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Although the voice doesn’t often appear in my music, I have nevertheless been fascinated with it for a long time — particularly the way that pitch and timbre are elastic and almost infinitely malleable. I’m especially interested in unorthodox, non-Western styles of vocal production that, upon first hearing, have left me wondering: ‘how did they do that’?
Tuvan throatsinging (or ‘overtone singing’) was one of those styles. When I first heard it as a teenager, I wasn’t quite sure what I was listening to. I couldn’t understand how a single person could make those freakish, unearthly sounds.
It turns out that you need to master an extremely difficult-to-replicate technique, in which the singer vibrates both the vocal cords and the ‘false vocal folds’ (or ‘vestibular folds’, which are mucus membranes in the throat that enclose the vestibular ligament). Then, with a high degree of control of the diaphragm and lungs, and the careful and precise manipulation of the tongue, lips and soft palate, the singer highlights specific overtones in the voice’s natural spectrum. The result is quite unlike any other style of vocalisation in the world — an almost otherworldly sound that seems to emanate from somewhere inside the body other than the throat.
There are several different types of throatsinging that a singer is expected to be able to produce. The low style, kargyraa, is an incredible sound — rich, deep and gravelly, full of vibrations and intense harmonics. The high style, sygyt (whistling), is a more melodic style, in which the singer amplifies individual overtones while attenuating others. This can be done to such a high degree of precision that different harmonics ‘sing out’, creating distinct melodic lines even though only one pitch is actually being sung.
In Sygyt, the ensemble imitates, extrapolates and surrounds the throatsinger. Although the chords are mostly drawn from the harmonic series, at times these are superimposed over low bass notes that recontextualize the fundamental, a practice that hints at Romantic harmonic logic. But the music always returns to the essential ‘purity’ of the harmonic series.
Sygyt was written for the extremely talented Jonny Marks, a versatile musician with a true love of sound and a rocking sygyt and kargyraa.