When I told people that I was going to a concert of Tuvan Throat Singing at Howard Assembly Room on Friday their reactions generally fell into three categories; a roll of the eyes, a ‘What the … is throat singing?’ and ‘You do realise that Friday is April Fool’s Day’. There was a fourth which came from a fellow reviewer who said, ‘Great, they are brilliant, I will see you there!’ and he did. I confess, I had no idea what throat singing was until this concert but I now know, not only that, but, thanks to a pre-performance film, also about the Russian Republic of Tuva, from where the art form comes.
Tuva is situated smack in the middle of Asia and comprises 65,800 square miles but has a population of only just over 300,000. It is in Siberia and borders Mongolia. The people are mostly nomads travelling around the region living in yurts and raising cattle, sheep and horses, which are revered.
The film also dealt with the Soviet communist era when the Tuvans were made to burn their yurts and move into permanent housing, abandon Mongolian script for the Latin alphabet, change their names to more Russian versions and cease playing the national instrument, the Tuvan Jaw Harp, as it was said to spread disease!
Throat singing is a way for Tuvans to communicate with nature and was originally practised by solo performers who would do this in places with natural acoustics, such as caves and cliffs, taking breaks so that nature had time to answer back. Although musical instruments are now used, the themes of the tunes and songs still all relate to nature.
The technique involves singing in two registers at the same time. The effect is a bit like bagpipes, in that there is a low drone, which is more of a growl with vibrato created by the tongue, and an almost falsetto top register providing the melody. It really does have to be witnessed to be believed.
Huun-Huur-Tu, meaning sun propeller or sunbeam, again emphasising the link with nature, is a quartet but for this performance they were reduced to a trio because one of the members had problems with his visa. I don’t think they meant that his credit card had been declined at Tesco! I must say that if this is what the three of them sound like I would love to see the whole ensemble. It is quite possible that you have heard the group perform as their song, Osku Urug, was featured in Season 3 of that amazing TV show Fargo in the episode The Law of Vacant Places.
Since their formation in 1992 the group has incorporated more westernised instruments into their performances but the ones used here were variations on strings, a Shaman drum and a flute.
It is not easy describing unfamiliar music as it really needs to be heard. There were, however, several similarities between what was performed on stage here and other forms of folk music. When the ‘fiddles’ and drum were used together there was a hint of Scottish and Irish reels and in one of the songs about a horse, pieces of wood were used to replicate the sound of the hooves with the ‘guitar’ and ‘fiddle’ giving the whole thing a Country and Western feel. Sorry, but that is the best that I can do.
As well as singing in two registers simultaneously, Radik Tyulyush also sang and played the flute at the same time! The flute was more like a recorder with no mouthpiece and was placed inside the mouth rather than on the lips. His stringed instrument was also pretty special in that it was not bowed in a conventional manner but the bow strings were threaded to the rear of the instrument’s strings so that they were played from behind. I suppose that this has an additional advantage in that you can’t lose your bow as it is intertwined with the fiddle.
I can’t help but marvel at the diversity of the performers playing Howard Assembly Room, they have provided a feast of new experiences and I would heartily recommend that you step out of your comfort zone and give something you wouldn’t normally attend, a try. You may just surprise yourself.
To find out more about Huun-Huur-Tu please go to their website https://huunhuurtu.wordpress.com/ You will see a link to a performance on YouTube but, should you access it please disregard the first 30 seconds or so as they seem to have a soundtrack from a Eurovision Song Contest entry!
For forthcoming events at Howard Assembly Room please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/howard-assembly-room/
Feature photograph taken by Tom Arber. All others by Stan Graham