Method of Learning Overtone Singing KHOOMEI
Tran Quang Hai (France)
A considerable amount of research has been for thee last 40 years carried out throughout the world into this vocal phenomenon, particularly as it is practised in Mongolia and Tuva.
In Mongolia and Tuva, thee word KHOOMEI means pharynx, throat, and KHOOMEILAKH is the technique of producing vocal harmonics. This most unusual technique, which takes the human voices to its limits, entails the production of two sounds simultaneously: a drone or fundamental that is rich in harmonics and reminiscent of the jew’s harp (the reason why this technique is also known as “jew’s harp voice”). This technique is strenuous for the performer according to Mongolian singers. The performer must tauten his muscles and swell his cheeks. Different sounds are obtained by varying
the air pressure across the vocal folds, the volume of the mouth cavity, and tongue placement. In this way, variable pitch harmonics are produced to form the melody. The fundamental is produced in the back of the throat, passing through the mouth, and exciting throught the slightly parted lips
and to a lesser extent through the nose.
Research can be done in many ways: by means of obervation of native performers after on or more visits to the country concerned, or by means of practising instruments and vocal training aimed at a better understanding of the musical structure employed by the population being studied. My own
research does not belong to either of these two categories since I have never been to Monglia and I have never learned the KHOOMEI style (Overtone singing) from a Mongolian teacher. What I am going to describe for you here is the result of my own experiments which will enable anyone to produce two
simultaneous sounds similar to Mongolian and Tuvin overtone singing.
The manner in which the Mongolian and Tuvin word is transcribed is by no means not uniform: HO-MI, HÖ-MI (Vargyas, 1968), KHOMEI, KHÖÖMII (Bosson, 1964: 11), CHÖÖMEJ (Aksenov 1973: 12), CHÖÖMIJ (Vietze 1969: 15-16), XÖÖMIJ (Hamayon 1973; Tran Quang Hai 1980: 162).
French researchers have used other terms to describe this peculiar vocal technique such as CHANT DIPHONIQUE or BIPHONIQUE (Leipp 1971), Tran Quang Hai 1974, Gilles Leothaud 1989, VOIX GUIMBARDE, VOIX DEDOUBLEE (Helffer 1973, Hamayon 1973), and CHANT DIPHONIQUE SOLO (Marcel-Dubois 1979).
Several terms exist in English such as SPLIT-TONE SINGING, THROAT SINGING, OVERTONE SINGING, and HARMONIC SINGING. In German, it is called ZWEISTIMMIGEN SOLOGESANG. In Italian, it is called CANTO DIFONICO ou CANTO DIPLOFONICO .
For convenience, I have employed the term “OVERTONE SINGING” to describe a style of singing performed by a single person producing simultaneously a continuous drone and another sound at a higher pitch issueing from a series of partials or harmonics resembling the sound of the flute.
HOW DID I COME TO THE OVERTONE SINGING ?
In 1970, at the Department of Ethnomusicology (Musee de l’Homme), Prof. Roberte Hamayon let me listen to her recordings made in Mongolia in 1967 and 1969. I was surprised by the extraordinary and unique nature of this vocal technique.
For several months, I carried out bibliographical research into articles concerned with this style of singing with the aim of obtaining information on the practice of overtone singing, but received little satisfaction.
Explanations of a merely theoretical and sometimes ambiguous nature did nothing so much as to create and increase the confusion with which my research was surrounded. In spite of my complete ignorance of the training methods for overtone singing practised by the Mongolians, the Tuvins and
other Siberian peoples, I was not in the least discouraged by thé negative results at the beginning of my studies after even several months of effort.
I worked entirely alone groping my way through the dark for two whole years, listening frequently to the recordings made by Roberte Hamayon stored at the Sound Archives of the Department of Ethnomusicology of the Musee de l’Homme. My efforts were however to no avail. Despite my knowledge of Jew’s Harp technique, the initial work was both difficult and
I also tried to whistle while producing a low sound as a drone. However, checking on a sonagraph showing that this was not similar to the Mongolian Xöömij technique. At the end of 1972, I got to the state that I was still a long way from my goal.
Then, one day in November 1973, in order to calm my nerves in the appalling traffic congestion of Paris, I happened to make my vocal folds vibrate in the pharynx with my mouth half open and while reciting the alphabet. When I arrived at the letter L , and the tip of my tongue was about to touch the top of the palate, I suddenly heard a pure harmonic tone, clear and powerful. I repeated the operation several times and each time, I obtained the same result; I then tried to modify the position of the tongue in relation to the roof of the mouth while maintaining the low fundamental. A series of partials resonated in disorder in my ears.
At the beginning, I got the harmonics of a perfect chord. Slowly, after a week of intensive training, by changing the fundamental tone upwards and downwards, I discovered by myself the mystery of the overtone singing style which appeared to be near to that practised by the Mongolians and the Tuvins.
