Sainkho Namtchylak & Ned Rothenberg Duo at Douglass Street Music Collective 11/20/13


Tuvan avant-garde singer Sainkho Namtchylak is truly unique (you can read her story about halfway down this article). Since she's based in Vienna, she is not a frequent visitor to New York; therefore, I leapt at the opportunity to attend this concert arranged by Rothenberg to take advantage of her presence in the wake of a trip to perform at a Mongolian music conference.

Virtuoso wind player Rothenberg is an attraction himself. Combining their considerable talents, this duo is almost a quartet, since both members are capable of producing two notes at once: Namtchylak with her overtone-singing, Rothenberg with multiphonics on bass clarinet.

The first half of the evening was Namtchylak solo. She kicked it off with a roughly ten-minute tour-de-force display of her unusually broad range of vocal techniques, which seems improbably coming from any one person, much less this elfin woman. Low growls -- I mean really low; she supposedly has a seven-octave range -- seem more like what might come from a possessed man, and contrast starkly with high-pitched crooning and cooing. She has an impressive array of sounds in her repertoire, not least the aforementioned overtone-producing throat singing traditional in her native Tuva, though she puts it to distinctly non-traditional uses and capped this opener with its eerie sounds. Standing by herself center-stage, she swayed and gestured liberally, which helped her highly abstract arrangement of noises seem more personal and physical (not for her the metaphorically signifying/representative style of Yoko Ono; Namtchylak's sonic world creates its own meaning rather than referring to outside meanings).

Her next number was a little more songlike at times, and less flashy. After that she sat down, though she still moved and gestured a lot. Her third and final solo piece was so insistently rhythmic, it was damn near beatboxing as she spun out a groove using gently guttural glottal stops -- I'm talking about vocal moves that Rahzel and Biz Markie might be envious of, though her style is devoid of the pop-sample imitations they lean on.

Rothenberg joined for the second half and they talked about how long it had been since they performed together as a duo (somewhere in the range of 15 to 18 years), though on the other hand, as Rothenberg noted, before that they'd played over a hundred duo gigs in the space of five years -- and recorded the album Amulet (Leo, 1999).

On their first duo, Rothenberg played clarinet, setting up bubbling, kaleidoscopic patterns Namtchylak sometimes interacted with, sometimes sang over. She deployed her overtone singing more. Rothenberg switched to shakuhachi, a large, Japanese end-blown bamboo flute with a profound and lengthy tradition of subtle timbres featuring precisely rough intonation and otherwise quiet explorations of texture; Namtchylak mostly scaled back her singing to fit in, the results jewel-like and exquisite.

Rothenberg's bass clarinet finally saw action on their third and last duo, the most freewheeling and harmonically rich interaction of the evening as the intertwining of vocal overtones and bass clarinet multiphonics mixed with other extended-technique effects amid a dazzling web of sounds that could not be woven by anyone but these two geniuses. And then, after less than an hour, it was over, yet I doubt any of the devotees in attendance felt the aural delights we'd been granted were at all insufficient. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.