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Some thoughts on music aesthetics and overtone singing

This is a text I wrote in the aftermath of the alumni meeting of Wolfgang Saus intensive overtone workshop participants; not a sophisticated theory but just some thoughts scrambled together to stimulate a conversation. Originally written in german and only for the alumni group, this is a translation I did due to interest from non-german-speakers. I omitted some passages of the german version and surely made mistakes.

Some aesthetic considerations related to overtone singing

To listen to overtones brings a deepening of the perception. At the beginning of practice an overtone singer experiences a change in his or her sound perception. What was routinely perceived as a single entity - one musical note - becomes a multitude of partials. This process of deepening of the perception could be described as a transition - from normal view on sound to sound examined under a microscope. The advanced overtone singer is used to this and the limits of perception have shifted. for her, or for him, next to the category of one musical note perceived as an entity there is the category of partials. Usually two of these partials - the fundamental and one other partial that is emphasized - are musically relevant.
Personally, when I reached this level, I experienced a certain kind of frustration: as a guitar player, I am used to handling two notes at one time, nothing special, nothing fascinating about that for me. Thinking about this frustration, I noticed that it was especially the process of deepening of the perception that was interesting to me. It is this process - experienced during the exploration of the overtones - that is special and fascinating to me.

Crossing boundaries as an aesthetic programme

Once you discover something new, you did it, you can´t discover it over and over again. When you have acquired a refined perception of the overtones, you have that ability, it is there to stay. But it is possible to sing in a way that emphasizes the transition from one category to the other to any listener. How? Emphasizing the melodic partial only in a subtle way and thus making the fundamental and other partials clearly audible. In doing so the focus is shifting back and forth from the note as a whole to the consisting partials. (…)
Ambiguity is important to my musical and aesthetic interests. It creates a certain kind of tension, an awareness in the listener. Striving for clarity he or she has to listen very closely to and keep on evaluating the sound. Am I listening to a single note, or is it a chord? Another musical strategy to create ambiguity is polyrhythmic interlocking of several different patterns. Different emphasized pulses are competing and create an ambiguous rhythmic field. As a performing artist the concept of ambiguity is constantly influencing my stage outfits, I usually dress as a mixture of man and woman, human and imaginary creature.

To make use of overtones is one element of an aesthetic practice of ambiguity and transgression. As a composer I try to combine elements in a way that creates tension and intensity, to open up spaces for new experiences and thoughts. (…)

Some random thoughts on certain forms used in overtone singing

In the world of overtone singing, you come across vituoso pieces, presenting overtone singing as a special kind of technical skill. These pieces often make use of specific pre-existing genres: overtone singing in the style of Bach, overtone-blues etc. In respect to the composition they are retro - reciting a well establish musical form that is commonly known, so that the technical and artistic mastery can be demonstrated clearly as everyone knows the criteria to judge if it sounds "the way it should". If a piece is perceived as a virtuoso piece depends on the context: is it presented and listened to as a piece of music, or is the attraction of the technical mastery the main attraction of the demonstration. Given that polyphonic overtone singing is a young and technically difficult discipline it is understandable to put the focus on the second. But putting aesthetics second may be a path towards becoming a circus attraction for the uninitiated, marveled at, but not taken seriously and be isolated in a small circle of experts.

In opposition to these pieces is the practice of toning in a group; virtuosity is of no importance here. Melodies or specific rhythms are optional and more often than not omitted. The amorphous, intangible, is usually a central quality of toning. The attack and decay of single voices is commonly indistinguishable and lost in the sound of the whole group, which is so complex that it cannot be grasped clearly and changes in the sound usually are vague. The focus shifts away from distinct structures that can be analyzed towards sound itself - a change of focus that is comparable to the shift from one musical note to a multitude of partials in the listeners perception. Omitting a distinct structure can lead towards a higher sensitivity for the sound - or it can transform the music into the background of a relaxing ritual.

There are a lot of other possibilities for the musical uses of overtone singing and I think it is only reasonable to reflect on the specifics and implications of these uses. (...)

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Comment by Skye Løfvander on April 26, 2012 at 3:57pm

Generally the fallacy of western music is that we have mistaken the tones for the notes. We tend to think that the sound is the symbol, and that music is structured as steps from point to point in stead of as an intricate flow.
Of course one of the major forces of western music is that partly through this approach a highly complex tonality has evolved.

But as history has shown: the price for these refined forms has been a breakdown around 100 years ago followed by a century of reaction and rebellion of body and soul in the urge to reclaim their rights to music. This swing of the pendulum in my eyes has taken popular music to an even more drastic contrary extreme.

Overtone singing has offered a renewed approach to the just intervals (the sacrifice of which was at core of the original problem) and it has offered an opportunity for a way of meditative musical expression which is rooted in body, carried by soul.

I believe in the possibility of the merging of the complex forms and the simple music of the heart, but to my ears it seems that in the ambition for technically refined overtone art music, most overtone singers working with the polyphony are loosing this precious essence. At least at this stage. Generally I don't think it sounds good, it seems somewhat speculative and reminds me of the 5 year old North Korean guitarists demonstrating unheard mastery of their instrument ... but leaving the listener untouched.

As I see it the polyphonic aspect is the jewel of the art of overtone singing – for soloists and groups – the field where we can take the most valuable breakthroughs of the 500 years of western tonality and combine it with the the beauty of more primordial expression.

I believe what is still needed is more work with body resonance awareness, more work with intonation, more work with individual expression.

… and maybe a little less focus on the control of the harmonic layer in complex forms until it comes more natural.


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