Some phenomena in life are so striking that one never forgets the first time that one encounters them. I’d put overtone singing into that category. Remember the Baha’i singer/songwriter duo Seals and Crofts, popular back in the ‘70s and still heard regularly on oldies stations via their hits “Summer Breeze,” “Diamond Girl” and “Get Closer”? It was at one of their concerts that I first heard Jim Seals demonstrate the nearly lost art of splitting the human voice into two distinct simultaneous melodies. He claimed that the technique was traditionally used by shepherds in the Scottish Highlands to let the family know that they were heading down to the croft for dinner. (Apparently the sound carries a long way.)
But it wasn’t just in that one portion of the world that people somehow figured out how to emit those strange whistling/droning sounds that tend to make the hair stand up on one’s arms. The “throat singing” of the Tuvan people of Siberia has become fairly widely known in recent decades, and indigenous peoples of Tibet, Mongolia, Bulgaria, northern India and Georgia (the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus, not the one in the American South) have all practiced overtone singing for many centuries. Exactly why the musical form is associated with cold, lonely, barren and often mountainous places is probably fodder for somebody’s ethnomusicology dissertation; suffice it to say here that listening to it inspires awe and the sense of being transported to another plane of consciousness.
In our local mountainous region known as the Catskills, Baird Hersey’s 11-member vocal ensemble Prana has taken the practice of overtone singing to, dare we say, new heights, combining traditional Western music and chant and 20th-century chromatic Modernism with traditional vocal genres from all around the world that emphasize unconventional harmonics. Picture Arnold Schoenberg communing with the Dalai Lama in some medieval abbey with great acoustics, multiply it all by 11 and you’ll get a glimmering of the idea. If you’re not familiar with overtone singing, a better way to make its acquaintance could scarcely be imagined.
Named for the Sanskrit word that means breath, vital energy, the life force, Prana’s declared mission is to create music that will “relax the body, still the mind and open the heart.” Sounds like just the thing that many of us need during this excessively busy time of the year. For the third year running, Prana will offer up a winter concert in Woodstock designed to induce a calm, meditative state. Titled “A Moment of Peace,” it will take place at Mountainview Studio this Sunday, December 30 beginning at 5 p.m. Check it out, and leave your stress at the door!
A Moment of Peace winter concert, Baird Hersey & Prana, Sunday, December 30, 5 p.m., $15, Mountainview Studio, 20 Mountainview Avenue, Woodstock; www.pranasound.com, www.facebook.com/baird.hersey, https://mtnviewstudio.com.