Tuvan Throat Singing Strangeness

What do you get if you roll together Howlin’ Wolf, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits with ancient nomadic culture and alien-sounding flute-like harmonics run through quirky boutique resonance effects boxes?

Last night at the packed Lawrence Arts Center I experienced for the second time in about a year the Alash Ensemble from Tuva , a tiny nation by Mongolia that has belonged to many empires over the centuries. They are billed as Tuvan throat singers, but that doesn’t really do justice to the wide range of instruments and sonic contours this unique group weaves together during their intimate concert presentations. As a musician myself with a long-time interest in ethnic music from around the world, I’ve heard many of the elements before, but nothing quite prepares me for the amazing range of sensations I experience as Alash takes us on journey back to an era before human speech was fully developed and then all the way up through the ages, sometimes incorporating subtle references to modern musical idioms and a powerful group synthesis that transcends the solo-based tradition (recall their nomadic history).

bipanel image of full ensemble in action

Alash Ensemble singing and playing on the Lawrence Arts Center theater stage.

In that hour or so of altered musical consciousness, I’ve felt a connection to something so ancient it gives me the delicious creeps, impulsively laughed nearly out loud with a knowing humor at sentiments I can’t even understand the verbal language of, enjoyed a soporific drift through a flowing dream of shifting textures both soothing and barbed, rolled along beside a mighty river feeling the gigantic uneven saunter of a water buffalo beneath me,  and fought to restrain myself from headbanging in my chair to a wall of implied rhythm and vocal breakdowns that rocked hard without explicitly rocking at all.

The instruments are made of wood, horse hair, animal skin, and hooves and when blown through, bowed, picked, strummed and beaten the resulting effect conjures fantastic mental imagery and unexpected emotions in those disposed to such experiences with music. These guys are truly masters of harmonics and overtones, in so many ways.

bipanel image of two solo performers close-up

Chinese zither on the left. On the right, a possible distant ancestor to the violin and cello, with an incredible range of timbres. Note the headstock carved as a horse’s head.

By far the most distinctive element, though, is the large variety of throat singing that appears during this journey. This is where my whimsical amalgamation in the opening paragraph is useful, as there really is no way to describe what it’s like to receive this sound directly, sitting there in close physical proximity to it. The first time I saw them at Spooner Hall and the first piece had commenced, I had just happily latched onto a mesmerizing Howlin’ Wolf vocal timbre when this beautiful, disembodied high-pitched oscillating harmonic drifted in far above, rhythmically modulating in pitch and sound-shape. I had to fight the urge to look around the flat, open room to see where it was coming from but I could see with my eyes that the same singer was producing both sounds and doing so with a fair amount of effort judging by the intense concentration, reddening face and a trickle of sweat forming on his brow.

This time around in the much better space of the Lawrence Arts Center theater, it was every bit as exotic and spellbinding and I began to hear more nuance in the various forms of throat singing these gifted and acclaimed artists bring us as gifts from the far side of the planet and the from the reaches of millennia. It should grab attention that the likes of Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten have come so strongly under Alash’s spell, and there was an easy connection to the performers with their sincere and humble demeanor radiating through the language barrier with the help of witty and informative appearances by their American-become-Tuvan manager now and then. But I’ll end by saying that for me it evokes sensations that are wonderfully beyond direct description – you will just have to make it a mission to experience this transporting experience for yourself some day.

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America’s Gulf Coast Life Against the Oil Disaster Backdrop

Even though the Gulf is America’s “poor man’s Riviera” in the view of many, its history with our country goes back to revolutionary times and beyond.

kingfish at the end of a day out on the Gulf

kingfish at the end of a day out on the Gulf

Having spent time down there on many occasions, not just on beaches and playing in the surf and getting stung by Gulf jellyfish but with folks that live and work there, and having seen the Gulf from the harbors, the lanes, the shallow and the deep waters, and having fished out in the depths and seined along the edges, I have a fondness for its odd mix of beauty and industry, diversity of people, and the persistence of small communities strung for miles and states along that coast where people work hard and live simply even in the best of times, and get devastated by hurricanes in what we thought was the worst of times. Until now.

The loss of eleven men by what appears to be largely simple cost-cutting measures and lax safety practices is arguably the worst aspect of this. And of course the pictures we see on the news and the complex economic dilemma it has created (reduce drilling and there’s another economic impact versus continue drilling and risk even more disasters) are unsettling and worrisome. Not to mention no one is really talking about how to get rid of all that oil that is underneath the water and out of sight of news crews and aerial photographers, broken into millions of tiny globules by carcinogenic dispersants used heavily and early to get it off the surface of the water and out of sight – out of sight and out of mind, except it isn’t really. And as the very real threat of hurricanes grows daily, just the thought of all that cancer-causing machinery-gumming life-suffocating drinking-water-tainting oil-water lifted out of the Gulf and spread across who-knows-where-all is like a dark movement of the subconscious we’d rather not have to experience right now, even in the abstract.

Gulf canals in barrier island communities

Gulf canals in barrier island communities

So, yes, I know it’s depressing and heartbreaking for some, political fodder for others, and a living tragedy for many, but I can’t help but think of the times and people in my life that I associate with the Gulf coast life and culture and my own experiences there. It is a vibrant and colorful mix of saltwater and sand and poverty and money and simple living and oil and fish and sea and humidity and heat and glitz and tourists and weathered deck hands missing fingers over droning diesel engines and heavy exhaust and cut-off shorts and flip-flops in grocery stores and families in fancy restaurants and industry and palm trees and rust and corrosion and surf, barrier islands, passes to the sea and watercraft everywhere and fishing, fishing, and more fishing!

heading out to fish

heading out to fish

At the turn of the previous century, my great grandfather decided to split away from the rest of the clan up north and on who knows what whim took his family south, down through the Great Plains, down through all of Texas, all the way to a small port town on the Gulf named Palacios, where amongst other endeavors he ran a small movie house and an ice house before they moved into the interior to work the oil fields, teach school, sell groceries, run cafes, fix things, build things, grow things, and of course always finding ways to fish in the Gulf.

I wonder what he envisioned standing in the sand on the beach with the ocean breeze in his face in 1908, looking out to sea at the most beautiful sunset he’d ever seen and a moon as big as a huge planet hanging in the saltwater haze.

Posted in Narrativity, The Two Things Never To Discuss, Travelology | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


I’ve had some requests from folks to hear my score to Michelle Heffner Hayes’ latest modern dance piece “Collide”, that was performed in late April at The Lied Center.

Once I get video back of it, I’ll post it to YouTube or something, but in the meantime, here is a temporary location to hear a mid-quality mp3 of it. It’s not squashed into a little audio brick like our favorite alt/pop/rock/punk because it was designed for a concert hall, which means you really have to crank it up or the quiet parts will be inaudible in many listening environments.

“Collide” mp3

I guess there’s not much to say about it – I’d like to think it’s got enough depth for repeated listens, and of course seeing it with its close sibling, the dance itself, is best. I really have to credit Michelle for her ability to communicate ideas, images, and feelings in wonderfully evocative terms that immediately begin conjuring up musical storms and reveries from the depths.

Posted in Musicalality, Danzisch, Artte, Beauty, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment