15 Feb 2002
Happy New Year, all. More on that later.
So, the day after I last wrote (isn’t that always the case?) my exploration of Tuvan music took a ninety degree turn. I knew before then that there was some difference between the notes used in western music and those created by harmonic music such as xoomei --- the reason that the major third sounds more in tune when played a bit flat --- and I decided to sit down and figure out exactly what these differences were. I soon found that this required calculating a series of complex logarithms by hand, which in turn required remembering what logarithms are and how to use them. Suffice it to say that, after a long afternoon hunched over my desk, I came to the conclusion that Tuvan music is superior to western music because it doesn’t involve such complex mathematics. Actually, what I ended up with was the foundation of a new form of music theory for xoomei and Tuvan music. ‘New theory’ might not be the way to put it --- this is the most simple and natural approach possible to creating pleasing sound intervals, the basis of all music. Xoomei necessarily uses a series of pitches corresponding to the pure harmonics of one fixed, base note. These pitches have been adopted into the instrumental music, meaning that the notes played on igil sound great together, but are inseparably linked to one fundamental pitch. Many years ago, western music abandoned this approach, creating a more complex system that allows for key changes and the like. I think I said once before that Tuvan music falls far short of western music in complexity and yet far surpasses it in the raw quality of its sound. Now I’m beginning to understand why. Gotta love theory. I also understand now why my first igil lessons were so difficult. When Sergei played an interval corresponding to half of the fifth harmonic and I played an interval corresponding to 1x2^(4/3), the result couldn’t help but sound bad.
About the same time I was dabbling my blind toes in the ocean of music theory, I came down with another round of the flu. This time I decided to try out the local miracle cure --- a concoction called ‘boydus’ (Tuvan for ‘nature’) that includes everything from bilberry juice and echinacea to musk deer antlers. (Josh, this is the same stuff that Vera was spiking our drinks with back in August. She’s still the only person I’ve met who drinks it as alcohol). Everyone here swears by it and I must admit I kicked the bug in record time. Musk deer antlers aside, it’s far less frightening than the Russian topical cure-all, which has a Latin name translating as ‘bright green medicine.’ When I was in Bay Taiga, nursing a hand swollen with infection, treatments alternated between this nuclear-emerald colored stuff and a wet tea leaf laid across the wound.
The most interesting discovery of the past weeks has been Tuvan folk tales and epic poems. The modern Tuvan language remained unwritten up until the 1930’s, which means that the oral tradition of story telling, which began to die in Europe round about the time of Homer, is still recent memory in this part of the world. The few good volumes of Tuvan folk tales that have been published are mostly transcriptions of recordings made of the last generation of great oral story tellers. In other words, they are a veritable modern-day Iliad. The sort of formulaic language and story telling technique that we find in Homer and that modern writers tend to shy away from in writing their stories exist to a very high degree in these stories. Unfortunately, the last generation of great story tellers died off with the last generation of truly great xoomeizhis in the ten years before I came (Kongar-ool, Aldin-ool, and Kaygal-ool are indeed great xoomeizhis, but there is nothing left of the like of Xunashtaar-ool, Marzhimal, or Soruktu), which means that I may have missed my opportunity to experience the true oral tradition, unfettered by the awkwardness and forced logic of the written word. Nevertheless, I now spend my evenings reading stories built upon an entirely different cultural heritage than the Brothers Grimm and as delightful to read as the Odyssey. I kind of decided last week that all I want to do in life is tell stories. Now to find a Ph.D. program in minstrelsy.
This past Wednesday we celebrated Shagaa, the Tuvan Buddhist New Year. Rather
than staying up all night, this meant getting up early, walking out to the steppe (all of two blocks from our house), building a fire and making burnt offerings of food, tea, and juniper for the master spirits of the land. Tuvan lore has it that a person who is asleep when the first rays of the sun appear on the morning of Shagaa will die during the coming year. This year it was cloudy. There must be a koan coming out of that one. If the Russian New Year was a good excuse to party, the Tuvan New Year was a real celebration: games, camel rides, and a big concert on the steps of the theater. That we could have an outdoor concert was a sign that the winter has broken, the real cause for celebration.
The language parade that this year has thrown at me hasn’t slowed down. During my second visit to the Chinese restaurant I met the owner, who is himself a Chinese man and I got my first lesson in Mandarin (starting early, Vern). I’ve forgotten everything I learned, except for the word for ‘hello’ and a couple of words that have been borrowed into Tuvan. Then yesterday I spent the afternoon and evening at the local Turkish academy, a prestigious private high school operated by Turks. All humanities classes are taught in Russian, the sciences are taught in English, and the students also learn Turkish. I spent my time hanging out with the dorm monitor, a group of college-age guys, and one old master builder who specializes in ceilings and who showed me pictures of the work he has done in Istanbul. English, Russian, Turkish, Tuvan, and a smattering of Altay were thrown around with alacrity. My final conclusion is that I need to find a pretext for going to Turkey for a long period of time. Anita, the three-year old daughter of my landlady, has become a constant source of sound --- sometimes speech and sometimes just noise. Sometimes when Hima (my landlady) and I study Tuvan and English in the evenings, Anita joins us. The ability of the young tongue to pick up sounds never ceases to amaze me as Anita will flawlessly repeat entire English sentences that her mother can’t get her mouth around.
As the sun climbs higher into the sky, I am beginning to form travel plans for the season. These reports should start becoming interesting again as I start getting away from Kyzyl and back into the world of yurts and yaks. First on the menu, though, is a jaunt to Austria for a huge Tuvan music festival. It seems somewhat strange that during this year I will probably see more xoomei performed in Vienna than in Tuva. The biggest names who won’t be joining us in Austria are Xun Xuurtu. They, however, will be on tour in Germany at the time and I am planning to finally get to meet them, as well. On that note, Xun Xuurtu will be in America for June and the first half of July. Keep your eyes open for these guys, they’re worth seeing. As of now, the tour schedule hasn’t been determined, but I’ll keep you updated, or you can check it yourself at
Next weekend I have my first official solo xoomei gig, performing at the birthday party for one of the researchers at the Xoomei Center. I’m still incredibly nervous whenever I perform for other people --- something I’ll have to conquer before Kongar-ool’s big festival this summer.
Looking back on this winter, it seems to have passed remarkably quickly and I realize that my time in Kyzyl is actually almost up. After returning from Europe, I will be again heading out to the steppes (somewhat more than two blocks away this time) to polish up the Tuvan and try to root out a bit of xoomei in its original setting. That should provide a few good stories.