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Throat singing is a unique method of singing, or vocal art in which a singer can simultaneously sing, creating two, sometimes three or four notes. This miraculous method of singing is exercised by a number of Asian tribes, and a rich tradition survives in Tuva. Located deep in Siberia surrounded by grasslands, forests and mountains, the presence of humans is rare, in fact the whole population numbers only 150,000. The people who occupy this land, seem to be one with nature, and have a deep heritage tied to the land. The Tuvan throat singers come from a nomadic herding culture in which men would spend hours even days alone on horseback with only their animals and nature to call on for company. It was through this loneliness and place in nature that throat singing was developed. It is a form of stylized storytelling where the music represents sounds of nature: running streams or birds for example. The act of throat singing is highly personal to the Tuvans, as they believe it connects them closer to the spirit of nature. Throat singing is typically practiced by men because of a taboo placed against female throat singing, based on a belief that it caused infertility. In more recent times some younger women are beginning to practice throat singing.
Referred to as Khoomei by the Tuvan natives, its origin still a bit of a mystery, its purpose was to reproduce the sounds of nature. Throat singing usually consists of one low, sustained fundamental pitch (comparing to the drone of a bagpipe) and a second pitch is much higher and more harmonic (similar to a flute or whistle type sound). This second, higher pitch is manipulated to represent the sounds of nature, and alters in pitch unlike the lower tone which stays relatively the same throughout a song. So one human voice is creating two or three separate tones at one time. People in western culture found this hard to believe; one person creating two separate tones, how can this be done. Through much research and study on Tuvan throat singing an answer was obtained.
Throat singers manipulate their vocal chords in such a way to create the separate sounds. Researchers in New York City went so far as to use a “fiber optic endoscope placed through the nose and throat to see what the throat singers actually did.” Researchers found that singers used false vocal chords (in the throat) “and the aryepiglottic folds” as well as their tongue to create different chambers in which separate sounds were produced. More easily put, the singers curl their tongues up to their palates, thus creating the separate chambers in their mouths. These separate chambers are necessary for the creation of the multiple sounds. The sounds created vary sometimes nothing more than a buzzing, others clear and crisp resembling a flute. Each sound created having its own place in one song or another.
Through time styles of throat singing have evolved and developed. Performances include a mixture of styles, much more so than in the past. Although not set in stone there is said to be five major styles of throat singing. These include Khoomei, Kargyraa, Sygyt, Borbangnadyr, and Ezengileer. The first three styles are more recognized than the last two though.
The first method listed is Khoomei, which I had mentioned earlier as the name the Tuvans call throat singing. It is also though a particular style of throat singing. Khoomei is a softer sounding method. The higher notes (harmonics) are clear but quite soft and diffused, they are above a fundamental (lower) pitch. In this style two or more notes are clearly audible. It is also often said that Khoomei is one of the easiest and most basic methods of throat singing there is to learn. Khoomei style singing is also the example presented to us in class as the example of throat singing given earlier in the year.
The second style, Kargyraa, is usually performed quite low in the singer’s range. The sound of Kargyraa is comparable to that of a long, low, croaking noise. This style is related to the Tibetan harmonic chanting. Kargyraa is quite similar to vowel sounds in which the mouth “varies from a nearly closed “O” shape to nearly wide open. Kargyraa can be further broken down into two separate styles: Mountain Kargyraa, usually the lower of the two and including a nasal effect, and Steppe Kargyraa sung at a higher pitch more concentrated throat tension and a raspy sound.
The third method mentioned is Sygyt, where the fundamental (lower) pitch is in the mid range, definitely not as low as in Kargyraa. The higher harmonic pitch is what characterizes Sygyt, it is quite high pitched and loud, at least in the sound sample I heard. It resembles a crystal clear whistle sound. The higher pitch performs very distinct melodies. The whole idea behind Sygyt is to achieve as clear a sound as possible by filtering out all unwanted sound, or harmonic components. To do this Sygyt singers often shift their tongue to one side of the mouth, or direct the sound along the hard surface of the teeth to enhance the sound.
Borbangnadyr and Ezengileer I have learned both involve quite complex manipulations of the lips tongue and throat, thus “producing vibrato, tremelo, and trills”. Borbangnadyr is not quite a style but more a combination of effects applied to any one style. The name translated means “rolling” and the style can reflect just that, the sound sample I heard included the singer imitating the sound of a babbling brook through the process of Borbangnadyr. Most commonly it is used to describe a warbling applied to Sygyt. Ezengileer comes from a word that means “stirrup” and rhythmic harmonic fluctuations intended to mimic the sound of the metal stirrups clinking to the beat of a galloping horse. Unfortunately, I could not obtain a sound sample of Ezengileer.
While researching I came across a few more styles of throat singing one that I also found sound samples for, I will include a brief description of each. The first is Chilandyk, named from the Tuvan word for cricket, which is a mixture of both Kargyraa and Sygyt. Typically one begins with the Kargyraa voice, that was the low croaking sound, then uses the Sygyt style of singing to add a melody. In this method the higher tone seems to remain the most dominant throughout the song. The final style I found was Dumchuktaar, which means to sing through the nose, either with the mouth shut or the sound have a nasal like quality to it, common is some forms of Mountain Kargyraa. However, nasal singing is more common among western overtone (throat) singers.
Tuvan throat singing was practically unheard of in the west until last decade with the fall of Soviet Imperialism. Quickly though, news of a unique way of singing spread in North America as well as a cultural rebirth in Tuva. Men and even some women began to become more involved in throat singing. Various groups were formed, some even toured in the USA, others put out c.d.’s. Throat singing is a private method of singing, which represents mans oneness with nature. It has roots embedded so deep in Tuva’s cultural heritage and defining who they are as people, and has now gone public for the world to listen in awe, wondering where the synthesizers are, then realizing it is a pure human voice. Something truly unique to the Tuvans, this method of singing known commonly to them as Khoomei.
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