Sunday, 30 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 5

I was very tired at the end of a long week and the rain was a bit more persistent. London seemed glum but I was excited about the khöömii I was about to practice. I had seemed on the verge of a breakthrough the day before. It's not easy finding opportunities to practice, though I found that the toilets at my office have a loud extractor fan. While I'm sitting there, I can tune myself to the tone of the fan and sing quietly to myself and listen for the overtones. If anyone was listening outside the door, I can't imagine they would think the sounds were coming from me.

I finally found a notice explaining that the performers in Russell Square are RADA students, and that the First World War outfits were for a free outdoor production of As You Like It. Tonight it was going to be A Midsummer Night's Dream. The actors were standing around under umbrellas, not looking as happy as they had been the evening before. I wasn't that hungry, so I crossed over to Torrington Place to pick up a bottle of water and pop my nose into Waterstones. They had an English translation of George Perec's dream diary, La Boutique obscure. A cheaply printed paperback for £13.99. They knew I'd pay that, goddamn them.

Of the original fourteen students, only nine turned up to this last class. That was fine, as it meant that it was easier for me to hear myself during the group singing.  We did our own warm ups Most of my instruction so far from Michael, but tonight Candida came to hear me, and corrected my shakhaltai – it was getting a bit nasal. We did a good half hour of constant singing. One of the students, a French female viola player, could already control enough overtones to sing "Frère Jacques".

I find just maintaining one note then switching to another a tricky business – I tend to warble. But there's no way you can figure out the tongue position for each harmonic in your head. You have to feel it. Your body learns without your mind's intervention. The ability to listen to oneself with relaxed intensity is an essential skill, and not one that comes naturally to someone like me, who enjoys all the many distractions that living in London offers. The more listening you can do, the less you get in your way.

We watched an extract from a documentary about khöömii, made in 1982 for Mongolian TV, which incuded interviews with a young Tserendavaa, the khöömii master who taught Michael and Candida. Although he has an international reputation, and conducts numerous performance tours, at home he still works as a herdsman. It was delightful to see the Mongolians working, singing and playing. Many of the men wore immaculate jackets, shirts and ties and fetching hats. The children practised their khöömii in the outdoors and rode horses without saddles. There was also stunning photography of the mountains, the lakes, the endless plains apparently perpetually wreathed in mirages, and of river water dancing over rocks. Today, Mongolian gers (yurts) come equipped with solar panels and satellite dishes.

The style of khöömii I have been learning is only one of many. Tagnain khöömii uses the palate as a resonator, but similar effects can be achieved in the nose, the throat, and, most impressively, from the chest cavity. In addition to overtone singing, there is also undertone singing, in which the harmonic an octave below the fundamental note is heard – a Tuvan technique known as kargyraa. Candida demonstrated this – it sounds much more impressive and ethereal when done by a woman. The most famous exponent of kargyraa is Albert Kuvezin, of Tuvan rock group Yat-Kha. Here he is covering Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart".

We finished the session, and the course, with a group sing, sitting in a circle. Again I found it difficult to make out my own overtones among those of the whole chorus, but it didn't seem to matter so much this time. I am very grateful to Candida Valentino and Michael Ormiston for introducing me to tagnain khöömii. From here on in, daily practice will help me more than anything else. The word "practice" was one of the very first English words that Tserendavaa learned when he came to the UK, because it was the answer to most questions that anyone asked him.

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