On Second Thought
V/A - Tuva, Among the Spirits...






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Back in 1977 physicist and Caltech professor Richard Feynman and his friend, Ralph Leighton, became obsessed with Tuva, a remote corner of Siberia sitting on the (then) Soviet-Mongolian border. They decided to go to this isolated region because the capital, Kyzyl, was spelled without any vowels (they thought this was neat). The set about learning all they could of Tuvan culture: its language, its people, its history, and—significantly—its music. They formed the Friends of Tuva society, encouraging the spread of Tuvan culture into the west.

But Feynman never made it. He died of cancer in 1988, right before he and Leighton were granted permission to visit this region. Leighton did go, and you can read all about it in his book, Tuva or Bust! But it's thanks to the duo's decade-long obsession with Tuva (coupled with the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of tourism in this previously off-limits region) that Tuvan culture—or, more specifically, Tuvan music, especially throat singing—has gained some notoriety. Throat singing is a technique that allows singers to produce two or even three notes simultaneously. It's a sound that is unheard in any other musical culture outside Central Asia.

This enthusiasm for throat singing opened the door for Tuvan music groups like Huun-Huur Tu, who have gained some notoriety among world music buffs. One of those buffs was Paul Pena, the blind American bluesman who, upon hearing Tuvan throat singing, became so excited that he promptly began studying throat singing; later he organized an expedition to Tuva in order to participate in a local music festival. A documentary about his journey, called Genghis Blues, was my first introduction to Tuva. Seeing that film inspired me to learn more about this region and its music. From there, I began to explore music from Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and other ethnic regions of the former Soviet Union. I became so fascinated by all that I'd heard and learned that I decided to create a web site, Almaty or Bust, dedicated to Central Asian music (with a name borrowed from Leighton's book).

What I've learned, in the course of my obsession, is that throat singing, while interesting, is only the starting point for learning about Tuvan music. More intersting is the way these people have managed to create a musical culture that is entirely at home in the nature. Tuva is a region of herders and hunters: people who live with and among animals. The music that Tuvans create is a way to communicate with these animals and with the spirits that inhabit all natural things. The horses, the birds, the wind, the rain, the rivers, and the grass: these are the elements that shape Tuvan lives, and these are the elements recreated in Tuvan music.

For outsiders, there is no better way to understand and appreciate Tuvan music than listening to Tuva, Among the Spirits, a work of unparalleled beauty, intelligence, and craft. It is an album recorded in the neighboring Tuvan and Sakhan regions of Siberia by eminent ethnomusicologist Ted Levin and engineer Joel Gordon. The field recordings they made in their travels are without peer. Trust me—I've heard a LOT of field recordings of traditional music, and none have sounded as crisp, as polished, and as authentic as these do.

But that sound quality is just a vehicle. What matters about these recordings are the sounds themselves and what they tell us about the role music plays in these herding and hunting cultures. In his liner notes, Levin notes that the music created on this disk should be called "sound mimesis," for it "both reproduces and interacts with the ambient sounds of the natural world." This is exactly what you hear on this disk's nineteen tracks. Track seven, "Borbangnadyr with Stream Water," begins with the sound of a bobbing, warbling stream; soon it is joined by a single throat singer, who attempts, in his song, to connect his own voice to the stream's voice. It works: just listen to the high-pitched wail, with its warbling, stuttering effects, and notice how, for just a second, the stream sound and the man's voice converge. It's amazing, especially when you realize that this was recorded in the field, with a man sitting beside a stream and an engineer holding a microphone to capture both sounds.

Each track here tries to illustrate one of the many ways that Tuvan and Sakhan musics seek communion with nature. There are tracks where you hear birds singing in the distance, communicating with one another. More birds join the conversation, and you wonder—where are the people? Then it hits you: some of those birds are people! There are tracks featuring dog, horses, wind, echoing caves and cliffs, rivers, lakes, rain, trees, grass: just about any natural sound you can imagine. And, always, there is human accompaniment, either in the form of a jaw harp, a drum, a plucked string instrument, or a human voice, both singing and throat singing.

Some fans of Tuvan music have criticized this album for not including enough throat singing, as if throat singing was the point of Tuvan music. They're way off. Tuvan music is far more than throat singing. It's music created in and through all of nature. It is music as it must have sounded thousands of years ago, when the only thing separating human beings from extinction was their ability to adapt and to create. Imitating natural sounds was a form of defense against potential dangers; it also held a religious component, for it held a prime place in animistic rituals. I knew all these things; they are central ideas in anthropology, archaeology, and ethnomusicology. But I never fully understood these things until I heard this album. That a mere album could bring even a glimpse of our shared past to life is an amazing accomplishment. That it manages to do this and still be an entertaining and exciting listening experience is a borderline miracle. Too bad Feynman didn't live to hear it.


By: Michael Heumann
Published on: 2004-04-06
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