Tapping out a lively beat, the Tuvan drummer set the pace. A classical string quartet joined in. Igils, traditional Tuvan instruments, rounded out the string section. As the Tuvan musicians began to sing, each producing multiple tones, a rich, full sound enveloped the room. A much bigger sound than one would expect from only seven musicians, it was the pièce de résistance of “Unexpected Voices,” a concert featuring the Tuvan ensemble Alash and a classical string quartet at The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) on January 11, 2008.
The CMS Student Producers, a group of carefully selected high school students from the tri-state area around New York City, presented the performance. Every year, they design, market and produce a series of four unconventional chamber music concerts with a “twist” exclusively for high school students. Up-and-coming professional musicians from the CMS Two program play chamber music, and guest artists like Alash introduce new genres. “With our Unconventional Concerts, we hope to cultivate a new generation of chamber music listeners while exposing our peers to the rich culture of Lincoln Center. We want teenagers to realize that chamber music is still young and vibrant, and doesn't have to be heard in large concert halls full of senior citizens,” says Halleh Balch, co-president of the CMS Student Producers.
Alash was a perfect choice for this concert series because they are committed to sharing their fascinating musical and cultural heritage. “Tuvan music comes from a direct sound connection with nature, featuring not only multi-tonal throat singing but beautiful string, wind, and percussion instruments all based on a completely original sound-complex independent of the western one and based on a subtler ability to hear the sounds of the environment,” says Sean Quirk, the American manager and interpreter for Alash. Alash enjoys collaborating with musicians ranging from the Sun Ra Arkestra to Bela Fleck, and now the CMS Two quartet.
For the CMS concert, music was specially arranged by Ayana Samiyaevna Mongush, director of the Tuvan National Orchestra and perhaps the only person in the world who can arrange and score music for both traditional Tuvan and classical orchestral instruments. The result was seamless, as though the music were originally composed for violin, viola, cello, igil, kengirge (Tuvan drum), and throat singers. The spectacular performance was all the more impressive because the CMS Two quartet received their musical scores on the morning of the concert; the two groups had only a few hours to rehearse together. The first two collaborative pieces were the traditional Tuvan songs “Tooruktug Dolgai Tangdym” and “Agitator.” The collaboration ended with a striking rendition of Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace), in which the melody was alternately played by the string quartet and produced vocally by the throat singers.
Alash and the string quartet also preformed individually to showcase both the Tuvan music and the chamber music. A question-and-answer session followed the concert, and the first question on everyone’s mind was, “How do you do it?” Quirk explained that everyone’s voice produces multiple frequencies. Throat singers create the right shapes in their vocal tracts to emphasize the frequencies they want and filter out those they do not want.
The students observed that the igil has a rich sound like a cello. Quirk agreed and added that some scholars believe the igil to be an ancestor of the cello. The students also noticed the “galloping horse” rhythm in much of the Tuvan music. Quirk explained that Tuvan culture is connected to raising horses and livestock, and many songs celebrate horses.
When asked what life is like in Tuva, the Tuvans answered, through their interpreter, “We have better meat in Tuva.”
The final question was a request for an encore, and Alash obliged. As the students stood up to leave, one could hear a chorus of appreciative “wows.”
Alash is on tour in the Northeast U.S. through February 2, 2008. For more information visit http://www.alashensemble.com/
For more about the CMS Student Producers, visit http://www.chambermusicsociety.org/learning/102/The-Student-Producers
For more about the CMS Two program, visit http://www.chambermusicsociety.org/about/3/cms-two