ABOUT MY OVERTONE TRAINING METHOD
After two months of “research” and numberless experiments of all kinds, I succeeded in creating a short overtone melody. Here is my “recipe” to help anyone to get this first step of overtone singing.
1. Intensify the vocal production with the throat voice
2. Pronounce the 2 vowels I and U linked together and repeat it several times in one breath.
3. Make a nasal sound and tip of the tongue in a down position
4. In this way, it is possible to obtain both the drone and the upper harmonic line in descending and ascending order.
This is the first technique what I call “technique of one mouth cavity”. this one is easy to do and anyone can produce the effect of 2 voices in one throat after one minute of practice.
The second “recipe” will help you to produce clear overtones in the Mongolian and Tuvin styles. I call it “technique of two mouth cavities”
1. Emit a throat sound of the vowel E` as long as you can.
2. Pronounce the letter L . Maintain the position with the tip of the tougue touching the roof of the palate. In this position, the mouth is divided into 2 cavities, one at the back and one at the front.
3. Say “LAANG” for the first exercice, and say “LONG ” for the second excercice. When you succeed in making the harmonics come out of the mouth, you keep the tip of the tongue to the palate while you sing , and at the same time you modify the mouth cavity by saying from A to O and from O to A
several times in one breath.
4. Make a nasal sound
5. In this way, you can produce clearly thé drone and a series of harmonics in the Mongolian style.
For the beginners, the harmonics of the perfect chord (C, E, G,C) are easy to obtain. However, a considerable amount of hard work is necessary especially to obtain a pentatonic anhemitonic scale. Each person has his favourite note or pitch which enables him to produce a wide range of partials. This favourite fundamental varies according to the tonal quality of the singer’s voice.
NEW EXPERIMENTS ABOUT OVERTONE SINGING
Other experiments which I have been carrying out indicate that it is possible to obtain two simultaneous sounds in three different ways:
1. In the first method, the tongue is either flat or slightly curved without actually at any stage touching the roof of the mouth, and only the mouth and the lips move. Through such varieties of the mouth cavity, this time divided into a single cavity, it is possible to hear the partials but faintly and the highest harmonics cannot reach beyond 1200Hz.
2. In the second method, the basic technique described above is used. However, instead of keeping the mouth half open, it is kept almost shut with the lips pulled back and very tight. To make the partials audible, the position of the lips si varied at the same time as that of the tongue. The partials are very clear and distinctive, butthe technique is rather exhausting. The highest harmonics arrive at the zone of 2600 Hz.
3. In the third method, thé tongue si down, and the teeth bite the tongue while singing the vowels U and I with the contraction of muscles at the abdomen and the throat. The hightest harmonics can be heard at thed zone of 4200Hz
Other new experiments I have tried to show that I can maintain thé same selective harmonic level which is used as a drone while changing the pitch of fundamentals (e.g. C, F, G, C). I have succeeded in creating the fundamental line and the harmonic line in the opposite direction. In other words, I arrive to sing the fundamental line in ascending order, and at the same time, I create the harmonic line in descending order. This harmonic effect is quite unusual and exceptional.
In 1989, Dr. Hugo Zemp and I made a film called “THE SONG OF HARMONICS” showing X-ray and spectrographical pictures in real time ans synchronous sound about the overtone singing practised in different countries. This film produced by the CNRS – Audiovisual and thé French Society for
Ethnomusicology, obtained 2 prizes (Grand Prize and Best Music Prize) at the International Festival of Visual Anthropological Film in Estonia in October 1990, a prize (Special Prize for Research) at the International Festival of Scientific Film in Palaiseau (France) in November 1990, and a Grand Prize of the 2nd International Festival of Scientific Film in Montreal (Canada) in 1991.
In Western contemporary music, groups of singers have also succeeded in emitting two voices at the same time, and vocal pieces have been created in the context of avant garde music and of electro-acoustical music. David Hykes with his Harmonic Choir, created in New York in 1975, use the
overtones to link with the cosmic universe in his compositions. Demetrio Stratos (1945-1979) used the overtones to create the relationship between voice and subconscious. In my compositions for improvized music, I recommend the investigation of overtones to enrich the world of sound.
Other overtone singers like Michael Vetter, Christian Bollmann, Michael Reimann from Germany, Roberto Laneri from Italy, Rollin Rachele from the Netherlands, Josephine Truman from Australia, Les Voix Diphoniques , Thomas Clements, Iegor Reznikoff, Tamia from France have also used thé overtones
in their works.
Overtone singing is also practised by a number of ethnic groups (Oirat, Khakass, Gorno-Altai, Bashkir, Tuvin, Kalmuk) of the republics of Russia bordering on Mongolia. In Rajasthan (India), in Taiwan among the Bunun ethnic group, in Tibet among the monks belonging to the Gyuto and Gyume monasteries, in South Africa among the Xhosa population, the practice of overtone singing style is known throughout recordings.
I hope that after this short introduction to the overtone world, you will have an idea concerning the existence of the overtones in different areas in the world, the possibility of obtaining the know how of singing overtones.
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