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Music and Language

Hello, all.

It's been an interesting few weeks since I came limping back from yak-land. The 'new injuries' that I mentioned but didn't explain in that e-mail came mostly from building the sheep pen and being thrown from a horse. Now I'm settled back into the relative ease of city life, which is something like a long period of tedium broken up by absolutely unprompted and unexpected moments of enlightenment.

In the last few weeks, I've learned more about Tuvan music and xoomei than in the three months previous. This learning has been sparked in part by a few things I've been reading, namely: Zoya Kyrgys' monograph, Mark van Tongeren's doctorate dissertation on xoomei, and the poetry of John Keats.

Last week I was asked by Konstantin Khyulnov, the official language guy at the Xoomei Center, if I would look over his translation of Zoya Kyrgys's book. Zoya is the director of the Center and one of the foremost researchers of Tuvan xoomei. It's kind of intriguing being the first person to read her research in English and actually being able to help clean up the English for publication. From it, I am beginning to learn about the different schools of xoomei --- which singers are from what regions of Tuva, who taught whom how to sing or play igil, where the students of the great singers now live, etc. I'm beginning to form vague plans for spring. Nomad life has gotten into my blood and I hope to be able to pack up a horse and ride off into the Dzun-Xemchik in search of the voice of Xunashtaar-ool. All my favorite singers seem to be from the area around Sut-Xol and I may just call that area home for a couple of months once it warms up.

Also, I just finished reading van Tongeren's book. Having read it, I find it strange that I've been at this project for so long without really understanding the harmonic sequence that lies behind the art of xoomei. Now, however, I am coming to understand the intervals involved and how they are created. Most interesting (for me, at least) is how these harmonics relate to the language. I knew before I came out here that different vowel sounds are distinguished from each other by the different harmonics that they create. We usually don't hear these harmonics, but we recognize them subconsciously. The logical conclusion from this that I didn't stop to realize is that a xoomei melody --- a series of high harmonics over a constant drone pitch --- can be correlated to a particular series of vowel sounds. This is most apparent when applied to kargyraa, the vast and deep style of throat singing that people invariably imitate when you tell them that you're learning xoomei.

While I was reading the van Tongeren, I was having a series of kargyraa lessons with Fedor Tau, one of the great kargyraa masters of modern times. The first of these lessons were pretty humorous. Fedor would sing something in kargyraa and I would try to imitate him. Sometimes my imitation would win great praise and sometimes he would cut me off and laugh at me. It took a while for me to learn which vowel patterns are allowed and which are forbidden. Now it is perfectly obvious. As I said before, Tuvan is a Turkic language, which means that all of the vowels in a single word are either 'hard' or 'soft.' This patterning is known as 'vowel harmony' and is common to all Turkic languages. In kargyraa, hard vowels are only sung with other hard vowels and soft vowels with other soft vowels. What this means is that the melody patterns of kargyraa are identical to the vowel patterns inherent in the Tuvan language. I had noticed in September that Tuvan song lyrics tend to have only hard or soft vowels in any single line of text. This allows a singer to sing a song in kargyraa without breaking up the harmony of the phrase.

On the same day that I had this insight (November 10), I read a note in my copy of the poems of Keats about the poet's theory of properly managing open and closed vowels 'like different notes of music to prevent monotony.'

While pursuing these musings into music and language, I have also started to seriously study igil, the two-stringed traditional Tuvan instrument that sounds a bit like a cello, a bit like a horse, and a bit like an electric guitar. As Zoya writes, the igil is used by singers to search for melodies and the voice of the instrument works along with the human voice to present xoomei not just as song, but as a distinct and deeply meaningful type of sound. Learning xoomei and learning igil feed off of one another, and I finally feel as if I'm getting somewhere with this whole xoomei thing. For a while I felt as if the language aspect of my Watson year would come to eclipse the music aspect. In the past few days, language, music, and poetry have come colliding into each other and I find myself happily drowning in the Tuvan sound-world.

The Tuvan language continues to amaze me. After a two-day stint when I couldn't speak a single word of Tuvan, yesterday I had another mind-expanding lesson with Valentina. The full glory of the Tuvan 'participle' came crashing into my life like the Space Station Mir, disrupting everything I've come to take for granted in this world. I stopped trying to count all the different verb forms that are allowed when I found out that some of the rules for word formation may be applied to words multiple times, making an almost infinite number of possibilities. Yesterday I watched with fascination while a noun changed into a verb and then from a verb into a participle and then into a different verb, using the same rule that had turned it into a verb in the first place. If that didn't make sense, don't worry. I'm not sure I understand it. For all you Greek students out there, take heart. You've got many rules to learn, but at least the rules stay in one place. I've always said that 'if Latin is like math, then Greek is like chaos theory.' On this spectrum, Tuvan is the court jester who pulls rabbits out of his sleeve.

Last week Valentina also introduced me to Ayan, Genya, and a few other young guys who study xoomei at the local music conservatory. On off days now I go down to the conservatory to hang out with them and see whatever is being rehearsed. The place is great --- young musicians wandering the halls with old master teachers, strains of traditional Tuvan herding songs mixing with 'Summertime' played on saxaphone, memories of high school wind ensemble rehearsals ignoring the director. All told, it's the closest thing I've found to Oberlin since coming out here. Last Wednesday I wandered down to the conservatory, expecting to sit in on a rehearsal of the orchestra that the guys are in. Instead, I ended up joining a rehearsal of the xoomei ensemble Chengi-Xaya, made up of five of the young xoomeizhis. At the start of the rehearsal, one of their igil players hadn't arrived, so they gave the second igil to me and had me tag along. Most of the rehearsal, however, I just watched. They promised to write out a copy of the lyrics for me and even invited me to join them in their concert in two weeks. I may have to pass this one up, but they promise to be great teachers, friends, and fellow musicians over the next months. Watching them play, I realized that almost an entire horse was on stage with us. The faces of an igil are traditionally made from the skin of a horse's face; the bows are from horse tails; Ayan made the sound of horse hooves by tapping together horse hooves, of all things; and extra effect was added by jingling harness bells. They even have a shaker made out of the dried skin of a horse scrotum. I didn't ask what's rattling inside. On the ride home, even when I wasn't replaying songs in my head, I could hear huge constellations of overtones. Whether it was the sound of the bus's engine or a mental echo from the rehearsal I'm still not sure.

Kyzyl is getting dirtier and colder every day. After a warm spell last week (that brought 3 or 4 inches of snow) the temperature has dropped again. Yesterday I was told that this weather signals the end of summer. The market is full of shakos, felt boots, and fur coats. Another great thing I've discovered since returning is Rollton. As the YAZ is to the Volkswagon van, so Rollton is to Top Ramen: cheap, easy to fix, and made of only the most dubious ingredients. I think I've eaten it every day but one since returning from Bai-Taiga. Also, I've become quite a pro at making bizhirgan dalgan, the local version of fried dough. It's a bit more complex than other versions internationally --- it's got milk in it (this is still Tuva, afterall) --- and is incredibly tasty. In Bai-Taiga, we ate it as a meal on it's own (meaning, with tea). In Kyzyl, I prefer to eat it with Rollton.

Tomorrow I hope to meet Kaygal-ool Xovalig, lead singer and igil artist from the group Xun-Xuur-Tu and student of the incomparable Xunashtaar-ool. In two weeks I will either be in Moscow observing the 'Tuva Days' celebration there or climbing Mongun Taiga, Tuva's highest peak. Life continues to crack new surprises and new stories. I just take them as they come.