Hello again, all.
It's been a while since I last wrote--I've been settling into the winter routine and it's taken a while to put together a cohesive set of stories. Now that we're all settled in for the winter, it's time to prepare for a whole string of holidays. Christmas out here is almost as much of a non-issue as Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving were, but the New Year is a party that promises to keep on giving. Thanks to the relatively late adoption of the Julian calendar in these parts, the 'Old New Year' is still remembered, meaning that we get to party on December 31 and then again two weeks later (this is also why the Great October Revolution is remembered on November 7). Then, if that wasn't enough, the Buddhist New Year falls in late February. When you're stuck inside and there's little to do, you'll find any reason to celebrate. My own little celebration today has been in honor of crossing the meteorological equivalent of the equator: the point where the Fahrenheit (sp?) and centigrade temperatures meet. They don't have snow days out here, since there's snow on the ground for 2/3 of the school year, but today was the first 'cold day,' when the temperature dropped below that magic ñ40 and the kids got to stay home. For those of you in the yet uncivilized world of Fahrenheit, imagine the difference between a day at 105 degrees and one when the temperature is hovering comfortably at the freezing point. Now, starting at 32 degrees, take that much difference again and you reach forty below. Actually, I kind of like it like this, but I feel obliged to play it up for those of you think that cold is when the fishpond ices over.
I haven't been traveling for the last few months--winter is the time when I get to focus on learning Tuvan and Tuvan music--but I've been gathering the names of people and their places: where to go and whom to see once the weather warms. My new xoomei teacher is Sergei Ondar, who was himself a student of the late great Xunashtar-ool. His method is much more demanding than what I had been doing with Fedor Tau. Every lesson and every practice session begins by warming up the xorekteer, the peculiar method of vocalism necessary for xoomei. This warm up consists of singing a series of vowels in order to get three distinct pitches--a task that really takes it to the lungs. By the time my voice is warmed up, my belly is well on the way to exhaustion. The breathing techniques involved have been explained in the terms of yoga and the singing itself can be quite meditative. If nothing else, I should come out of this experience with a great set of abs.
Sergei has also begun to teach me some of the traditional Tuvan songs. At first, the melodies and lyrics seem repetitive and uncreative (as we say, 'it's all mixolydian to me'), until you begin to recognize and appreciate the resonance of the music. The power of the music doesn't come from the complexity of the songs but by the incredible quality of the sound. Along these lines, my Tuvan language teacher, Valentina Suzukei, is developing a new type of music theory for xoomei, one that focuses on resonance and frees xoomei from the constraints of traditional western musicology. A few weeks ago she explained the theory to me and it right near split my skull open. I won't try to explain it fully, but the basic idea is something like light passed through a prism. A western melody, Valentina says, is like a series of white light beams. Xoomei, on the other hand, is a single beam, which is filtered to isolate individual colors of light. Each note of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony contains it's own complete overtone series while the notes of a xoomei melody are each individual, raw sounds--parts of the base sound. An overtone is like a sound photon. Just as a beam of white light projected against a wall, when properly filtered, has the potential to be turned into a screening of 'Ben Hur' or 'Spaceballs', so a single ostinato note, when properly filtered by the lungs, epiglottis, vocal chords, uvula, mouth, nose, and sinuses, can become the melody of 'Alash' or 'Aldan Maadir'.
The rising star of all this color-singing has been the igil. Sergei Ondar is also teaching to play igil, which is quite a task, since I've never so much as thought about learning a bowed instrument before. If you can imagine giving a fifth grader a violin and trying to teach them all there is to the instrument in a matter of months, you know what he is up against. The beauty of the instrument is not only its ability to imitate the whinny of a horse or the song of a bird or the flow of a mountain stream, but it's ability to imitate the human voice. As I learn Tuvan songs, it is sometimes difficult to get the sound of my voice to match the sounds in my head. Once I play the song on the igil, however, the sound gets into my ears, trickles down the eustachion (sp?) tubes and into the lungs, where it turns around, picks up a full tank of air, and comes back through the throat as a song. On a good day, it can be difficult to tell the voice and the igil apart. On a bad day, you wish neither had ever existed. Usually, however, singing xoomei with an igil is like singing with that friend who has a strong enough voice and sense of pitch to make your own feeble voice sound good.
Along these lines, last week Sergei said that the igil should be treated like a human--more specifically, that one should caress the strings the way one caresses one's girlfriend. If that's the way it is, there are still days when the darlin and I are at odds, but for the most part I'd say I've found a good way to spend these long Siberian evenings. And, like the ink stains on the writer's fingertips or the paint splattered on the painters--well, on the painter's anything, really--all of my pants now have permanent rosin stains on the left knee where the bow brushes.
On another note (that's just a turn of phrase, not a bad pun), the Tuvan language has stopped drilling large holes into my skull. I think I have all the major ideas under control and learning further has become a matter of speaking as much as I can. Actually, the big revelation came when I realized that Tuvan is just like English--which is why it didn't make any sense for so long. The converbs, the auxiliary verbs, the auxiliary nouns, identical forms that express vastly different meanings--it's all much clearer now and I pity anyone who's learning English. As I continue to learn the language, moreover, I am beginning to understand Tuvan names, which range from the sublime (Moon Prince, Golden Boy, Clear Sky) to the mundane (Black Girl, Blue Boy, Black Berry, Bird Cherry Tree) to what we might consider less than flattering (Kid Boy--as in Baby Goat Boy, Extra). Kaigal-ool, the lead singer of Xun-Xuurtu, is lucky enough to be named something like 'Robin Hood', while Xunashtar-ool means something more like Billy Goat Boy. My favorite so far remains the name of one of the great xoomeizhis from a generation or two back, Bishtak-ool--Cheese Boy. Xun-Xuurtu itself literally means 'the Propeller of the Sun,' a fairly ambitious though not necessarily inaccurate name for the group.
The days are decidedly short now. We have well under 9 hours of daylight, of which the sun is up for not much more than 7. There's something about Siberia--Maxim Gorky's 'land of chains and ice'--that inspires long, slow thoughts. The name itself comes from the Altay language (our neighbors to the west) and means 'sleeping land'. I'm not claiming to be turning into the next Dostoevsky (I don't think I'd want to turn into the next Dostoevsky), but the opportunity of experiencing Siberia is, I think, helping me develop what might be considered a life aesthetic. Namely, I'm beginning to discover why the labyrinth and xoomei, Greek literature and yak herding all interest me. I'll spare you my overly personal philosophical musings, but I will say that I don't think I'll ever be able to think as I did during my 'pre-Siberia' days. I used to fear the thought of living in Siberia; now I almost dread leaving. Thankfully, with the help of the Office of the President of Oberlin College, it looks like I'll be able to come back to this part of the world in the summer of 2003 for the next International Xoomei Festival (Thanks again, Nancy Dye). The dream goes on.
OK, so that was a tacky, tacky last sentence. I apologize. Keep your boots dusty.
More stories as they come.