mandag den 29. oktober 2012

Polyphonic Overtone Singing

/SL (the author is Danish so please submit your corrections of language or factual informations. They will be received with gratitude). Artiklen på dansk (in Danish)

Underneath the text you may find links to various sources of polyphonic overtone singing and to a YouTube Playlist.

A spectography of Xhosa woman singing Umngokolo: The subharmonic fundamental changes between two notes, G2 and A2. After the breath just past half time firstly the harmonic no. 6 of the G2 is accentuated: D5. While the fundamental moves one note up to a2, the harmonic moves down, so that no. 4, A4, is accentuated. Software: Overtone Analyzer, Listen to excerpt here!

Polyphonic Overtone singing may be considered a gem of the universal harmonic language.
It comes to expression through the partially independent movements between the fundamental and the accentuated harmonics of the voice. The fundamental pitch may move upwards while the harmonic moves downwards or vice versa. Alternatively the two layers may be moved in parallel or the harmonic frequency stay fixed while the fundamental is moved.

These facets are not being utilized by the still more commonly known Tuvan and Mongolian singing styles where overtone melodies are produced on top of a sustained drone.

A few weeks ago I spoke with a talented singer who has been part of our harmonic community for years and heard several concerts with polyphonic overtone singers, and she had not even noticed this dimension of expression. And it is not the first time I have come across even very trained listeners who did not perceive all levels.
In other words: It is not only a question of the overtone singers to practice, because it is quite obvious to an attentive ear what takes place. It is also a question of the listeners to train their attention.
Denmark has very few overtone singers and hardly any polyphonic ones, but we have received several visits from leading polyphonic overtone singers, including David Hykes, Wolfgang Saus, Stuart Hinds, Kiva Simova and Jan Heinke.

Although there are some examples of more than just rudimentary one voice polyphony from around the world, the polyphonic aspect has been developed almost solely in the modern western overtone singing tradition, and David Hykes was probably the first to clearly describe and demonstrate its potentials.
Obviously we have not heard all the possibilities yet.

The Spectrography above shows Jan Heinke's polyphonic mastery in the piece Orpheo's Angel, where some basic situations (indicated by yellow brackets) are illustrated within a time interval of less than 10 seconds:

Spectographic excerpt from Jan Heinke: Orpheo's Angel

- The first part shows an example of the harmonic frequency (reddish) being sustained, while the fundamental (here blueish) moves one step downwards.

- Immediately after: Three harmonics accentuated from two fundamentals (here blue-green with red-orange core) and with counter movement: Fundamental goes up while harmonic goes down.

- After the first half is an example of a sustained fundamental frequency (here blue-green with red-orange core), while the harmonic is moved first rapidly upwards, then downwards in three consecutive steps. This situation is in principle not much different from the traditional Eastern forms of overtone singing.

- Last part: Counter movement again: Fundamental moves downwards, while the accentuated harmonic moves upwards.

- The last basic situation – which is not illustrated clearly here – is the parallel motion of the fundamental and harmonic.

... and when in the introduction was written that the harmonic layer can be moved partially independent of the fundamental, it is because the fundamental in principle can slide freely, while the accentuated overtone layer will be 'locked' to the harmonic series arising from the given fundamental, and may jump from one partial to the next. When the harmonic is sustained while the fundamental moves, the movements of the latter must be picked from the subharmonic series of the harmonic (the inverted harmonic series). 
However, there are many different intervals in the harmonic series (adjacent intervals become smaller as you progress in the series), and you do not need to follow the series slavishly by for example going from 8 to 9 to 10 (which would be do-re-mi), but you can also go 8-5-9 (do'-mi-re') etc.

The serpent in paradise may be that not all forms of singing do the accentuated overtones justice. 
Personally, I often experience the attempt to control and master the harmonics within a limited and defined form takes the magic away from both the one as the other dimension: It may kill the soul of the sound and spoil the beauty of form. Within narrow frames the harmonics are likely to suffer: Optimally the overtones should be allowed to soar, and they should be produced by a voice which also functions well in its basis. Well, at least that is how I feel about it.

An allegory: The development of musical notation has meant incredible breakthroughs for the music of the west, but it has not been a development without costs, including sense of microtones, intonation, ornamentation, modal abundance and the expression of the free soul.
This applies to singing in general.
But more specifically the notation of harmonics in musical score, may be a little bit like performing big band jazz in the Taj Mahal: However wonderful the frame, it may simply not be the optimal setting for that sort of music!

Often it sounds to my ears somewhat intended more than felt. And one fundamental meaning of singing – and not least so when it comes to overtone singing – is to express a stream of emotion.
It is a dilemma, because I think to a large extent this very area, the polyphonic overtone singing, is where an important development can and must take place.
So I hope this article will not be taken as an attempt to keep you from polyphonic experiments, on the contrary. 
And I hope along with these experiments the capacity of your voice to reflect, contain and express sentiment also will develope. 

That is crucial to music and maybe to singers most of all.

Playlist from YouTube: Polyphonic Overtone Singing

... and a few links which may reflect in which directions this development may currently be moving:

Kiva Simova: Overtone Choir Scores

Stuart Hinds' book An Overtone Experience/ Eine Oberton Erfahrung Including 15 polyphonic pieces.

Johannes Lind: 50 pieces (25 for women, 25 for male voices) for overtone singers:

From the count 03:36 in the video with Wolfgang Saus is shown his very clear and pedagogical illustration of opportunities with voice and hands. Unfortunately the most sophisticated part of the demonstration, namely counter movement, is being spoiled by the voice-over.

Some Thoughts on 
Music Aesthetics and Overtone Singing. Gisbert Schürig. Debate on Overtone Music Network.

2 kommentarer:

  1. your article is very interesting .
    You have mentioned other overtone singers (I have known all of them ). But you have forgotten me who is the pionneer of overtone research (since 1969) in France . You can find many video clips of mine on
    Above all, I made one most important DVD on overtone scientific research (THE SONG OF THE HARMONICS , 38 minutes, produced by CNRS AUDIO VISUEL, France, 2006 (the first edition was in 1989 in film 16mm, then transformed in VHS in 1991, then in DVD in 2005 for French version, then in English version in 2006)
    Looking forward to hearing from you soon,

    Dr. TRAN QUANG HAI , Ph.D.

    1. Hello Tran Quan Hai,

      Welcome to GONGlyd!
      And thanks for you comment.
      The article is specifically about polyphonic overtone singing, so please refer to those of your recordings, videos or writing which contains elements of precisely that aspect.