Monks Of The Monastery Of Gyütö – Tantras Of Gyütö: Sangwa Düpa / Mahakala, 1988

The most frightening thing I’ve ever heard. Makes the entire pretense of heavy metal look like Sesame Street. Recorded at Gyütö Tantric University, one of the great colleges of the Gelugpa, the Established Church of Tibetan Buddhism, by David Lewiston, protégé of Thomas de Hartmann, decade-long resident musician at the Gurdjieff Foundation, impetus behind the Nonesuch Records Explorer Series (fans of the Voyager Golden Record are familiar with his work), and responsible for a huge body of recordings of world music made in the very small window of time during which lightweight portable recording equipment allowed for high-quality recordings to be made in remote places and traditional music hadn’t yet been ravaged by globalization. Happy Halloween, y’all.

David Hykes & the Harmonic Choir – Hearing Solar Winds, 1983

“This recording was made in L’Abbaye du Thoronet, a 12th-century Cisterian monastery in Provence, where I had previously brought the choir in 1978. The simple harmonic geometry of the abbey seemed perfectly proportioned to magnify the choir’s music and let it resonate within its sacred space. Working there was an incredible challenge: our sensations, our breathing, and even our thoughts and emotions became intensely amplified.”

–David Hykes, liner notes

Hearing Solar Winds is a milestone for the human voice. Much of Hykes’s work originates from Tantric Tibetan Buddhism and western Mongolian khöömi, or overtone singing. Yet in this context, recorded live in a French abbey over the course of two evenings, it’s a completely different beast from traditional throat singing. It’s less active and more drawn out, less human and more ghostly. It shimmers–did a songbird get trapped in the abbey, or was someone playing an unimaginably tiny glass flute? “Telescoping,” and of course “Rainbow Voice,” quite literally sound like light being split through a prism: when producing harmonics, “the voice acts as a kind of sonic prism, ‘refracting’ sound along a frequency spectrum which extends upward from the fundamental tone.”
Elsewhere, Hearing Solar Winds is as much about sonic illusion as it is overtones. Several tracks employ the Shepard scale, which is a “sound consisting of a superposition of sine waves separated by octaves, with the base pitch of the tone moving upward or downward. This creates the auditory illusion of a tone that continually ascends or descends in pitch, yet which ultimately seems to get no higher or lower. It has been described as a ‘sonic barber’s pole.'” Upon first listen, the effect is disorienting and even a bit nauseating, as it’s difficult to understand where you are, tonally. If you don’t mind losing track of your body, Hearing Solar Winds Becomes less of an album and more of an hour long meditation–cosmic not because of shimmering synth pads or floating arpeggiation (there are none) but because of its direct sonic verticality. This is the real deal.
Incredibly, Hearing Solar winds is David Hykes’s first album. He went on to release five more albums with the unbelievably precise Harmonic Choir, and five more without them. (Side note: “Rainbow Voice” was featured in the soundtrack for Dead Poets Society.) He’s worked extensively with sound healing and spirituality, developing a comprehensive approach to “contemplative music” called harmonic chant, about which there’s a nice interview with him here. I would highly recommend a rainy day listen of Hearing Solar Winds on good speakers, without doing much of anything else.

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Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir – Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, 1975

Heartbreaking, eerie, and otherworldly, this album is actually a compilation of various recordings dating back as far as 1952, when the choir was first formed by Bulgarian composer Philip Coutev. As the women in the choir are from all over Bulgaria, the music is a hodgepodge of differing vocal styles from the country’s quite isolated provinces. Marcel Cellier compiled these songs in 1975, but it went largely unnoticed until its rerelease by 4AD in 1986, to overnight worldwide renown. Volume II of this compilation won Cellier a Grammy in 1989. That same year, Kate Bush released The Sensual World, which featured three Bulgarian female soloists. The choir has been touring worldwide since then, and everyone and their dog loves them (as they should). Find out much more here and here.
The title translates to “The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices”–an apt description, as it’s a complete mystery to me how music this majestic and unsettling can actually exist. It completely changed my concept of the relationship between dissonance and beauty. Powerful stuff!

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