Tuva, Feynman, Zappa, and Beefheart;
A Story About a Web.
This story is a wheel. I suppose what really set the wheel in motion was something I
chanced upon in the Nashville Scene one Friday a few weeks ago. Appearing that evening at
the Bluebird Cafe would be bluesman Paul Pena, with Tuvan throat-singer Kongar-ol Ondar. I
telephoned to inform my wife. I knew she would be interested because years earlier we had
both been first exposed to the phenomenon of Tuvan throat-singing while viewing an episode
of Nova entitled Last Journey of a Genius, a documentary about Nobel laureate physicist
The Republic of Tuva, a country in central Asia, first caught Feynman's attention
because of his interest in stamp collecting. In the 1930's, the country, in what has been
described as a "philatelic orgy," issued a number of off-the-wall stamps in odd
shapes (triangles, diamonds, etc.) showing odd scenes (men on camels racing trains, men on
horseback hunting with airplanes above them, etc.). In 1977, Feynman asked, "Whatever
happened to Tannu Tuva?" His friend and collaborator Ralph Leighton helped turn the
quest for information on Tuva into an adventure (as chronicled in Leighton's book, Tuva or
When they looked Tuva up in the atlas, they saw that the capital was named Kyzyl. They
decided that any place with a name like that must be interesting! Kyzyl-arguably a word
without a vowel in it! They also soon found out that a monument near Kyzyl marked the
center of Asia, and that some Tuvans sang with 2 voices-one voice usually a lower drone
and the second voice a high-pitched flute-like sound, both from the same person. This
information piqued their curiosity and things snowballed; they decided they had to travel
They found that Tannu Tuva's name had been changed when it was annexed by Russia. This,
of course, meant that traveling to Tuva would involve a great deal of red tape. The Nova
documentary showed interviews with Feynman in the last years of his life, telling stories
and playing his bongo drums and congas with great gusto. Diagnosed with stomach cancer,
Feynman died mere weeks before finally getting clearance from the Tuvan government for a
visit. In the documentary, an obviously heartbroken Ralph Leighton showed the letters from
Tuva, and remarked that he didn't know if he would actually make the trip, since it
wouldn't be as much fun without his friend Richard.
There had been some samples of throat-singing (an odd term - a little like saying
``desktop publishing'') in the Nova episode; that Friday night at the Bluebird Cafe, my
wife and I, and two friends, actually got to hear/see the phenomenon in person. It was
truly remarkable. The show ended early, and being in that part of town, we decided to go
to Davis-Kidde Booksellers.
While listening to Kongar-ol Ondar's voice doing the impossible, I had been reminded of
some musicians I had revered since the days of my miss-spent youth: Don Van Vliet, aka
Captain Beefheart, is said to possess a vocal range of seven octaves, and has been known
to destroy microphones by singing into them. I could remember recordings in which his
voice seemed to perform strange harmonic effects not unlike some of the sounds I'd
witnessed that evening. Thinking about him made me think about one of my all-time
favourite composers and guitarists, Frank Zappa. They grew up together in Lancaster,
California, and through the years recorded and performed together.
At the bookstore, I found a biography of Zappa. While browsing through it, still
thinking about the concert we'd just left, I happened to notice, on the shelf right in
front of me, a 3-CD package titled Planet Soup, and on disc 1 of the set, a cut named
``Genghis Blues'' - by Paul Pena and Kongar-ol Ondar! I purchased the book and the CD set.
The book sharpened my appetite for information about Zappa. I wanted to find out what
had happened to those people around him since his death in 1993 (three days before my
birthday). I knew that there was an alt.fan.frank-zappa Usenet group; it occurred to me
that there must, by now, be information posted on the Worldwide Web. So I limbered up my
browser And that's where the magic really started.
Because, as those far-sighted folks at Sun Microsystems are fond of saying, the network
IS the computer. A digital computer is nothing more than banks and banks of on/off
switches. As the number of transistors that can be put on one chip increases, so does
computer processing power. The Net is a collection of possible connections, and a
connection is a switch being thrown. When you connect your desktop computer to the
Internet, it becomes part of a vast computer.
