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Observations placeholder

Dr T Levin - Kaigal-ool longsong and the cliff



Type of Spiritual Experience



A description of the experience

Where Rivers and Mountains sing – Dr T Levin

Long-songs are the fetish of connoisseurs of landscape acoustics. They elicit the distinctive sonic qualities of a favourite outdoor place, and long-song singers savour and recall these, perhaps like opera singers recounting the acoustical wonders of the world's great opera houses.

Kaigal-ool is the first to admit that he is what pop musicians would call a "reverb freak." The difference is that he likes his reverb produced naturally, not digitally. He wanted me to hear and record the powerful effect of a long-song sung in the lee of a favourite riverine cliff, and one gloriously sunny day we drove east from Kyzyl along the macadam road that runs parallel to the Kaa-Xem, or Lesser yenisei, to a spot about a half-hour from town, where a dirt track forks off toward the river and leads to a small beach popular with weekend picnickers and trysters.

On the opposite bank of the river, not a hundred feet away, a sheer rock face loomed high above us. We built a small fire, and Kaigal-ool burned a few sprigs of artysh that he had brought for the occasion as an offering to the spirit-master of the river. Then he took up his position at the water's edge and, with a mighty intake of air, began to sing "Kyzyl-Taiga" (Red Taiga) in a plangent, open-throated voice. Each phrase of text ended on a loud, sustained pitch that Kaigal-ool cut off abruptly, leaving the echo from the cliff reverberating over the sound of water lapping against the stony beach.

To my ears the effect was mesmerizing, but Kaigal-ool wasn't satisfied.  "The echo is muted," he complained. "It's the wrong time of day to be trying this. Reverb from cliffs sounds better in the evening or at night."

Kaigal-ool's claim indeed can be empirically confirmed. Colder evening temperatures result in denser air, providing a less dissipative medium and a higher velocity of wave propagation, thus a crisper, louder sound. For optimum recording conditions, Kaigal-ool suggested that we return to the site at around 11:00 pm.

We did, but by that time, a wind had come up, a light rain had started to fall, and doing any more recording was out of the question.  Repacking the equipment, we returned to Kyzyl.  Bad weather or noisy late-night partygoers foiled our recording plans several times, but on one late-night foray, everything fell into place.

The air was cold, the cliff reverberant, and Kaigal-ool was in fine form. After trying several different starting pitches, he found one that seemed just right for the reverberant space, and we got an excellent recording on the first take.

In using his voice to excite the reverberant qualities of the cliff, Kaigal-ool's aim was not simply to hear his own voice amplified, but rather to feel an interaction with the startlingly beautiful natural scenario in which he emplaced himself through singing. "I love to hear the voice of the cliff speaking back to me," he told me during one of our late-night recording sessions. "It's a kind of meditation - a conversation that I have with nature. After I've sung in a place, I can really feel that place as my own. And I feel like I belong to that place."

The spiritual quality of acoustically resonant landscapes can be evoked not only by human sound-makers but also by sounds originating in nature itself. It is exactly such acoustic phenomena - natural sound sources providing a sonic stimulus to an overtone-rich ambient environment - that are offered as examples of how people learned from nature to throat-sing.

The source of the experience

Siberian shamanism

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps