A few months ago I was listening to Barbie-Danielle DeCarlo’s Daily Planet show (Fridays 3-5pm) on KBCS and she played a remarkable song by the Tuvan throatsinger, Kongar ol-Ondar (Shamanic prayer in the style of kalzang for Richard Feynman) hear it. It was a memorial to the distinguished physicist and champion of Tuva, Richard Feynmann, performed in the rotunda of Pasadena City Hall (Feynmann taught just down the street at Cal Tech).
Until then, I had only known of Feynmann through his extraordinary service on the Columbia shuttle disaster panel. Through this, I’d heard something of the scientist’s penchant for brilliant, but iconoclastic views on a wide variety of subjects. But I never knew of his devotion to Tuvan music.
So the idea of a great Tuvan singer coming all the way to Cal Tech to perform a shamanic prayer for Richard Feynmann’s soul was incredibly captivating. It took some time to locate the CD which includes the song because Deep in the Heart of Tuva (where it originally appeared) seems all but out of print. But the Tuvan Trader website offers another source, Kongar On-Ondar: Echoes of Tuva, which is how the song came into my hands.
I should move backward to tell you how I first came to hear Tuvan music. Like many, I heard one of the early U.S. tours of Huun Huur Tu back in the mid 1990s. The group’s manager, Ted Levin (who was introduced to Tuva by Feynmann), a Dartmouth ethnomusicologist, prepared an extraordinary aural presentation of the mimesis of Nature that constitutes khoomei or throatsinging (this Levin passage is from Scientific American):
From atop one of the rocky escarpments that crisscross the south Siberian grasslands and taiga forests of Tuva, one’s first impression is of an unalloyed silence as vast as the land itself. Gradually the ear habituates to the absence of human activity. Silence dissolves into a subtle symphony of buzzing, bleating, burbling, cheeping, whistling–our onomatopoeic shorthand for the sounds of insects, beasts, water, birds, wind. The polyphony unfolds slowly, its colors and rhythms by turns damped and reverberant as they wash over the land’s shifting contours.
Levin brought recordings of four natural settings which he’d made on his trips to Tuva. I remember three of them: one, the sounds of the wind (each of these are short sound samples from the remarkable Tuva, Among the Spirits: Sound, Music, and Nature in Tuva) blowing across the Siberian plateau after he’d just climbed a tall mountain to reach the crest; the second was the burbling of a mountain stream. The third was a horseback ride across the Tuvan plain. What amazed was that for each natural setting there was a unique musical style. Even the various sounds of the brook and the various speeds of the running water had specific musical accompaniments. I just about felt my jaw drop as Levin would play the recording and then the singer would respond. The musical sounds had the most extraordinary mimetic properties!
Here again is Levin talking about the mimetic quality of Tuvan song:
The very first throat-singers, it is said, sought to duplicate natural sounds whose timbres, or tonal colors, are rich in harmonics, such as gurgling water and swishing winds. Although the true genesis of throat-singing as practiced today is obscure, Tuvan pastoral music is intimately connected to an ancient tradition of animism, the belief that natural objects and phenomena have souls or are inhabited by spirits.
According to Tuvan animism, the spirituality of mountains and rivers is manifested not only through their physical shape and location but also through the sounds they produce or can be made to produce by human agency. The echo off a cliff, for example, may be imbued with spiritual significance. Animals, too, are said to express spiritual power sonically. Humans can assimilate this power by imitating their sounds.
Ted Levin wrote a remarkable book about his travels through the heart of central Asia: The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia (And Queens, New York) (click on book jacket link to buy it)
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