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Tenores de Aterúe, Friday, November 30th at 8 pm, St John’s Church, 35 Park Street, Williamstown

Tenores de Aterúe
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Tenores de Aterúe

Friday, November 30th at 8PM
St John’s Church, 35 Park Street, Williamstown

Tenores de Aterúe
Tenores de Aterúe

Tenores De Aterúe formed in 2008 and have become somewhat of a sensation. Their YouTube videos have gone viral in Sardinia, as they are the first non-natives ever to attempt the unusual cantu a tenore quartet vocal technique, which involves harmonic throat singing in parts! The effect is something otherworldly, often sounding more like instruments than human voice! Sardinian song will be showcased, complemented with some choice Corsican and Italian gems. Proceeds from the concert (which also includes music from Corsica and Italy) will go toward funding their first study tour in Sardinia planned for May 2013.

“Really good, dear friends. You’ve faced and overcome an ocean of difficulties, and the result is delicious.” – YouTube comment from Sardinian viewer.

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Cantu a Tenore

By Doug Paisley and Carl Linich

The first time one hears Sardinian cantu a tenore, it is hard to believe that it is made by human voices.  A quartet vocal technique which involves harmonic throat singing in parts, it sounds more like bagpipes–or perhaps some extra-terrestrial wind ensemble.  But when Carl and I discovered, in 2004, that we shared a mutual fascination with this unusual tradition, we were undeterred.  “Wouldn’t it be great to try singing that someday?” we said – but how?  We had no teacher, knew no one from Sardinia, and we couldn’t even hear what those Sardinians were doing with their voices. It was like an ocean of sound that had no beginning or end, no top or bottom.

Our idea of learning Sardinian songs remained a fantasy until 2008, when Carl discovered a video on YouTube by the Sardinian group, Tenores di Bitti, with each voice part sung in isolation, and then together with the other parts.  It was our Rosetta Stone.  Now we knew what to do.  We found two other singing friends, Avery Book and Gideon Crevoshay, who were also interested in trying it.  Avery was the key to making our quartet happen, because he had taught himself how to do guttural throat singing – although he probably hadn’t imagined that he might use it for Sardinian songs.  We now had their quartet, and we had some teachers on that video.  All we needed was a song to sing.

Our first song came from the website of Tenores di Bitti, where we found the complete text to their recording of Ballu Dillu. We gathered at Gideon’s house in Brooklyn and started trying to make some sounds. It was not easy, and it took a while before we had something that sounded much like what we heard, but we kept working and gradually it started to come to life. The biggest challenge was the distance that separated us.   Avery, who was living in Ashville, NC at the time, had the farthest to travel. However, despite the geographic challenges, we managed to meet periodically and work up quite a few Sardinian songs.

In January 2011, we gave our first performance in Williamstown under the name Tenores de Aterúe (“Singers from Elsewhere” in Sardinian). We posted a video of our performance on YouTube, and were quite surprised when, a few days later, the video started getting hits—hundreds at first, and then thousand—all from Sardinia.  We received a message from Omar Bandinu, one of the singers in Tenores di Bitti, who had written an article about our performance in the Sardinian newspaper, L’Unione Sarda  Native Sardinians from around the world posted comments expressing astonishment (“I’m stunned”) and appreciation (“This is the best gift you could have given us.”)  Tenore singers from small villages in Sardinia chimed in, offering encouragement and suggestions on how to improve.   Our video was even featured in a documentary about cantu a tenore that aired on Italian television.

What is cantu a tenore?  Designated a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005, cantu a tenore is a form of polyphonic singing that is traditionally performed by a group of four men using four different voices: bassu,  contraboche (oche) and mesu boche (mesu oche). The deep, guttural timbre of the bassu and contra voices produce ringing overtones, which are expanded by the mesu boche. This rich aural texture is essentially a canvas for the boche, who is the main soloist and sings almost all of the text. The song form is typical of the region of Barbagia and other parts of central Sardinia. Performances are often spontaneous and done in local bars, but also at more formal occasions, such as weddings and religious festivities. Canto a tenore covers a large repertoire; the lyrics are sometimes ancient, and sometimes contemporary poems on present-day issues such as emigration and politics. In this way, the tradition has remained alive and something that still connects closely to Sardinia’s past and present in equally strong measure.

This past August our quartet gave a workshop on cantu a tenore vocal technique with the singers in Roomful of Teeth, and we performed with them at Club B10 during their residency at Mass MoCA.  And recently, at one of our concerts in New York City, we met Isabela Masala from the Sardinian-American cultural organization, Shardana USA.  She wrote of our concert on Facebook, and soon received a message from a well-known and respected tenore group in Sardinia called Tenores di Silanus Santu Larettu who proposed a cultural exchange: they would like to host us in their village to study and perform with them, and in return, we would like to host them for a tour in the US.  This exchange would be critical to our own development:  we feel that the only way for us to gain a deeper understanding of cantu a tenore is to spend time with living practitioners of this difficult art.  Our broader hope is that this cultural exchange will bring greater appreciation for the cantu a tenore tradition both here and in Sardinia, where (the singers tell us) it is often misunderstood and neglected.

On Friday, November 30th  at 8PM Tenores de Aterúe will share this unique style of singing in a performance at St. John’s Church in Williamstown.  Proceeds from the concert (which also includes music from Corsica and Italy) will go toward funding their first study tour in Sardinia planned for May 2013.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, Il Museo di Roma a Trastevere, etc. and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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