bearing the name kanzat. This is sometimes described as the howling winds of winter or the plaintive cries of a mother camel after losing her calf.

“Khoomei” (written in Cyrillic: Хөөмей) While khoomei is used as a generic term to designate all throat singing techniques in this region, it is also more specifically a technique where the drone is in the middle-range of the voice, with harmonics between one and two octaves above. Singing in this style gives the impression of wind swirling among rocks.

“Chylandyk” (written in Cyrillic: Чыландык) merely a mixture of sygyt and kargyraa. Both styles are sung at once, creating an unusual sound of low undertones mixed with the high Sygyt whistle. It has also been described as the “chirping of crickets.”

“Dumchuktaar” (written in Cyrillic: Думчуктаар) could be best described as “throat humming”. The singer creates a sound similar to sygyt using only the nasal passage. The word means to sing through the nose (dumchuk). The mouth does not need to be closed, but of course it demonstrates the point better.

“Ezengileer” (written in Cyrillic: Эзеңгилээр) is a pulsating style, attempting to mimic the rhythms of horseback riding. It is named after the Tuvan word for stirrup, ezengi.

Perhaps the best known Tuvan throat singing group is Huun Huur Tu.

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