Concepts of what the human voice is capable of were shattered Saturday during a concert by Alash, a quartet of musicians from the Republic of Tuva, who performed at Mount Desert Island High School.
The musicians in Alash are masters in the art of throat-singing, a centuries-old art form that began with the nomadic herdsman of central Asia. The singer typically begins by producing a low, growling drone. From this fundamental pitch, distinct overtones and airy whistles emerge, creating a texture of notes produced simultaneously by one vocalist. When two or more voices join together, this texture melds into a complex sonic tapestry that can be described as ethereal or otherworldly.
While at first odd to Western ears, Alash’s music is quickly admired, as a small, but enthusiastic, audience in the Higgins-Demas Theater learned on Saturday.
Based on Tuvan folk songs and sung in the group’s native language, the music transcended any linguistic barrier or musical prejudices. These were heartfelt songs about beautiful women, fast horses and free-flowing rivers. They resonated at some deeper, perhaps even primordial, level.
This easy bond to the music is perhaps what attracted many influential musicians in this country to seek the group out. Alash has performed or recorded with Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and, most recently, on Alash’s new CD “Buura,” with Grammy-award winning bassist Victor Wooten.
Traditional folk songs form the basis of Alash’s music, but the talent of these trained musicians – Nachyn Choodu, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-Ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik – extends beyond that genre into what could be considered classical territory. The four men are not only virtuoso throat-singers but masters of a number of native Tuvan instruments. They take their traditional music to a higher level, much like the composer Bela Bartok did with Hungarian folk songs.
In concert Saturday, Alash was as disciplined as any string quartet. Each song was tightly arranged, with close attention paid to rhythmic interplay and dynamic contrasts. Each musician knew his role and performed admirably.
If there was any downside to the concert, it was the size of the crowd. Even at $5 per ticket, the house was at less than one-third the capacity. Musicians like Alash challenge our preconceptions about music. More people should be listening.