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Tenores de Aterúe Call on Ancient Sardinian Singing


Published March 19, 2014 at 4:00 a.m.

The isolated Mediterranean island of Sardinia happens to be about the same geographic size as the state of Vermont, and its terrain, like Vermont's, is rugged and mountainous. And that's pretty much where the similarities end. But by tapping into Sardinia's ancient polyphonic song tradition known as cantu a tenore, an American singing group with roots in Vermont represents a bridge between two cultures that have seldom been connected.

That group, Tenores de Aterúe, will showcase the extraordinary vocal skills it refined on a recent trip to Sardinia in its upcoming performances in Burlington and Montpelier.

Cantu a tenore is an a cappella vocal style in which each of a group's four members sings in a specific tonal range. When singing, they often stand in a small, close-knit square, face to face, with arms around each other's shoulders. Much of the music's power derives from the tension between the intimacy of the setting and the power of the vocalizations.

The singers' physical arrangement onstage is not the most unusual element of this music. Cantu a tenore is a "throat-singing" tradition: Its singers use not only their vocal cords but their "false vocal folds" — membranes in the throat whose principal purpose is to keep food from entering the windpipe. Normally these play little or no role in speech or singing. With practice, though, singers can learn to use their false vocal folds to produce a low, droning tone that resonates at a pitch one octave below that being produced simultaneously by the vocal cords.

This style of singing is perhaps best known to American audiences from the 1999 documentary Genghis Blues, about an American blues musician who learns the throat-singing tradition of Tuva, a region of Siberia. (The singers of some particularly angry-sounding metal bands also employ it.)

The Sardinian throat-singing tradition is largely unknown in this country, though in 2008 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated it as a tradition of "intangible cultural heritage." Such honors are well and good, but it's the music that matters most. The harmonic interplay between the four singers' tones makes cantu a tenore especially pleasing to the ears.

So, why have these American singers from the Northeast taken it upon themselves to learn not only this obscure singing style, but the Sardinian language of its traditional songs? Avery Book, the group's bassu, says the reason has everything to do with the complex interplay of the music's intense harmonies.

"It's a truly polyphonic music in which no one part can stand on its own; all the parts depend on each other," he says. "It requires an intense level of engagement with the other singers."

Book, 32, is a musician and music educator who teaches singing in numerous workshops and schools; he belongs to the Starry Mountain Singers, an international folk group based partly in Vermont. Tenores de Aterúe ("Singers From Elsewhere" in Sardinian) gives Book and his compatriots (Doug Paisley, who sings the oche part; Carl Linich, contra; and Gideon Crevoshay, mesu oche) the opportunity to delve deep into one of the world's great vocal traditions.

The members of the group, who knew one another from previous musical projects, started performing cantu a tenore songs in 2007, mostly at Paisley's home in Massachusetts. Of crucial assistance was a "how to sing cantu a tenore" YouTube video that Paisley had tracked down. "That video pieced apart this really elusive ocean of sound," Book says, "and gave us the starting point for being able to map out the structure of what was going on in the music."

As their love of the music grew — and as their Sardinian improved — the singers raised the funds to travel to the country in May 2013. Over just three weeks, Book relates, "We learned more than in the five years before that."

In Sardinia, the group's training was anything but formal. Rather, they visited small villages — each of which had its own local version of cantu a tenore — and, after plenty of cheeses, meats and "really good Sardinian wine," they "swap[ped] songs" with local groups, Book says. They returned with a hugely expanded repertoire.

Unexpectedly, a YouTube video of a Tenores de Aterúe performance has gone viral in Sardinia. That video, along with the group's tour, has made its members into minor celebrities on the island, where, Book says, locals have responded to them with a mix of amazement and appreciation.

The group's two upcoming Vermont concerts are part of its first tour since visiting Sardinia. Book says the singers are performing with renewed enthusiasm, calling Tenores de Aterúe a "transformed group."

"One thing I'm really excited about," says Book, "is that now all the songs have people and stories behind them. We already had a thirst for learning as much as we could, but now we're also thinking about the guy we were singing with at seven at night who had to wake up at four in the morning to herd his sheep ... We have such vivid memories of and fond relationships with the singers that we met."

The original print version of this article was headlined "In Vermont Performances, New England Singers Call Up Ancient Sardinian Songcraft"