Sainkho Namtchylak

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, September 26

To the great credit of the organizers, Chicago’s first World Music Festival was not the display of reverse cultural tourism that it could have been: the programming was instead a lively, busy confusion of the folkloric and the futuristic, the ethnically “pure” and the scrapings of the melting pot, the revivalist, the preservationist, and the avant-garde.

Consider singer Sainkho Namtchylak, who performed during the festival at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Namtchylak, 42, was born in a mining village in the isolated Siberian republic of Tuva, where her grandparents had been nomads and her parents were schoolteachers. She studied music there, but after she was denied the certification needed to go professional at the time, she moved to Moscow to continue her studies. Since then she’s been welcomed back as a singer with a Tuvan state folk ensemble, but she’s also worked extensively as an improviser in jazz, free-improv, and electronic-music circles in Russia and western Europe, and she’s made more than a dozen records, including two for the German FMP imprint.

In Austria, she met Werner Dafeldecker and Christof Kurzmann. Dafeldecker is the founder of the Durian label and guiding light of the free-improv group Polwechsel, and Kurzmann is a composer, improviser, and engineer; in their work with electronics, both can give surges and pulses a rich, almost fleshy density, making them oddly appropriate partners for Namtchylak, whose voice can take on an almost electronic versatility. The first half of her appearance at the MCA was the premiere of the pair’s composition The White Hole, a piece for four prepared guitars (played by Polwechsel members Burkhard Stangl and Michael Moser and Chicago improvisers Jeb Bishop and Ben Vida), electronics (by Kurzmann), and Namtchylak, mixed live by Dafeldecker. The second was a set by Namtchylak’s current group, the Sainkho Namtchylak Trio, which features turntables, samples, and guitar as well as traditional Tuvan instruments like the igil and the kurei.

Namtchylak’s voice itself is not a traditional Tuvan instrument, even when she displays her mastery of traditional Tuvan khoomei, the singing of more than one note at a time, because khoomei is not traditionally performed by women–at some point, the act was thought to make them infertile. She has developed her voice to a degree that could easily be considered “extended technique” in the West. In free-improv performances, like her duets with bassist Peter Kowald on the astounding new three-CD set Aura: Solo, Duo, Trio (Enisai), she can swoop from guttural utterances to clear, pure operatic tones to the most harrowing two-toned groans and shrieks, starting at points Diamanda Galas might only work up to for a climax. And in her more song-oriented recordings, like this year’s Naked Spirit (Amiata), she reveals a canny grasp of blues and pop inflections.

But even in her least orthodox moments, Namtchylak is carrying on a Tuvan tradition–when she sings, she is reaching out to the other. Khoomei is actually a blanket term for a family of demanding and haunting vocal techniques, many of which are incomprehensibly ancient, originating in shamanistic practices. To communicate with the spirit world, shamans use the language of nature–the sound of wind through the tall grass, the voices of birds and animals, the inner voices of the body itself. This connection is essential to Tuvan music in general: according to legend, the igil–a sort of skinny cello with a carved horse’s head–was originally constructed from the bones of a beloved prize horse, murdered by a jealous nobleman. The ghost of the horse spoke to its heartbroken peasant owner, telling him where its bones could be found and how to make the instrument so that the horse’s spirit could always speak to him, and indeed the igil has a reedy, melancholy sound, like wind blowing through bones.

One of the reasons Tuvan groups like Huun-Huur-Tu (and its rock-oriented offshoot Yat-Kha) find audiences so easily in the West is that the structure of their folk songs adapts to our expectations remarkably well, like eastern European or even Celtic music shot through with a tantalizing otherworldly quality. It doesn’t do badly at all with some guitar tossed in, or even with a slow club beat. But when she’s wearing her improviser hat, Namtchylak emphasizes the strangeness of the music, the extreme, the extended. The White Hole began with a single drone of processed guitar, a shivering tone on which to build slowly, painstakingly. Sitting at the center of a half circle of serious young men at tables, Namtchylak looked monklike with her shaved head and simple sweatshirt dress and sandals. Her first contribution was barely audible, a low guttural hissing and quiet breezelike rustles, a graceful motion of her hands and a slight heave of her shoulders suggesting great effort for the most delicate of sounds. The tension broke with a recognizably guitarlike sound as her voice grew more recognizably human. Overtone echoes arose around her, metallic and pulsing, and taking on a complexity that seemed to reference both the nature-based sounds of Tuvan music and the ambient technological hum that cities make.

The sudden intrusion of a spitting crackle made audience members jump. Namtchylak countered it with clear, high singing, almost conventionally pretty, and then the shimmering drone followed her in and out of phase as she bent and turned around a central tone while never quite calling its name. As the drone gathered in clusters and grew denser Namtchylak eased out front with a dark split contralto; while she constantly referred back to the drone, never leaving it behind, she remained enough removed to never quite break the tension.

There was a bit of shuffling and coughing in the audience shortly before the piece ended: it probably wasn’t the warm dance around the fire pit of the global village that some had been expecting. The chill lifted for the Sainkho Namtchylak Trio (actually a quartet: three musicians plus Namtchylak), who played an accessible set alternating trip-hop pop with more traditional Tuvan folk music (including a version of a tune Huun-Huur-Tu also does, bumped up to playful Bjork-beat). Namtchylak reemerged for this set draped in shining velvet and played the personable philosopher-hostess, with smiles and eye contact and English admonitions about the role of earthly life as a kind of school for the soul: “Please dream. It is healthy.”

In this relatively comfortable context, when the shrill frightening extremes of her vocal range appeared, they seemed to come less from another world than from the hidden interior of our own. But even when singing in her ringing, accented English she uses percussive gasps and clicks and high-register shrieks in a way that sets her apart from pop, and from tradition, placing her in the realm of the purely human. World-beat fusions are weakest when they aim for shallow universals–the power of any music or combination of musics is in its own specificity and singularity, and humanity is confirmed by the shock of recognition in the unique and the foreign.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.