Where Rivers and Mountains Sing consists of a travelogue, an option already chosen by Theodore Levin for his previous book on Central Asian music (The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997) recounting the author’s ethno-musicological research about Tuvan music. Valentina Suzukei is mentioned as the second author, but if she appears a continual collaborator of Levin for his whole work, and if she makes clarifications on the concept of timbre in this music (chapter 3/1), Levin has to be considered as the main author. The choice of the structure of a travelogue makes the book very pleasant to read, as it is filled with lively, sometimes humorous descriptions of situations, places and people. Though, the book is not built on a strictly chronological line: it rather goes back and forth between different places and moments, which allows the author to provide well-chosen points on historical and anthropological backgrounds in the course of the journey. The work could appear descriptive if it was not outlined by thematic chapters, each of which deals with a specific research aspect. Critical comparisons with other works are well-introduced within the narrative in such a way that the travel’s atmosphere also brings analytical developments. The travel is by the way not only the author’s, but also that of a Tuvan band, Huun Huur-Tu, touring in different countries and accompanying the author in his aim of replacing Tuva’s music in its natural environment. The whole travel is visually and soundly represented on a well-commented CD-DVD disc.
In the beginning of the preface, the author announces his aim: “This work strives to represent the voices of musicians and sound artists whose remarkable art and craft are rooted in Inner Asian nomadism. The book’s central figure focus is the relationship between nomadic music and sound-making, and the natural and social environments that have shaped them (p. ix). . .” He comes back on the present symbolist use of nomadism (ideally opposed to consumerist societies) in the Western world and criticises this essentialist vision, while admitting that he is himself seeking in his own work to understand what really subtends this so-called idyllic relationship to nature. As an ethnomusicologist, his entry door on nomadism is of course the one of music, in a very large sense as Levin finally deals as much with sound production as music production. His aim can be understood from this assertion: the importance is the way sound is thought, and Levin respects the ethnographical rule when keeping, all along his work, vernacular categories, which do distinct sound and music. But what really interests him is the relationship between nature and sound in nomadic cultures (in Tuvan and Mongolian cultures in particular). This is this book is not only dealing with music but also with every sound production that makes cultural sense: what the author calls “sound mimesis”: “the use of sound to represent and interact with the natural environment and the living creatures that inhabit it (p. x).” Introducing himself as a “musical ethnographer,” Levin aims at transcending the borders of ethnicity, politics or identity, and adopts an anti homogeneous culture position. Still, as he relates his personal academic course, it appears that his personal engagement in defending nomadic cultures (against the judgement on urban musical culture on ‘barbaric’ nomadic music, which he found in Central Asia and Iran) is not free from urban fascination towards people living closed to nature.
The author begins by studying the way music is called: names for different kinds of music are related to nature. His entry point in repertoires is the throat-singing: xöömei in Tuva. Relating his first research mission in 1987, Levin comes back on the Soviet period and to the cultural management of Soviet administration, comparing it to what it was in Central Asia and reminding the banning of shamanism by communists in 1930s. From this experience and convinced by beauty of throat-singing, he invites musicians in USA, thus initiating a globalisation process of this music, in which he assumes his responsibility, but which is also the reason for which he afterwards begins to seek for natural bases of music. The globalisation issue is present all along the book: impacts on Tuva’s music, charlatanism of a fringe of shamanism, touring of music bands, etc., which appear painful for the author, as an ethnomusicologist seeking for “old” music. In the second chapter, Levin describes the way music production is directly linked to nature. Songs for spirits of nature: river’s spirit (with a beautiful “along-with-stream” song called borbangnadyr, showed on third track of the DVD), cave’s spirit, spring’s spirits, etc. Music then constitutes an offering to the spirits, as well as the imitation of sounds of animals or natural elements is a way to “remember it, and put oneself there in that place” (p. 29). Tuvan music then appears to be based on animist belief, as landscapes are personified, and used to produce sound.