So, when I connected to the Worldwide Web and performed a netsearch on Frank Zappa, I
found that, since the time when I had stopped keeping track of the alt.fan.frank-zappa
Usenet group, a whole community of Frank Zappa aficionados had found the Worldwide Web...
and populated it.
A Web page is more than a screenful of text and pictures. It contains links to other
Web pages. That's what makes ``surfing'' possible. It's a free-association machine, like
browsing an encyclopaedia. I found Zappa interviews, spanning every stage of his career,
discographies, pictures, interviews with people who have played with him.... I found, on a
page from a European newspaper, that citizens in Lithuania had erected a public monument
to Zappa, because his thinking, transmitted through his music, for them stood for freedom
to think. From one Zappa page I found links to the next... and to pages that weren't about
Zappa, but were about things that interested him, or things that interest the people who
like his music.
And I, of course, found links to Web pages devoted to Captain Beefheart. I found out
that Don Van Vliet, retired from making music, lives on a ranch in northern California and
makes a respectable income from his painting and drawing. (While still in high school, he
started out to be a wildlife artist.) Even though he has retired from his music, the world
has not retired from listening to it and talking about it, and from talking about him.
There are a lot of great stories circulating about the Captain - like the time he threw
away a saxophone because it ``ran out of notes.'' Once he ordered two dozen sets of
sleighbells for a recording session. When it was pointed out to him that there were only
seven people at the session, and with each one holding a set of sleighbells in each hand,
that still only accounted for 14 of them. When asked what they would do with the extra
bells, Beefheart replied, ``We'll overdub them!'' (This story is usually told as if this
were an extravagance; but when you consider that each set of bells has a slightly
different tone....). I found at least three different versions of how he got the name
Captain Beefheart. And I was impressed that all these people who listen to, and talk
about, and draw inspiration from his music and stories about him still respect his
privacy. I sent email to the author of one of the Beefheart Web pages and was rewarded
with a reply, pointing me to yet more sources of information. But the reason I'm telling
you this is because, on one of these pages I found a link to... The
Friends of Tuva page! I could feel the circle closing.
At the Friends of Tuva Web page, I found the Tuvan flag, maps showing where tuva is
located, nestled between Mongolia and Russia, and old pictures of the Tuvan countryside; I
found publications... and merchandise!... I could send away for, including recordings of
Tuvan throat-singing. As I was pondering these connections I wondered idly if Ralph
Leighton had ever completed his journey to Tuva. Then it was that I found a front page
scanned from an issue of Pravda showing Ralph Leighton... in Tuva...
It seems that Feynman and Leighton, having stirred up so much interest in Tuva and its
cultural treasures, had generated a wave of recovery for Tuva's economy. Feynman, there,
is a national hero. Tuva has even issued a . commemorative stamp in honor of Feynman,
showing a pair of hands playing the bongos and a ``Feynman diagram'' - a shorthand that
Feynman invented to visualize quantum physics interactions. (I also found a PostScript
program for generating Feynman diagrams with a personal computer.)
So there I was, having traced a drunkard's walk from Richard Feynman, to Tuvan
throat-singing, to Captain Beefheart, to Frank Zappa, and then from Zappa to the Web,
which threw me back to Captain Beefheart... and unexpectedly back to Tuvan throat-singing
and Richard Feynman.
But the wheel had not yet... quite... turned full circle.
That happened when a Tuvan discography listing landed me again on Frank Zappa's
doorstep. Frank had been fond of hosting salons at his home. Here's an account of one such
Excerpt from the Friends of Tuva newsletter, Spring 1993, by Jeff Dickson
On Monday afternoon I pulled up at the house of Frank Zappa. I gave up waiting out-side
after half an hour, and forged in on my own without the Tuvan Throat singers, who were to
be his guests.
