The three-week period I’m allowed to keep an interlibrary loan book out is usually just long enough that I can get interested again in whatever it was that induced me to order the book in the first place, three weeks before the book arrived; and then it’s time to check it back in, almost entirely unread. I’ve got a collection of papers in Russian on throat-singing [Melodii Khoomeya, edited by Zoya Kyrgys], a translation of the Central Asian chapters from a Soviet encyclopedia of ethnomusicology [Central Asian Music, by Viktor Beliaev], and some kind of anthology of short descriptions of archaeological discoveries of the remains of depcitions of ancient musical instruments and in some cases the instruments themselves [didn’t write down the title before I returned it]. They’re all due tomorrow [have now been returned], and I already spent money getting them here: I can’t keep them out for the next three weeks. This post is all the use I’m going to get out of them.

I think I had been browsing this article online just before I went ordering ILLs. I’d noticed (it only took me a year of listening) how common it was to hear the jew’s harp played along with Tuvan/Mongolian throat-singing.

An article in Melodii Khoomeya [by Kh. S. Ikhtisamov] speculates on the connection. He argues that overtone-singing (one sustained bass note with a melody produced in overtones) is part of a palette of similar-types of music-making; on the igil (an anorexic two-string cello), the melody is usually produced on the upper string, the lower string producing a steady drone (on this, a funny story by Valentina Süzükei from her book with Ted Levin: trying to tune a Soviet “people’s orchestra” [modeled on the famous Moscow “Balalaika Orchestra”, these ensembles would perform classical or Soviet orchestral hits on traditional instruments – they were formed all over the Soviet Union, traditional instrumentalists being conscripted to them in packs], unable to communicate to the igil player that she needed to tune the strings separately, he unable to understand how the instrument could be played one string at a time). Likewise, the Jew’s harp: the vibrating tongue produces a steady, single tone, and the melody is produced by changing the shape and size of the resonating chamber, the mouth, to produce different overtones. Tuvan throat-singing is just another variant on this musical-cultural theme: the breaking of a “single” musical note into its constituent ground and overtones, separating out tone colors the way a prism breaks white light into colors (this analogy, or something like it, from Süzükei’s paper in Melodii Khoomeya) , and the unifying of “separate” tones into a single tone-cluster.

Of course the Jew’s harp is known all over the world. Instances have been found from pre-Roman Britain to pre-modern Polynesia (there made of reeds instead of metal); from South Asia to Yakutia (want to buy a modern Yakut khomus? got $179 plus shipping?). There are cultures in which it is the only tuneful musical instrument known (says The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments). The musical archaeology book has examples from medieval Sweden, revolutionary America, and Greek Afghanistan [I think; I returned it already].

According to Beliaev in Central Asian Music (1962), the temir komuz (i.e. the iron komuz, komuz meaning a three-stringed lute, tuned to fourths or fifths) is Kyrgyz for Jew’s harp; it’s played mainly by women & children and is played while whistling. He says: “Melodies for the temir komuz are of special interest. On theis insturment the lower buzzing tone is a drone and a narrow ranging melody, consiting of overtones, is produced above.” He transcribes the melody for a traditional song called “The Grey Calf”, the bass part of which is played on the temir komuz and the melody is whistled. (I wish there was some kind of plugin or something so I could show you the transcriptions of overtone-singing from Melodii Khoomeya.) He writes: “It is impossible to overlook the production through whistling of two-voiced vocal music by one person on this simple idiophone*. This technique, called khoomei among the Tuvins and uzliau among the Bashkirs, belongs to one of the oldest and most original ways of producing harmonics with simultaneous sonding of an extended fundamental pitch. (The translator notes: “Beliav’s remark is in accordance with the general tendency among Soviet ethnomusicologists to ignore the flute repertories of Asian peoples.” I think this note refers to the following fact: the Kyrgyz choor, Mongol/Tuvan tsuur/zuur, is an “end-blown” flute which is placed against the lip or sometimes the teeth on one side of the mouth: the player blows the melody through the flute and simultaneously creates a steady drone accompaniement to the melody with his mouth.) Beliaev remarks about the Kazakh shan kobiz that it too is a domestic, primarily children’s instrument (and notes that this is generally the case throughout Central Asia).

One reason why the Jew’s harp is so widely used among nomadic peoples (and is generally a children’s instrument there) may be that it requires a full set of [front] teeth to play – nomadic peoples, living on meat and dairy, have healthier, stronger teeth than sedentary people, living on grains; adults are less likely to have a full set of teeth then children and adolescents. At least, that seemed clear and obvious to me this afternoon, when I was in the middle of something else and hadn’t had a chance to phrase it out. That’s enough.

* An idiophone is an instrument that itself vibrates, like a bell or a washboard; as opposed to an instrument which contains a vibrating part, like stringed instruments, or that causes a column of air to vibrate, like a flute. It’s the percussions section, minus the membranophones (the drums).

** I couldn’t work this in anywhere else above, but I would have to tie it in somehow like this: the melodies produced by overtone singers (or bells, or any other instrument which produces strong partial tones) sometimes sound a little “off” or a little sour to people used to the intervals in equal temperament, since the overtones produced are from pure, untempered intervals. I was reading yesterday about organs – as equal temperament became more popular, organs were altered by placing small valves in the pipes to alter the pitches produced, until finally organ pipes were standardly manufactured to produce equal-tempered pitches. The author of the book I was reading (it may have been The Story of the Organ; the title was something like that) told how once, when on a visit to New Zealand, he was playing a hymn in D-flat for a church choir, and it sounded terrible, and the choir was thrown off. The local organ-tuner was sent for, and on hearing the problem, refused to do anything to solve it. It turned out that this man, the only tuner in that part of New Zealand and a firm believer in just temperament, himself physically altered the pipes of any organ imported from England before installation so that they would play in just temperament.