After an Interlude dealing with globalisation and the complex issue of copyrights (should Levin authorise the use of Tuvan music for a Swedish advertisement spot for cheese? see DVD/24), the third chapter is dedicated to timbre and overtones, defining then the way of producing throat-singing. The difficult question of timbre (here defined as “the specific quality of a tone determined by the presence, distribution, and relative amplitude of overtones”, p. 47) is treated with musical notations related to recordings on CD. Musicians themselves use metaphors of nature to describe timbre, and Valentina Suzukei explains that two sound systems can be found in Tuvan music: a timbre-centred system, and a pitch-centred system (similar to the European one). The author insists on the needed closed relationship to natural world to produce harmonics, as “timbral listening is an ideal sonic mirror of the natural world (p. 58).” It also explains, in the author’s viewpoint, why transmission of music does not refer to musical lineage: “nature is the school.” The issue of origin is also discussed and leads to an analysis of re-territorialisation of throat-singing in Ulan-Bator in Mongolia, linked to the use of this music for national identity claims. The fourth Chapter, dedicated to “sound mimesis”, deals with the relationship of mimetic ability and culture: the power of representation in music through mimesis. Coming back on Darwin’s and species’ evolution theory, the author tries to answer the question that “if the mimetic faculty is innate, what social and environmental factors lead some groups to cultivate mimetic behaviour more than others (p. 78)?” Levin reminds the old link between nomadism, pastoralism, and hunting, reflected in music. He also notes the playful dimension of sound mimesis, but insists mostly of the importance, for Tuvan musicians, to use timbre to create an association with a place. This is what the author calls “sketches of nature”: musical representations of natural sounds from specificities of natural elements which, underlines Levin, is a very concrete experience, opposed to the cosmic understanding that may get Occidental people from its listening. The narrative dimension of mimesis is also analysed in instrumental music such as Kazakh kui or Kirghiz küü. The author finally talks about mimesis as “cultural memory”, distinguishing what comes from current practice and what comes from ancient practice: what he calls the living cultural memory.
The following chapter sees the entering of shamanism, and animals’ spirits, in this sound-making research. For shamans, animals’ spirits are “spirit-helpers” (eerens) for healing. The author lively describes a “shamanic entrepreneur (p. 126)” and shamanic rituals, before following on day-to-day human-animal relationship in herders’ work. Even if this part can appear a little evident to a rural reader, it shows the necessary link between human and animal in pastoral society. Levin lists every kind of link between musician, or human sound-producer, and animal or nature. He compares this to animals’ representation in material culture: art, craft, etc., and uses archaeological material for his demonstration. In his viewpoint, there is a clear continuity between animist worldview and nowadays musical representation of nature in Altai. The sixth chapter is dedicated to new paths of Tuvan music, out of its natural environment of Altai. The author questions the future of “the animist view of the world that first inspired music-making (162).” He first comes back on epic performance, in Khakas first, and the “given-by-dream” issue of epic knowledge and recital, linked with the spiritual purpose of epic, said to be frightening bad spirits. Performances of Manas epic are also described and analysed from a healing point of view. Then Levin suggests that the proliferation of new shamanism (shamanic treatment clinics, charlatans, etc.) in the Altai is linked with a social need initiated by the breakdown of Soviet power and by its socio-economical consequences. A sub-chapter is dedicated to women’s performances, and to social convention forbidding women to throat-sing and recite epic. Though, some women currently do, as long as they “don’t have fear before the spirits (200).” Non traditional performances of Tuvan repertoires are then described, through Huun Huur-Tu’s projects: “For HHT, “breaking new ground” had come to mean not simply rediscovering traditional Tuvan songs, reviving old instruments, or redefining the stylistic boundaries of throat-singing, but rather experimenting with plugged-in arrangements of their repertory, sophisticated mixing techniques, and cross-cultural fusion projects (161).” Their collaboration with Ross Daly (Cretan music) and Jamshid Shemirani (Iranian drums) is accurately described, with all artists’ point of views, and gives a real good vision on this “cross-cultural” meetings that have become usual and debated, in Europe at least.
The postlude or conclusion comes back to globalised uses of this nature rooted music. The author fears that further appropriations of this music might lead musicians away from their roots and he thus defines a “new nomadism”, whose roads will be determined by commercial issues. Definitely, this work is full of keys to understand not only Altai nomadic music and its multiple ways of representation of nature, but also the actualisation of this music in the West. This is the most important contribution of this research: the author does not separate traditional performances from their production abroad. Even if Levin clearly shows his preference for a nature-rooted music, he shows the emerging contradictions in which end these musicians, and in which he takes part himself as an ethnomusicologist. Recounting his travel’s experiences, he manages to give fine musical and anthropological analyses which are made living with the support of CDs and DVDs containing beautiful recordings and subtitled-films. Two colour-plates sections, lots of pictures inside texts, and transcriptions and translations of poetry help to make this book a very pleasant journey in the Altai, but also a key document for ethnographers of the region.