About 20 minutes after the Tuvans arrived, a very pale Frank Zappa came into the room
we were all milling around in. Present were Gail and Moon Zappa; Phil Abrams, the Amazing
Bubble Man; Chris Sykes, who did the NOVA documentaries on Feynman (and a new two-part
documentary on Feynman that just aired in Britain); Ralph's family; all Tuvans except for
Rada, the translator (who showed up later); Darryl and Brenda Henriques, who were
preparing the food; and Natasha, an expatriate Russian musician, who served as translator;
and a couple of people I didn't get introduced to.
Zappa presented the Tuvans with a tape of the performances they did for him during
Zappa-Tuva I, and a little "extra something." The performances were very good,
and the tape (to my ignorant ears) sounded well engineered. The "extra
something" turned out to be a solo track by Anatoly Kuular, to which Zappa's engineer
had overdubbed some funky bass and rhythm ("using calculus!" Zappa
repeated many times). It was hard to judge the Tuvan's reaction, but they were at least
gracious. Ralph thought it was great. The tape (including "extra something") was
released to the Tuvans free of restrictions in exchange for sampling their voices for a
future Zappa work. It will be added to the growing pile of collaborations, which includes
recordings with Mickey Hart as well as The Kronos Quartet. [It will be released in the
spring of 1994 as part of a larger work by Frank Zappa.]
As the tape of the Tuvan-Kronos collaboration played over the speakers, we ate a nice
meal which featured the chef's latest creation--Tuvan Pizza (chunks of lamb with onions as
toppings). Zappa explained that in addition to sampling the Tuvans singing, he wanted to
have them improvise something to a rather heavy piece of heavy metal that he had created.
Natasha and I teamed up to provide Frank with a good laugh. Later, as I talked to the BBC
producer about his Feynman research, Ralph came up and added some of his personal
thoughts. This was on the fifth anniversary of Feynman's death.
Matt Groening (of Simpsons fame) turned up a little later. It was his 39th
birthday, so we converted a half eaten chocolate log cake to a birthday cake and sang
"Happy Birthday" to him, complete with throat-singing. The Tuvans followed Zappa
to the studio to begin the musical experiments that Zappa wanted to try. The rest of us
just mingled while The Amazing Bubble Man entertained Ian (aka Rocky the flying squirrel)
with some well done bubble blowing. The cook, who is also a comedian, presented Groening
with his book 100 Ways You Can Help Pave the Planet.
Later in the evening Ralph and I joined the Tuvans in Zappa's recording studio. Once
known as the "Utility Muffin Research Kitchen," the name was changed to the
"Baby Milk Factory" after the Gulf War. It was a very impressive set-up. The
recording seemed to go well, although the improvisation experiment with Heavy Metal that
Zappa was trying wasn't working to his satisfaction, so he called it off. Zappa looked
very tired as he posed with the Tuvans, as I took a picture for Ondar (on his new camera).
On the way back to the main group (in the kitchen area) I returned with Ralph via
Zappa's study, where Ralph and the Tuvans had been received before. Cool place--full of
character. It was packed with recordings, and a whole collection of ZAPPA license plates
from sates all over the USA hung on the walls.
When they were finished, the Tuvans relaxed with a post-recording beer, and Frank came
up later to have a little snack. It was about 8pm, but he was totally drained of energy
and went off to bed. With that we bid our hosts a good night. With the TUVA mobile in
front, the TANNU mobile second, and my car in third, we snaked our way down from Zappa's
house to the freeway.
The next day the Tuvans boarded a plane to Amsterdam to begin their four day journey
You read correctly, and, now, yes, the wheel has turned full circle, because not only
was Ralph Leighton there, rubbing elbows with my childhood idol Frank Zappa (it turns out
that Ralph was one of the founders of the Friends of Tuva), but so, also, was Kongar-ol
Ondar, the Tuvan musical master whose appearance at the Bluebird Cafe one Friday evening
weeks ago had touched off this whole chain of info-events.
I say "chain," but what I really mean is ``web''... or ``net.'' The
relationships are so interwoven that it's hard to decide just where the story begins. This
story is a net.
Back to Issue 13 of the Friends of Tuva Newsletter.