This week the world of Tuvan throat singing lost one of its greats, when Kongar-ol Ondar died after suffering a brain hemorrhage. Ondar played a large role in popularizing the multi-note singing tradition of Tuva, a Russian republic bordering on Mongolia. He had performed internationally over the last 20 years, once appearing on David Letterman’s show, and was featured in Genghis Blues, the 1999 documentary film that followed the journey of American blues musician Paul Pena as he travelled to Tuva to meet and perform with Ondar.
There are a number of different styles of Tuvan throat singing. One of its most notable techniques allows the singer to produce 2, 3, or even 4 notes at once. In this video of Ondar you can hear a low, steady tone, overlaid with a melody of high, almost whistling notes.
What you hear in Tuvan throat singing is a deft manipulation of the complex properties of sound waves. When anyone produces a sound, the vibration of the vocal cords creates a sound wave that is perceived as pitch. Slower vibration=slower sound wave=lower pitch. Faster vibration=faster sound wave=higher pitch. But in addition to the main sound wave—what we perceive as the note—there are harmonics, smaller sound waves produced at 2, 3, 4, 5 times the speed of the main one. Since they are tightly synched with the main wave, we don’t hear them as different notes, but they do add to our perception of the overall quality of a voice.
Throat singers use their vocal cords to make a low frequency sound wave and then use their lips, tongue, velum, jaw, and other parts of the oral and nasal cavities to isolate the harmonics above that frequency so they can be heard. They find ways to bounce the waves so that they break through to our perception. Ondar and the tradition he was part of took something that was always in the air, unnoticed by us, and brought it to our attention. He helped us hear the world a little better.