A Lyrical Trip To Tuva's Past Offers A Glimpse Into Its Future.
By Mari Wadsworth
JADED FANS OF alternative music won't be surprised to hear one of the finest examples of the genre is quite literally an imitation. Isn't everything? Well, not in the strictest sense of the word. In the case of quartet Huun-Huur-Tu (also known as the Throat Singers of Tuva), the art of imitation is rooted in a centuries-old world view of music as an offering, as opposed to the commercial vehicle catering to the least common denominator we've come to expect. The end result is a strange, beautiful tapestry of sound and rhythm that taps into something more real, more authentic, than anything you'll likely find on the American musical landscape.
Animism, the belief that the natural world is inhabited by spirits, is the driving force in Tuvan music. For the Tuvans, traditionally, music has served as a means to communicate with the spirits. Imitating the sounds of nature--the burbling stream, a blue field of grain, the craggy slope of a mountain, the galloping horse--is a spiritual expression of appreciation and respect for the ethereal resonance surrounding them.
The group Huun-Huur-Tu has brought these ancient traditions to the western stage to wide acclaim; and since their sold-out performance here in Tucson two years ago, they've been traveling through their native land examining and recording various nuances of the country's musical styles. Because the musicians themselves speak only Russian and Tuvan, we spoke with "tour curator" Ted Levin, an American ethnomusicologist who's been working in partnership with the musicians since 1993, about his introduction to the group and the evolution of Tuvan music.
"I first found out about the Tuvans when the physicist Richard Feynman sent us a tape from an old record he had, from Russia, (with a note) that said, 'Thought you guys might be interested in this.' When I heard it, I was blown away. I decided then and there I had to meet the people who were making those sounds."
That was back in the early-'80s, when Levin was involved with a group in New York called the Harmonic Choir. They'd been experimenting with overtone singing as a kind of modernist, or what Levin calls "a contemporary minimalist" approach to music. A few years later, he found himself on a plane to the small republic west of Mongolia.
"I was the first American to go there and study this music, and Tuvan culture in general. I went in 1987, on assignment from National Geographic. I made the recordings during that year and the next year that became the Smithsonian Folkways release, "Tuva: Voices from the Center of Asia." That was the first recording of Tuvan music released in the west.
Levin, together with Ralph Leighton (author of Feynman's ill-fated quest, Tuva Or Bust) brought the first Tuvan musicians to the United States for a small tour in 1988. Out of that group of three, the group Huun-Huur-Tu formed, and they've been working together ever since. Levin, who travels with them and serves as interpreter for many of the U.S. shows, is also the executive producer of Huun-Huur-Tu's third CD release, If I'd Been Born An Eagle, recorded last summer in Holland. The group has been touring continuously since last spring, landing in California to start a 30-city U.S. tour this week.
"In summer we go to Tuva together," says Levin, "doing this musical archaeology to reestablish the original principles of the singing, before it got put on concert stages. (Our goal is) to try to understand how it served the world view of the animists. (The musicians) are as interested in that, and as ignorant about it, in a sense, as I am. So we're all learning together."
Levin explains that while the origins of the music, and of kaygyraa, or throat singing, are largely unknown because they have no recorded history, the practices of throat singing and rhythmic imitation, both vocal and instrumental, are widespread; legends of how humankind first learned to sing abound, and they all involve various forms of people imitating sounds heard in nature.
Throat singing has received the most attention because of its striking ability to produce, using precise movements of the lips, tongue, jaw, velum and larynx, two or three distinct harmonic tones simultaneously. Levin concedes that "throat singing has a mystery, like a vocal trick," but is quick to point out that it's but one of a variety of equally compelling and sophisticated forms.
"The other forms involve lyrical songs that describe topographies in great detail. What they really do is make sonic maps of landscape--a lot like the famous songlines of the Aborigines. Those are hard to get the point of if you don't understand the words. One of the advantages of throat-singing is that even though the songs are texted, you don't have to understand the words to get the point of the music. There are other forms of imitative music played on instruments. Many of the stringed instruments imitate the sounds of horses; wind instruments imitate the sounds of birds and other wild animals. The Jew's harp is also an important instrument in Tuva. There's a kind of imitation going on between the Jew's harp and the throat-singing. They both imitate each other."
Tuva, under the Soviet system, was always an autonomous republic. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tuva retained its economic and cultural autonomy, though it became politically a part of Russia. Three-quarters of a century of imposed western influence, combined with the relative isolation of these Turkic people of the South Siberian grasslands, has given rise to an evolving traditional music fusing the poetic, animist perspectives of inter-Asia with Russian-influenced, harmony-based folk music. This diversity is reflected on If I'd Been Born An Eagle, marking a departure from the group's more traditional previous releases. When asked if this is a consequence of modernization in Tuva, Levin responds in the negative:
"I wouldn't say Tuva is modernizing much. In fact, it's probably moving backward from what it was in Soviet times. There's a cultural and economic vacuum created by the break up of the Soviet Union that hasn't yet been replaced by local institutional structures.
"The changes on the CD are not really the result of recent or radical modernization. It's just that finally (the musicians) sort of have the courage and desire to share with western audiences what they've been doing all along. Let's face it. Traditional music in the west is sort of a social construct: Western/world music audiences like to go see performers from exotic places performing exotic sounding music. But that's not really the way it is in these so-called exotic places. In fact, it's just the opposite. What local people are listening to is not solo throat-singers, but tradition-based pop or tradition-based rock. That is the traditional music of Tuva now. So that's what they're bringing."
While Levin maintains the physical landscape of Tuva--so much a part of their music and culture--remains largely unchanged today, he intimates that modernization, and the popularization of Tuvan music in the global market, is literally loving the music to death.
The fear is not that the ancient forms will be lost, but that they are evolving before musicians, and scholars, have had a chance to learn their original sound and purpose. "There's a stylistic homogenization that's working against the individuality at the root of this music," says Levin.
"It was something practiced by individuals in response to being touched or moved by nature, a desire to communicate with nature, to implant oneself in nature. Out of those conditions of isolated herders singing to themselves, their animals, a stream, many different styles of vocal and instrumental music arose. With increasing emphasis on performance in competitions, festivals and concert halls, recordings with mass distribution, these changes work to standardize both the repertory and the stylistic variety. We're trying to fix and record this variety as it exists in our lifetime."
Still, the live performance is the thing, and the Tucson show promises to move backward and forward in time, with a mixture of traditional songs, original compositions, and the combining of recorded sounds with live performance to try to explain to an untrained audience how the music is fixed in landscape. For example, sung overtones will interact with the recorded overtones of running water; and they'll attempt to recreate the sound of Tuvan long songs echoing against cliffs.
"It's a living music. It's meant to be experienced directly," says Levin. "The physical vibrations of the sound are meant to affect you. They can do that much more easily in a live venue."
Huun-Huur-Tu performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, February 2, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $16 and $18 in advance from the Dillard's, Centennial Hall, and Temple box offices, Hear's Music and Zia Records. Students receive a $1 discount with ID. Call 622-2823 or 1-800-638-4253 for reservations. The group offers a throat-singing workshop from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday, February 3, at the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts, 408 S. Sixth Ave. A film of Tuva will be shown, followed by instruction in throat-singing. Cost is $10, and tickets are available at the evening performance, Hear's Music, and at the door. Call 327-4809 for information.
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