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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Bizarre Sounds of UMB

From the snow-covered mountains of Tuva, located north of Mongolia, comes an ancient form of singing called “overtone singing.” However, my introduction to this art, inspired by central Asian methods and Tibetan religious practices, came right through the phone line.

On Monday, November 17, guest singer Erik Nugent gave an in-class demonstration on overtone singing to over twenty students attending music classes at UMass Boston. Their reactions ranged from disbelief and amazement to laughter and shock. “The point of the demonstration was to introduce a completely different approach to music-making, enabling people to understand the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western music,” said David Patterson, head of the UMB music department.

Nugent, a musician and instrument maker, has practiced throat singing for close to a year. Willing to unveil the mysterious art, he asked during our phone interview if I would like to hear him sing. My reaction to the sounds was overwhelming. I heard low vibrating notes and high piercing ones simultaneously. Think deep and low rumbling satanic-like chants plus high piercing sound waves all at once. Opera singers take notice: this technique defies how you’ve been trained to sing. “You must be able to take a beating,” said Nugent.

Overtone singing, otherwise known as throat singing since it is the throat rather than the diaphragm that projects the notes, results when the primary note is heard vibrating along with higher tones (overtones) above it. In regular singing, these overtones exist but are not heard. Voices and instruments are distinguished partly by the way they project overtones. For example, the violin and the clarinet share the same overtone projection, whereas the flute doesn’t provide any, giving it its angelic and clear sounding notes.

There are three main sounds produced through Tuvan overtone singing. The first, called Khoomei, is distinguished by a bright sound using second, third, fourth, and fifth overtones. Sygyt, the second kind, is a bright sound with fifth through thirteenth overtones. The third sound is called Kargyrra and consists of a low rumbling sound that allows for both Khoomei and Sygyt mouth positions and overtones. The demonstration was complete with alternating listening and singing exercises for the music scholars brave enough to give it a go.

Nugent was invited to perform for the music students when he and Patterson met at a concert a few months ago. Nugent explained how “the world of acoustic expression came to a close once electric sounds took over.” Tuvan overtone singing may be the savior of our own god-given form of synthesizing, allowing us to further “explore acoustic inventions.”

For more insight on Tuvan overtone singing visit www.khoomei.com or www.fotuva.org.