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January 22, 2004

A throat-singing performance is not something that's easily forgotten, and if you've seen practitioners of the form produce this eerie, hypnotic sound, chances are you remember where and when. Throat-singing -- or overtone-singing -- is an extraordinary vocal technique in which a singer simultaneously produces two or three vocal notes, one being dominant and the others being harmonic. Princeton-trained ethnomusicologist Ted Levin was equally captivated when he first heard throat-singing.

"I belonged to an overtone-singing group in New York City called the Harmonic Choir," he says, "and one day, we received in the mail a little package from the physicist Richard Feynman, which included a cassette wrapped in a scribbled note, 'Thought you guys might be interested in this...' It was a recording of Tuvan throat-singing dubbed from an old Melodiya record. I remember very clearly listening to that cassette for the first time, and thinking, 'I must meet the people who make those sounds.'"

Levin didn't just meet the people who made those sounds. He became the first American to do ethnographic fieldwork in what was then the Soviet Autonomous Republic of Tuva and he is widely credited with introducing this ancient musical tradition to the West through his field recordings.

Levin explains why he got hooked on their harmonics. "It's a combination of things: first, it's so primordial," he says. "It's impossible to say how old throat-singing is, but it seems to open a window on the distant past, when sound art and what you might call 'sound technology' were closely bound together in human practice. Second, I was fascinated by the way throat-singing illuminates one of the basic building blocks of music everywhere: the harmonic series. And third, I find throat-singing really beautiful and moving. The way to listen to it is to allow your attention to float freely up and down the frequency spectrum -- not to get caught up in listening to a melody, as we habitually do in Western music, but to focus on what's going on inside each tone," he says. "This goes not only for throat-singing, but for the wonderful instrumental music performed on bowed instruments that are rich in harmonics. The instrumental techniques illustrate the same focus on timbre, or tone quality, that you have in throat-singing."

Posted by acapnews at January 22, 2004 9:14 AM

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