Common steps and sub-activities

Listening to ‘timbre music’

Timbre centred music differs from pitch centred music and they work differently with respect to time.  Pitch centred music has a melody formed from notes of specific pitch and duration.  Timbre centred music may contain notes of extremely long duration but notes which have no precise pitch.  Instead there may be one or more predominant ‘notes’ with a whole range of overtones that are carefully brought in by the manipulation of the bow, mouth, tongue or hands [depending on how the instrument is played].  Timbre centred music also has no specific start or end point as such – the notes are played as long as the musicians feels they are inspired to do so – all night if they feel like it.

“for the musician pitch was subordinate to timbre – the specific quality of a tone determined by the presence, distribution and relative amplitude of overtones”.

At one time, probably all the world’s music was timbre centred.  Much of it was invented to  tune in with nature, some of it to please nature spirits.

A bit of background

Current metal stringed instruments and modern metallic instruments are not capable of producing the complex tones inherent in timbre based music.  Strings and bows need to be made of a material like horsehair which produces more overtones and a far richer timbre.

“inside this one sound is a whole acoustic world created by the spray of overtones that results when you draw a horsehair  bow across the instrument’s horsehair strings”.

The effect can be further enhanced by the way the bow is employed.  In some instruments, the bow is locked between two strings above and below so that both upper and lower surfaces of the horsehair are played.  Bowed instruments are played not by pressing hard down on a fret, but by lightly touching the string and in some cases using finger nails or touch from underneath the string.

The bow might also be gripped from underneath the horsehair and the player may then regulate the tension by now tightening, now loosening the tension of the bow string – this also affects the timbre.  The looser the bow the more overtones and spray effects may result.

From a spiritual point of view the ‘music’ used is not melody centred at all.  Even if you hear musical instruments made of horsehair and played using this approach, but with a melody and catchy words, you are not hearing true timbre music as it was intended to be played.  Timbre music is without melody and words – though a chant may be used – and is true ‘soul’ music.

The heartland of this form of music is Siberia.  But the style and the instruments spread to Mongolia and to Khazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, spreading to India, Iraq, and Iran, and from the middle east to the Sufis and thence into Spain and beyond.  The music was probably present in early Greece.

Siberian musicians still use numerous stringed instruments, that are strung this way and played this way, for example:

  • Byzaanchy – a bowl shaped fiddle with four horsehair strings.
  • Chadagan/chatxan – a plucked zither with movable bridges.
  • Chanzy – a three stringed unfretted long necked lute.
  • Dombra – a two stringed fretted long necked lute.
  • Doshpuluur – a two stringed long necked unfretted lute.
  • Dutar – a more general name for various kinds of two string long necked fretted lutes among Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmens, Qaraqalpaks, Uyghars etc.
  • Igil – a two stringed upright fiddle with horsehair strings.

Playing timbre music

Learning to play timbre centred instruments cannot be explained here – you need a course or a teacher.  The change of style is dramatic enough to need a completely new way of thinking.   In the pitch centred system you create a melody by physical discernible movement.  In the timbre centred system the ‘note’ is played but almost no further movement takes place.  The sound just stays there.  Minute adjustments may be made but the objective is simply to create more overtones or change them slightly, there is no change of fundamental pitch

when you are physically moving, chasing after the melody you can’t focus on what’s happening in the timbre.  It was the nomadic way of life and its focus on the timbral qualities of natural sounds that created this kind of musicality”.

Listening to it can be an odd experience for anyone used to modern largely pitch centred music.  You have to let go of the tendency to hear the harmonics as a form of melody and instead float freely in the sound.  The different layers of sound completely fill the ‘sonic space’ not through the use of melody counterpoint and harmony but simply and wholly by the richness of the note itself.

As one source  said ‘you may lose your bearings and swim about for a while’, but as long as you keep in mind the feeling that the sound is coming from everywhere and it is not just one sound – that it exists on several planes simultaneously, then listening becomes a wonderful experience.  Focusing on the drone helps, followed by a realisation of how ‘thick’ the middle sounds are - how many vibrations are being achieved.

And of course this is a clue as to how timbre centred music provides spiritual experiences.  It works in two ways – via the resonance induced by the numerous overtones and sounds as well as the high levels of emotion that are often generated by such sounds.

Where Rivers and Mountains sing – Dr T Levin

… “if there's a common search - a search for the emotion that's in real music-then people can play together even if they come from very different backgrounds. I'm interested in emotion. If it touches me, I like it. And if musicians like something, they'll play it freely, with feeling."

"So your role in this improvisation is to give freedom to others?" I asked.

'Absolutely. Because they feel that freedom in our music - in our instruments, our voices, our songs, our words. They feel the emotion. Some people cry, some get contemplative, some laugh, some get silent and sad. They don't understand a single word, right? But something's going on in the music, and they feel it in their heart, not in their head."

'And that's true for all Tuvan music?"

"I think so. We've talked about how it's a culture where people spend a lot of time alone, and where they make music for themselves. When you do that, you don't lie to yourself, and from those conditions come real emotions.  If you're a musician who wants to be well known, you'll sit and think like a composer.  Now what should I do so that people will like this? What words should I write? But from the beginning, our music has expressed emotions that people receive from nature. If someone has an emotion, he immediately puts all of it into lines of poetry, into a song, into sounds. Tuvan music is full of emotions, but not just anyone can express them. You have to be immersed in the instruments, in the way of producing sounds."

Observations

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