How does a guy — namely, Sean Quirk — from Milwaukee end up in Tuva, a small republic that is part of the Russian Federation, working as the interpreter and manager for an ensemble of throat singers?

He fell in love.

Quirk fell in love with throat singing when he was in college, majoring in music. His roommate brought him a CD by a Tuvan ensemble. He listened to the album and was hooked.

”I was extremely fascinated,” Quirk said by phone in New York. ”I’d heard people could sing multiple tones at once — it’s kind of weird but it really gets to you.”

Quirk was so compelled, he taught himself how to throat sing, learned Russian and eventually found himself in Tuva on a Fulbright fellowship. That’s when he fell in love again, this time with a woman who is now his wife.

In 2006, he began working as manager and interpreter for the Alash Ensemble, a quartet of male Tuvan throat singers. He travels the world with the ensemble, which performs at One Longfellow Square in Portland on Saturday. The ensemble is on an 81-day tour of the U.S., during which it plans to record a new album.


The members of Alash feel strongly about honoring the throat-singing tradition of their homeland, but also are inspired by modern music. They have collaborated with jazz ensemble Sun Ra Arkestra and with banjo whiz Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (the ensemble performs on the Grammy Award-winning Flecktones holiday album, ”Jingle All the Way”).

The Tuvan tradition of throat singing goes back centuries. It sprang out of the Tuvans’ connections to the natural world, so the various styles of throat singing correspond to sounds in nature.

For instance, the sygyt style is representative of the songs of birds and the kargyraa style evokes the cries of a mother camel who has lost her calf or the howling winter winds.

”It (the Tuvan tradition of throat singing) is a very expressive and extremely beautiful method of using the human voice,” Quirk said. ”They have this amazing ability to filter sound — the sound of their voices. They subtract frequencies.”

Quirk explains that Tuvan throat singers start with a base tone. That base tone is manipulated so that one singer can produce multiple pitches at the same time.

The members of Alash sing in Tuvan. Many of their songs celebrate connections to nature, but the songs also reflect everyday life.


The music sounds so transcendent, Quirk said with a laugh, but in translation, ”Some of the songs are, ‘Hey, see that girl over there? She’s hot.’


Staff Writer Stephanie Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6455 or at:


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