Monday, January 24, 2011

today : I get a sore throat

My recent mild obsession with Mongolian Throat Singing began a few weeks ago. I was listening to the World Service and a programme about music and singing caught my ear. In it, a Bulgarian singer was talking about how her and her fellow singers (it may have been the actual Trio Bulgarka, but if it wasn't, it was something very similar) constructed their harmonies, and how they were different from western harmony. They actively pursued dissonance, which, of course gives that Bulgarian Choir singing its eerie, strange 'Eastern' quality.

Then there was a short section about Mongolian Throat singing. As I was pottering around the house, I didn't listen so intently, but it has long interested me. Some guy who sounded like a professor of music or acoustics or something explained the principle. You kind of force a sustained note through your vocal chords and then use your tongue and palate to create a harmonic. What transpires is two separate notes at the same time, not unlike a bagpipe or a harmonuim with the original drone overtopped by a higher note, which sounds a bit like a wibbly bamboo flute sort of noise.

I didn't catch all the talk about how the notes were produced but I tried it anyway. My voice used to be okay. As a singer-songwriter I could handle a vocal performance and stay in tune. On its best days my voice came out sounding like someone like Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance - a kind of dark chocolate pseudo baritone with a slight, but not unpleasant, droney quality. I also had quite a decent range up to falsetto, which I never really had the confidence to use, but could have developed with some practice.

But then, about 8 years ago, I got a spectacular ENT infection, which caused me to lose my voice completely. I'm not talking about being a bit raspy or whispery, but no sound at all coming out. It was odd and a bit scary, the hearing in my right ear became very muffled and when I opened my mouth to say something my vocal chords were just frozen. I couldn't talk at all for almost a week. I was teaching English in a high school at the time and continued to work. It was a pretty good test of my classroom management and general pedagogical skills to conduct all my lessons using only gestures and a hand held whiteboard and pen. Looking back it was laughable, really. I should have just taken the week off. But loyalty to your pupils is a powerful thing. (as an aside it also taught me that when you do something above and beyond, like teaching for a whole week using only a mini-white board and pen for communication, you get zero credit from the suits - in fact they take it as an excuse to raise their expectations of what you will do without credit or reward)

The spectacular ENT infection which had disabled my voice eventually cleared up (my vocal chords resumed some kind of operation after I coughed percussively and literally felt the infection in my throat burst open. I spat out a single gout of deeply unpleasant blood and mucus, and was subsequently able to manage a whisper and hear again in my right ear). It wasn't pleasant but at least I wasn't destined to be a mute forever. It would have made things pretty difficult.

But my singing voice felt comprehensively wrecked. Now I'm not denying that tobacco consumption has also had an effect on my voice, but until the ENT infection it was noticeable but not so damaging. Now I can't sustain a note. My voice dies unevenly like an engine running with a misfiring cylinder. I also can't really change notes without it being a bit like a dodgy gearbox.

Ironically, before I heard the radio show about Mongolian Throat singers, I'd decided to try and practice singing to improve my voice. So I'd belt out scales and sing along loudly to the car stereo. It seemed to be working a little, adding a note or two to my top range and making some of the notes of the scale a tad more stable, but I was still unhappy. The thing is, I could always effect a mannered singing voice and make it work quite well. Even now, I can use my wrecked voice to do this kind of Tom Waits blues shouter thing, like when he sings the song 'Walking Spanish'. Before, I used to be able to do a passable mannered falsetto like the guy in the Fine Young Cannibals. And of course, everyone can do a mannered voice like Bryan Ferry in the 70s, or Ian Curtis and David Sylvian in the 80s, or the guy from the Tindersticks in the 90s. But I never had the confidence to adopt a mannered vocal style. Not being Marvin Gaye or someone whose voice was ever truly an instrument, I always liked my singing to sound at least a little bit like me. Like Lloyd Cole or Damon Gough don't seem to significantly change between their speaking and singing voices. Maybe I'll have to use mannered styles from now on, just to be able to use my voice at all.

Anyway, I replaced practicing vocal scales with the droning notes of Mongolian Throat Singing. It was frustrating. I can drone along happily, but then my vocal chords start to misbehave. To return to my previous car metaphors, it's like the timing belt is out and the engine note starts to waver and randomly drop in and out.

To put it simply, Mongolian Throat Singing utilises the voice box in the throat, and the tongue and palate in the mouth. The two simultaneous notes feel like they are in different parts of your mouth - the low note through the throat and low in the mouth; the high note placed somewhere between the tongue and palate. Once you get it going you can control the high harmonic by pressing your tongue against the back of your teeth.

Try as I might, I couldn't do it. It reminded me of getting a note out of a trombone, or a clarinet. There's a knack, and you just have to get the knack. But my suspicion is that my wrecked voice was the underlying cause of my failure. There were plenty of times when I felt close to achieving the split-note effect. But even though I could hear and feel them almost splitting apart, frustratingly the notes remained bonded together,

But then I got a sore throat. Not a devastating ENT infection like I had before, but just a regular sore throat. Clearly, singing of any type is a silly thing to do with a throat infection. But there I was in the car, driving somewhere. I starting my droning exercises and placed my tongue at the back of my teeth.

And then it happened. For a few seconds my voice split into two, creating the drone and the harmonic. It was fantastic. My voice sounded like an alien thing that didn't belong to me. I tried controlling the harmonic with my tongue, but without success. Then I ran out of breath. I tried again. This time it happened only for a second or so. The third time I was back to normal - feeling like it was almost, but never quite actually happening.

I decided that it would be daft to try again too soon whilst my throat was still sore. Memories of my mute week 8 years ago made me wary of dong any further damage. But I am still wondering if my voice can still do it, or will I have to somehow induce a sore throat to be able to repeat my triumphant few seconds?

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