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.

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?

Thursday 27 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 3

There seemed to be a mixed mood among the students last night. A midweek lull is to be expected, I suppose, and several people arrived late for the class.

Michael filled the time by getting out some of his musical instruments – like most teachers, he enjoys going off on tangents and showing off his erudition. I enjoyed his collection of jew's harps.* I hadn't previously considered this a Mongolian instrument, but of course it employs many of the same resonant overtone qualities as khöömii. Variants of this most ancient of instruments exist in almost every corner the world – including Turkey, Hungary, India, the United States, Scandinavia and the Philippines. I've been listening to jew's harp music ever since and am in the process of assembling an eclectic jew's harp playlist. In addition to samples of traditional styles of world folk music, it includes examples by Fairport Convention, The Muppets, and, most surprisingly of all, a series of concerti by Austrian composer Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736–1812), who taught Beethoven.

Much of the class was given over to recapping. After some "toning" chanting (which was perhaps a little overexplained), we went back over the overtone singing of Day 1 and the shakhaltai style of Day 2. After some practice, we listened to a bit more cultural background, before getting on with combining everything we'd learned so far.

It is impossible for a khöömii teacher to explain how to get all the elements right at once, because there are so many variables: the pitch of the tone, the volume, the constriction, the breathing, the placement of the tip of the tongue, the vowel sound, the shape of the mouth and the position of the jaw, not to mention the completely unique shape of each individual's head. Most of the work must be done through diligent trial and error. But why use the phrase "trial and error", when we have the simpler (and infinitely more positive) word "play"? For the first time, I felt like I was making clear, controlled harmonics. The guiding principle is to fall in love with whatever works. Feeling it in your heart will motivate you; intellectualising it will paralyse you.

The class overran a little, which made up for the late start, and I sensed everyone was feeling much better. Certainly everyone had made enormous progress. As I walked home, it seemed to me that I was hearing overtones everywhere: in the squeal of a buses brakes, in the laughter of a group of tourists, in the wind rolling down Calthorpe Street. Were my ears really this well attuned, or was it my imagination?

When I woke up this morning and checked my emails, I found that I had ordered myself an expensive jew's harp from an online music store.

* Wikipedia explains that while some people object to the name "jew's harp" – as the instrument has no connection with any judaic tradition – other people believe that to refuse to call it a "jew's harp" is more offensive.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 2

The sun was shining, so I ate a sandwich in Russell Square. I like public spaces that allow lots of people to do a wide range of things simultaneously. Some martial artists were practising moves with mimed swords. Some small boys were kicking a football about. A girl was photographing flowers. A drama group were doing something strange involving rope, a guitar and drum, a stepladder and foliage. A man tried to show off to his girlfriend by walking straight through the fountain in the middle of the square, and regretted it immediately afterwards. I was practising my overtone singing.

The class this week largely put overtone singing to one side, in favour of another element of tagnain khöömii that is typically Mongolian: shakhaltai. This word is translated as "squeezing", and refers specifically to a tightening of the superior pharyngeal constrictor muscle. Everything else – the jaw, the back of the mouth, and the larynx – is kept loose, relaxed, open and resonant. Michael introduced the idea in the following terms: "Sing an eee sound, but rather than your usual eee, sing the eee you would sing if you were at a cocktail party and had just met someone you hated, but were pretending to get on with." The result is a sound that is unfamiliar to Western ears. It appears to come from deep within, a constricted effect achieved by Rob Brydon with his famous "Small Man Trapped in a Box" act:

Paradoxically, this constrained voice, properly supported, has great resonance, and khöömii can be used to communicate over long distances in Mongolia. Michael advised me, as a performer, to focus on my inner support – my diaphragm and breathing – rather than strain to reach the back of the audience. There is a deeper life message here as well. We might achieve our objectives with more ease if we directed our attention to where we are and what we already have within us, rather than where and what we would wish to be.

Once introduced to shakhaltai, a second concept was brought up: dandilakh. This word has no equivalent in English. (How would you explain the word "lah-di-dah"to a non-English speaker?) Its aim is to loosen the tongue and to practise the shakhaltai style with a range of broad vowels:

LEEE – la - la – LEY – la - la – LAH – la - la – LAW – la - la – LOOO

and back again.

To practise my dandilakh, I was partnered with a Polish girl called Anka. She grabbed a pen and scribbled the Polish equivalents of these vowel sounds on the cribsheet. As on Day 1, we spent a good half an hour getting to grips with it. Anka was shy, but a natural. I feel like I made a pretty good stab at it. The room rang merrily with "LEE-la-la-LEY-la-la-LAA-" etc. until the couple sitting next to the window collapsed into hysterics. 

This technique is easy for a beginner to overdo, and I can already sense an unfamiliar soreness in the back of my throat. We were advised to abandon all shakhaltai activity between this class and the next, and concentrate solely on practising the overtone singing from Day 1.

This morning, I recorded my overtone singing in my kitchen. The harmonics – a whistling sound over the top of the main note – are ever so faint, but can just about be discerned. What do you think?

Tonight we will put the two together – the overtone singing and the shakhaltai style. I relish the challenge.

Click here for Day 1 of my Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 1

I have had no acting training at all. This is not uncommon among improvisers and comedians, but it is almost always obvious, almost as soon as someone gets on stage, whether or not they have gone to drama school. A good actor is effortlessly compelling to watch. And even mediocre actors have certain qualities about them: they often appear more comfortable, more physically present, and their voices sound resonant and well supported. If these qualities sometimes seem mysterious – it is not immediately clear what they are doing that is special – it is for two reasons: because their skills have become intuitive through plenty of training and practice, and because they relate to very basic, internal functions: breathing, relaxation, listening.

In an attempt to gain an enjoyable and original introduction some of these skills without the expense of time and money that drama classes require, I'm taking a course in Mongolian "khöömii" overtone singing over five evenings this week. It's part of the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) Summer School and is led by Michael Ormiston and Candida Valentino, two excellent teachers. Michael immediately dispelled my main misgiving about the nature of the course: teachers of this sort of "intensive" classes often make extravagant claims about skills that can be acquired in a limited amount of time. But not Michael. "We'll show you how to practice, so you can go away and learn" he said, and later, commenting on how some will pick it up quicker than others, said "The important thing is that you start the journey. It makes no difference where your starting point is." Exactly.

After some extensive and fun physical and vocal warm-ups, which I will steal for improv rehearsals, we were introduced both to the internal geography of the mouth, and a bit of background about what we would be learning: tagnain, or palatal, khöömii, considered the easiest of the six or seven styles of khöömii. There was plenty of time set aside for singing practice. When everyone sang at once, naturally harmonizing, the room seemed to glow happily.

The participants couldn't be more varied: classical singers, voice coaches, ethnomusicologists, physicists and mystics. An elderly lady with ribbons and tinsel in her hair cornered me afterwards to tell me about her chanting rituals, excitedly telling me how important it was to shock people with menstrual blood and the word "cunt".

I walked home through Farringdon, feeling energized, stopping off at The Pakenham Arms for a pint. My progress so far has been largely exploratory. This attention has made my mouth and throat seem enormous. I'm playing with the caverns of my lower jaw, becoming aware of previously ignored pockets of resonance at the back of my head, and getting to grips with the different parts of my tongue. When I sing, I can feel the overtones buzzing around my head, but they're barely discernable when I play back recordings of myself. So I've a long way to go before I can produce those glorious clear notes.

I'll be back tonight for more. It's exciting.