Friday, 28 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 4

It was drizzling in Russell Square so I grabbed a bite to eat in the little café. The theatre group who have been rehearsing outdoors there all week were preparing for their first performance, and an audience of about 50 were gathering on picnic rugs, huddled under umbrellas. The cast didn't seem too disheartened by the weather threatening to spoil their opening night. They were all dressed in First World War costumes, playing joyful, enthusiastic warm-up games under a nearby tree. I've never seen First World War soldiers looking so happy in the rain.

I arrived at SOAS on the stroke of 7pm, but was only the second student to arrive. Slowly people drifted in, and at 7.15pm we made a start with only six of the fourteen students. This put me in a grumpy mood. I find it hard to understand how grown ups can find it so hard to muster enthusiasm to do joyful things. If actors in the rain can do it, why can't overtone singers?

This khöömii course is an introduction to one particular style of Mongolian overtone singing. There's no follow-up course starting immediately afterwards. Michael and Candida are not asking us to sign up to anything. Their job, then, is to inspire us to play and to practice, so that we can proceed under our own steam. With that in mind, we were introduced to a recommended daily 15-minute series of exercises. A warm-up for the body, the breath and the voice, followed by alternating bouts of overtone singing (2 mins) and shakhaltai singing (1 min), before combining them into proper tagnain khöömii.

Walking us through these exercises took up most of the allotted time for the class, due to multiple interruptions by latecomers, questions and digressions. It seemed that I had only just begun to achieve a good pure overtone sound before it was time to stop. I am impatient, but my journey is only just beginning.

The new material in the class consisted of an introduction to hearing the various specific overtones. We listened carefully as Candida demonstrated, beginning with the eighth harmonic (exactly three octaves above the bass note) and shifting up and down in steps. It is impossible to glide from note to note, as multiples of the lower frequency can only be achieved in integers. The jumping from one note to the next is identical to the way electrons jump from one energy state to the next in quantum mechanics, emitting photons of light. At a fundamental level, the universe is not composed of stuff, matter, particles. It is made of vibrations, harmonies, music. 

So the scales that make up overtone singing are pure tones, in tune with the harmony of the universe. By contrast, the Western "tempered" scale is an elegant cultural construct and a compromise. Mongolian music will always sound strange to us, but when we sing harmonics we are literally attuning our physical bodies to a transcendent, mathematical reality. It is the closest we can get to Platonic truth. 

So why not show up on time?

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