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


The countdown is on for the annual APRA Silver Scrolls award.

One hotly contested category is the SOUNZ Contemporary Award which celebrates excellence in contemporary composition.

Michael Norris’ Sygyt, for throat singer, ensemble and electronics, is one of three finalists, whittled down from 51 works by 37 composers.

The other finalists for the best Contemporary Award are Leonie Holmes for Dance of the Wintersmith and Rosie Langabeer for Occulmente. 

It’s the fifth time Michael Norris has made the finals. He won the Award in 2014 with Inner Phases, and was nominated for the Rays of the Sun, Shards of the Moon  in 2004, Volti 2009, TIMEDANCE 2013).

His 2018 entry Sygyt,  was commissioned by Stroma New Music Ensemble and throat singer Jonny Marks and was totally new ground for Michael.

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 says he imitates two styles of Tuvan throat singing: the lower (kargyraa)  creates an incredible sound — rich, deep and gravelly, full of vibrations and intense harmonics. The high style, sygyt, is a more melodic style, in which the singer amplifies individual overtones of the vocal spectrum, while shortening others.

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

The teacher of composition and post-tonal music theory at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music says Sygyt was an enjoyable experience. “I had the most fun writing it,” he says. “There are some great moments. I let Johnny improvise.”

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

Because throat singing isn’t a written form of music, Michael had to be creative. “I had to invent notation freehand to show him the kinds of things I wanted him to do,” he says.

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

The final of the APRA silver scroll awards will be held in Auckland on Thursday 4th October and will be broadcast live on RNZ National.



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