For many years, I have been trying to grasp a very special voice sound: undertone singing.
I use this term as a classification for all vocal sounds of this type, including vocal fry, Strohbass, growling, and Kargyraa – although they might vary in the sound and in the physiological production. Undertone singing also plays a role in beatboxing, as it can be used as an alternative for bass sounds.
In literature on extended singing techniques and harmonic singing, you can find different explanations for undertone singing techniques: special movement of the vocal folds, resonating of the false vocal folds, vibration of the aryepiglottic sphincter. Many questions about the voice have not yet been answered by science. The ability to observe the throat while the singer is producing sounds is limited, and every voice and throat is different!
For non-professionals, one has to imagine the mouth and throat as being a highly flexible tube in which every part is movable to a fine degree. The vital function of this is the chewing and swallowing of food. Only later, did humans start to use this ability to also modify the raw sound produced by the vocal folds (whose vital function is to protect the lungs against foreign bodies). Any change of position of any part of the throat, mouth, vocal folds, or airflow will change the sound.
At some point in our evolution, we started to distinguish the unintentionally produced sounds which we made. Some of these became what we nowadays call »speech,« and others – which make up a far greater range of sounds that we can produce – we call »singing.«
Thus whenever we move a part of our throat, it influences the sound we produce. When we manage to not only change the position, but also bring together two parts of the mouth and throat and allow them to vibrate, we can create an additional sound source next to our vocal folds. This is what happens in Kargyraa singing. As you can imagine, this a challenging thing to do. It requires simultaneous tension and looseness at the right points, and all this in a tube inside of your body which you can’t see or touch.
Chonudraa Tumat sings Hömii songs
Kargyraa to me is the queen of all undertone singing techniques. It gives a very rich, satisfying sound, which can also get quite loud. It is rarely performed by women because it is a lot more difficult to make it sound good as women’s voices are on average one octave higher than men’s. It also requires a very careful approach. Asian singers repeatedly tell you that your throat is going to bleed for weeks at the beginning.
Kargyraa is one of the singing techniques of Höömii, the throat singing technique from Siberia. Höömii itself is better know for its overtone singing styles, but actually consists of different techniques. The main ones are as follows (I will be generalizing the descriptions here):
Höömii – a term for all these techniques together
Höömii – single cavity overtone singing
Sygyt – dual cavity overtone singing, with a special »twang« or »closed throat« add-on
Kargyraa – special undertone singing
For my performance at the Resonant Bodies Festival in New York this September, I am arranging a traditional Tuvan song for voice and alto flute, which will be using clean singing in head and chest voice as well as overtone and undertone singing. Here, you can hear my first attempts at the voice part:
Voice study to Daglarrrym (2016) trad. arr. of two Tuvinian songs, Daglarym and Arti Sayir