Singers can do amazing things with their voices, but producing two or three notes at the same time has to be one of the strangest.
Stranger still is the way it sounds: eerie, ghostly whistles rising above lower notes in a guttural, rumbling drone.
It's called overtone, shuang hou (雙喉) or throat singing, and it's the specialty of Sayan Mountains, a national ensemble of song and dance troupes from Tuva, a Russian republic bordering Mongolia. Sayan performed Wednesday at Taipei's Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and is touring Taiwan through Aug. 25.
In throat singing the singer manipulates the harmonic resonances created as air travels from the lungs, past the vocal folds and out of the lips. The overtones are heard when portions of a sound wave produced by the human voice are amplified by changing the shape of the cavities of the mouth, vocal cords and throat. By tuning his or her voice in this manner the singer can create more than once pitch at the same time, with the possibility of creating as many as six pitches at once.
The result is a kaleidoscope of sound that defies easy explanation. The style known as khoomei, which is what the singers from Tuva call their variant of throat singing, resembles the pulsing notes of a didgeridoo grounding layers of higher octaves that sound like a fluttering fifes. These sounds are said to mimic the birds, wolves, horses and natural phenomena like wind and waterfalls that the Tuvans encounter on the steppes of Central Asia.
Khoomei has been practiced by Tuvan herders for generations, and scholars say it is an important part of the region's ancient pastoral animism, or the belief that natural objects and phenomenon have souls or are inhabited by spirits. According to Tuvan animism, the supernatural reveals itself not only in the location or shape of objects in nature, but in their sounds as well. Throat singing is one of the many techniques that the cultures of Central Asia have developed to mimic the sounds of wind, water and animals, with the aim of harnessing the power of these sounds.
While khoomei and other forms of overtone singing are a common feature of nomadic life in Central Asia, for the first-time listener the experience is nothing short of a sonic adventure. One Tuvan ensemble, Huun-Huur-Tu, has been touring the world for the last decade as a trio or quartet. A dazzled US reviewer called their music “otherworldly, but deeply spiritual.” Another wrote that, “The Tuvans will ride into your brain and leave hoof prints up and down your spine.”
As traditional Tuvan life is based on herding, which is usually performed alone or in small groups, khoomei has historically been a solitary endeavor. (It has also, until recently, been an exclusively male one, due to a belief that throat singing harms a woman's fertility.)
If Huun-Huur-Tu's tours showed the power and popularity of a capella throat singing, Sayan is taking the approach several steps further.
Their performance Wednesday evening at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall featured a soloist, a quartet who sang and played a skin drum and traditional stringed instruments, several larger ensembles that included women and children, and a number of dance routines.
Most memorable were a solo and a quartet performance that featured Kongar-Ool Ondar, a burly, red-faced man who could sustain powerful, bellowing growls and clear, soaring flute-like sounds for astonishingly long periods of time. Both segments occurred early in the concert, well before intermission, with the result that the remainder of the show was a bit of a letdown.