As you begin reading about Spectral Voices’ origins please click here to hear “Inner Voices (Calling)”
Background and Influences
For centuries people in many parts of the world have been developing overtone singing traditions (aka: khoomei – throat singing, harmonic overtone singing, harmonic chant, multiphonic singing), and nowhere has it reached greater refinement and variety than in central Asia. You may have heard the high whistling melodies, expressive warbles, and intense low croaking tones of Tuvan throat singers. A similar folk tradition occurs among the herdsmen of Mongolia. Certain groups of Tibetan Buddhist monks practice a deep subfundamental type of sacred harmonic chant.
Origin of Spectral Voices
In 1991 Jim Cole began practicing overtone singing after hearing recordings of the Tibetan Gyuto monks and David Hykes and The Harmonic Choir’s Hearing Solar Winds. He was astonished that the haunting otherworldly sounds he heard were produced entirely by human voices. Within a year he was turning people on to the wonder of harmonic singing, teaching others as he continued to learn, and gathering an ever-evolving group around him. Asian throat singing was never really a public art, developed instead by solitary wandering herders communing with nature and by monks deep in meditation. Jim’s group likewise experienced the focus and peace that can come from overtone singing. Members enjoyed the shared opportunity for musical exploration, self-expression, and interaction with each other, but originally had no intention of singing for anyone but themselves. As the group evolved into Spectral Voices, the singers became increasingly experimental, playing with their voices to create new sounds and techniques and discovering the challenges and joys of totally improvised group work.
Finding an Ideal Space
Expanding musical ideas and a continuing search for special places eventually led to a hilltop in the woods only a stone’s throw from civilization where stood an enormous empty water tower. The 120-foot-tall steel cylinder turned out to be the ideal space in which to develop and record the “vocal spacemusic” that makes Spectral Voices’ sound and style unique among ambient musicians as well as distinct from the music of other harmonic singers. Imagine the setting: Looking up at the modern-day megalith looming above, you’re surrounded by sights and sounds of the natural world — birds and wind and rustling leaves. Using a large pipe fitter’s wrench, you loosen two large bolts enough to swing open the squeaking oval hatch near the base of the tower. With some difficulty you crawl through the opening in the thick steel wall and emerge into a vastly different world of total darkness and unfamiliar reverberation. (The sensation is somewhat akin to diving deep below the surface of water and realizing you’re in a whole new slow-motion world.) The senses are necessarily heightened. A flickering candle casts dancing shadows on the curved wall, evoking images of some ancient cave. Every sound lasts twenty to thirty seconds, making speech barely intelligible, but music — when it is slow and spacious — is exquisite. In 1994, after a brush with the law (in addition to this interview with David Opdyke, the story is also recounted in the article near the bottom of this page) reminiscent of the “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” the abandoned water tower became Spectral Voices’ new home.
Playing the Space
Working in this extremely reverberant environment, Jim and his group learned to use the water tower as an instrument, adapting their ideas to the acoustics of their surroundings. An amazingly long decay time contributed greatly to the depth and richness of sound attainable by even one or two vocalists. The huge reverberation made it possible for a single voice to build complex chords simply by singing several pitches in succession. A series of notes would hang in the air, turning melodies into chords. The resonant acoustics reinforced even the quietest sounds, giving a sense of fullness and volume — in turn, enabling the musicians to sing breaths as long as 40 seconds. Singing long notes with very long reverberation creates music that lingers in space and in the mind. The experience is very peaceful; time seems to stand still.
An Interactive Process
More than anything else, careful listening is the key to this experience (for singers and audience alike). The recorded music of Spectral Voices is entirely improvised, each chord and melody unfolding in the moment as singers respond to each other and to the often surprising sound that emerges from the gathering of voices.
Hear part of “Incantation” (from Coalescence)
Recording Sky, Coalescence andInnertones)
All the music on these three albums was performed in real time and except for two tracks on Coalescence, all the music was created solely by human voice. Spectral Voices’ CD’sCoalescence and Sky were recorded in candlelit darkness using a stereo microphone with battery-powered DAT recorder and without any electronic manipulation, studio overdubbing, or other artificial enhancements.
What one hears on Sky and Coalescence (and the three water tower tracks on Innertones) is almost exactly what it sounded like inside the water tower as the music was being created. Most of the selections on these CD’s are just two or three people singing — and nothing more. Much of the richness, complexity, and uniqueness of these recordings comes from the interplay between the reverberant environment (in which several notes linger for many seconds) and harmonic singing (one voice singing multiple notes at the same time). In the words of reviewer David Beardsley, “one singer is a group, a duo is a choir.”
What is overtone singing?
Whenever a tone is sung, overtones (harmonics) naturally occur at fixed intervals above the fundamental tone. The combination of harmonics is what gives a particular voice or instrument its distinctive timbre. Through careful listening and subtle adjustments of the lips, tongue, jaw, soft palate, throat, and the rest of the vocal apparatus, harmonic singers isolate and amplify chosen harmonics while suppressing others. This enables a single person to produce two (sometimes three or four) distinct tones at once. With practice and control, it becomes possible to harmonize with oneself. Another kind of harmonic overtone singing involves subfundamentals, which do not occur under normal conditions, but can be produced at fixed intervals belowthe “normal mode” vocal fold fundamental tone.
Vocal overtone techniques seem mysterious partly because their effects are so extraordinary. Researchers have found that harmonic overtone singers use their mouth/throat anatomy to create interconnected but distinct resonating chambers of varying sizes and shapes that alter the loudness and distribution of harmonics. Thus, much of Spectral Voices’ music involves sculpting internal spaces to interact with external spaces.
