[4 October 2009]
Eternal finds Huun Huur Tu in a mood of interested mysticism. If you had to sum this album up in one note it would be a long vibration—something like the extended chime of a bell.
The group comes from the Republic of Tuva, a place that for years was known for obscurity and triangular stamps, until the 1990s when throat singing rose into…not prominence, exactly, but albums were released in the English-speaking world. A documentary named Genghis Blues came out, telling the story of an American who taught himself throat-singing and was invited to Tuva to participate in the national championships. Throat-singing filtered into the world, appearing here and there: a brief mention in Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, a tiny guest role in Pynchon’s Against the Day. In both cases it seemed gratuitous, a vague dot of ethnic colour, but at least it was a change from stamps. When the world won’t agree to know you for what you’d like to be known for—your dashing good looks, your bold taste in hats—then you take what you can get. Huun Huur Tu was a part of this getting-known. The musicians’ repertoire is not restricted to singing. They also play national instruments, notably the igil, Tuva’s version of the Mongolian morin khuur, a stringed instrument held upright on the ground and played with a bow, like a vertical fiddle or a skinny cello.
The group formed in 1992 around four men: Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, Alexander Bapa, Alexander’s brother Sayan, and Albert Kuvezin. Kuvezin went off to form Yat-Kha, new people came in, old ones went out, Khovalyg and Sayan stayed. Current members are Khovalyg, Sayan, Radik Tyulyush and Alexei Saryglar. Saryglar is the man carrying a drum across grasslands on the front cover. This photograph runs over the spine and onto the back of the case. The grasslands, these steppes, go on and on. There are no other human beings visible, no houses, just low hills and the constant presence of grass. The album rises and rolls as if across low hills. It rolls and streams like “Springtime” in The Four Seasons. At one point in “Ancestors Call” the voice part abruptly changes from high to low. Something as simple as this is enough to make the atmosphere rise, as if a gush of air has joined the room.
Carmen Rizzo, who collaborated with them, is an American producer “with no extensive expertise into Tuvan tradition,” to quote the press notes, but “with a lot of respect for Huun Huur Tu.” He introduces outside instruments: trumpet, violin, cello, and fretless bass. These additions are supportive. They don’t take over from the Tuvans, nor drown them out. In fact, for a man with “no extensive expertise into Tuvan tradition”, he’s treated the music with inspired sensitivity, keeping the natural buzz of the original and never losing sight of the music’s origins in shamanism: the vocal water-whistle, the tweaked strings that sound like bird-cries. In “Dogee Mountain”, one of Eternal‘s instrumental tracks, the listener can hear a constant faint noise, a subdued bark, or a hoot, something unidentifiable by me but definitely somehow animal. This awareness of the organic helps to break Eternal out of the ambient music ghetto the disc’s blurb tries to jam it into. “Eternal, it declares, “transforms this ancient music into an enticing blend of ambient electronic exotic rhythms and lush acoustic textures.” No. It’s superior to that, more thoughtful, more subtle. Better.