12 Sep 2018

SOUNZ Contemporary Award finalist Michael Norris: throat singing as high art

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 12 September 2018

This piece went on to win the SOUNZ Contemporary Award in the 2018 Silver Scrolls.

Michael Norris

Michael Norris Photo: Supplied

Michael Norris is one of three SOUNZ Contemporary Award finalists for 2018. He tells us why he enjoyed working with local throat singer Jonny Marks to create Sygyt, a work that melds the ancient folk singing technique with the highly refined techniques of Stroma, his new music ensemble.

Local composer Michael Norris had to create a completely new way of notating music for his work Sygyt, which is a finalist for the SOUNZ Contemporary Award at this year's Silver Scrolls. The composition includes throat singing, which isn't normally a written form of music.

Sygyt was commissioned by Stroma New Music Ensemble and throat singer Jonny Marks and was totally new ground for Michael.

Throat singing is usually improvised, so Michael had to get creative when scoring the piece. “I had to invent notation freehand to show him the kinds of things I wanted him to do.

“I had the most fun writing it,” he says. “There are some great moments. I let Jonny improvise.”

Norris says the result is an almost otherworldly sound that is unlike any other style of vocalisation in the world.

Throat singing (or ‘overtone singing’) is a technique in which the singer vibrates both the vocal cords and the ‘false folds' in the throat at the same time, then using the diaphragm and lungs as well as the tongue, lips and soft palate, pulls out specific overtones from the voice’s natural spectrum.

In Sygyt, Michael imitated two styles of Tuvan throat singing:

The lower style (kargyraa) creates an incredible sound - rich, deep and gravelly, full of vibrations and intense harmonics.

The high style, sygyt, in which the singer amplifies individual overtones of the vocal spectrum while shortening others, is more melodic.

In some cultures, throat singing is an exclusively male domain, but in others, it is traditionally female.

“A lot of pieces you struggle to find a concept and over intellectualise. This was very straightforward. As soon as I worked with [Jonny] … I got some ideas of where it was going to go.”

The piece is one of three finalists – whittled down from 51 works from 37 composers – for the SOUNZ Contemporary Award.

Leonie Holmes for Dance of the Wintersmith and Rosie Langabeer for Occulmente are the other finalists.

Karyn Hay is hosting live coverage of The APRA Silver Scroll Award on 101 FM RNZ National from9pm on Thursday 4th October.

Follow our online coverage, including live video of the awards, here on the RNZ website, and follow RNZ Music on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.

It’s the fifth time Michael Norris - a teacher of composition and post-tonal music theory at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music - has made the finals.

He won the Award in 2014 with Inner Phases, and was nominated for Rays of the Sun, Shards of the Moon in 2004, Volti in 2009 and TIMEDANCE in 2013.

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