To learn more about specific harmonic singing techniques and get a mini-lesson, click here.
Shimmering clusters of scintillating high harmonics seem to appear out of nowhere but are actually produced from Alan’s falsetto melody while Jim drones a subfundamental bass with open-vowel midrange harmonics.
Read another perspective on Spectral Voices through Paul Tatro’s story as published in the Glastonbury Citizen:
To the motorists and shoppers that frequented the Buckland Hills area in the mid 90s, an enormous cylindrical water tower was likely one item in a series of unremarkable industrial monuments that dotted the landscape. For South Glastonbury resident and Conservation Commissioner Jim Cole, it became a beacon, a recording studio and a temple that evoked the best of his artistic experiences.
It was nearly ten years ago when he and long-time collaborator Alan Dow discovered the tower and with a few cohorts began using it for artistic purposes. With the help of a large pipe fitter’s wrench, they managed to break into the abandoned tower through a nearby hatch on the ground. The tower eventually became the studio for a pair of recordings, Skyand Coalescence, released by Cole himself under the name Spectral Voices.
While such a venue may seem totally inappropriate for a rock n’ roll band, or any band for that matter, Spectral Voices – as the name may imply – is an a cappella outfit. But unlike most a capella singers, the music of Spectral Voices has no words or lyrics.
Instead, Cole and Dow are able to manipulate parts of their mouths and throats to produce what is known as “harmonic overtone” singing. It is a technique that is difficult but rewarding to master. If done properly, the singer is capable of creating chords of two or more notes simultaneously thereby harmonizing with him or herself.
According to Cole, to create the best results acoustically, this technique relies heavily on dimensions of space. In the utter absence of instrumentation, Cole considers the singer’s surroundings fundamental to both the creative process and its eventual product. Space, he says, is an instrument in itself.
Because of the heavy reverberation, utter silence and pitch blackness offered, singing in a water tower was ideal for Spectral Voices, says Cole. “You hear everything in super slow motion,” adds Cole of the tower, “there was between 20 and 30 seconds of reverb.”
The tower was 120’ tall and Jim estimates about 27’ in diameter on the inside. Those conditions made talking nearly impossible, but the complete deprivation of outside light and sound heightened the sense of hearing and amplified the subtle vocal overtones.
Over the course of three years, he and his friends visited the tower frequently to sing and enjoy the unique atmosphere. Originally, they were just exploring their style and using the opportunity to develop what Cole describes as “critical listening skills.” Eventually, they began bringing a DAT machine to “document” the experience. At the time, Cole says they had no intention of producing a finished recording.
However, it did not take very long for Cole and his friends to have a brush with the law. After a police officer discovered their parked cars nearby, the group was confronted and Cole and his friends were ultimately arrested for breaking and entering.
Once in court, Cole faced a potential penalty of 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. As luck would have it, Cole’s attorney had previously worked for the owner of the property – Tolland Bank. Unexpectedly, they were excused and Tolland Bank was agreeable, offering Cole and his friends use of the facility.
In total, Spectral Voices recorded over 150 hours of singing in the tower. Like much jazz, the music is improvised and relies on the artists’ intuition. He and Dow have been working together for years, but according to Jim, “we’re on the same page in many ways. He knows 90% of the time where I’m going to go [musically].”
In 1996, Cole was awarded an artist fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, which supported the production and release of the Spectral Voices debut CDCoalescence.
Cole, a member of the GHS Class of 1980, admits that he was never much of a musician early on, but instead was exposed to a variety of music throughout his childhood. An older sister, says Cole, turned him on to a genre known as “progressive rock” with the sounds of bands like Yes, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd.
When he was working on his Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology at the University of Connecticut, Cole began playing the guitar. Even then, he says, he gravitated to places such as vacant stairwells to practice.
But Cole’s musical creativity did not really germinate until he graduated and began a stint with the Peace Corps. Fresh out of college, Cole found himself in the heart of Thailand surrounded by a society with very different cultural values.
“I wanted to live in another culture, not just travel but really go more deeply into living somewhere else,” says Cole who now speaks fluent Thai.
The experience has had many life-lasting effects for Cole who, since returning, has worked in Hartford for the Catholic Migration and Refugee Services as a job facilitator for refugees.
While in Thailand, Cole became integrated into a deeply Buddhist culture. Everyday life, says Cole, involved meditation and spiritual reflection. Cole was even ordained as a monk by a forest monastery in Southern Thailand for a period known as the “rainy season.” The contemplative lifestyle and Eastern philosophy appealed to him profoundly, says Cole.
It was the harmonic multi-note singing of Tibetan Gyuto monks that inspired Cole to begin singing. The calm and eerie music of Spectral Voices clearly reflects Jim’s experiences with Thailand and Buddhism. Upon listening to their harmonic musical drone, it is difficult to imagine the sound as a product of two voices, and one’s mind is indeed compelled to stroll.
Not wanting to be pigeon-holed into any one category, Cole says he resists the label “new age”.
“I hold myself at a distance. It’s really a marketing term,” says Cole, who describes what he does as “ambient, vocal space music”. “It’s so much different than anything that is called ‘new age’,” he states, urging folks to listen to it and decide for themselves.
Although Cole has performed outside of the water tower, he says the music needs a venue that is conducive. Their next performance will take place in a chapel and while they must synthesize the water tower sound, Cole says he is very excited about being able to sing amongst the awe-inspiring architecture, the stained glass windows and the high ceilings.
*** With sincere appreciation to Paul Tatro and theGlastonbury Citizen for permission to reprint here