The Gyuto monks of Tibet perform amazing sounds in their harmonic chants – they produce several notes at the same time. Evana Ho reports.

To the western ear, it’s a sound unlike any other.

The fundamental note the monks produce is extremely low – at the octave of a double bass.

That is also an octave lower than what almost any other singer can achieve. And because it’s so low, the harmonic content is easier to hear.

Dr Kim Cunio, a Senior Lecturer with the ANU School of Music, says the effect is unsettling. “It’s very primal, similar to the feeling of listening to a didgeridoo,” he says.

“On one level it’s rough and low, but then you’re hearing these whistling sounds that are coming through. It really gets inside us.”

In 1967 American religious studies scholar Professor Huston Smith took a recording he’d made of the chanting to a sound engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The sound engineer couldn’t believe his ears.

“He famously said, ‘This isn’t humanly possible’,” Cunio says.

Smith had made the recording at the Dharamasala monastery in India, which is home to the Gyuto Monks of Tibet. The Buddhist monks, who have been exiled from Tibet since the 1950s, were doing harmonic chanting – meditating on the sound they believe to embody emptiness.

When chanting, the monks produce multiple notes at once across three octaves.

“They’re able to adjust the cavity of the throat and the cavity of the mouth so that the throat gets noticeably larger, about a third larger in some cases,” Cunio says. “By virtue of doing that, these harmonics are released.”

He was at the Australian Sacred Music Festival in 2001, performing with wife Heather Lee, when he first heard the Gyuto monks perform. After the festival, the couple went on a regional tour with the monks, each playing a separate part of the concert, and got to know the translator Sonam Rigzin and manager Maureen Fallon.

Then, 15 years later, they all caught up again, and decided to do another concert, this time performing together.

“We all had such a good experience we said, ‘Okay, this is a really special experience for us all, so we’re going to make this an ongoing project’, and that’s how it started,” Cunio says.

Along with performing with the monks and producing two albums, Cunio has been researching how the monks make the sounds they do. He wants to produce a scholarly book the monastery can use to explain their practices to westerners.

Currently, no textbook or guide exists to describe to a western audience how the monks make their harmonic chanting.

“It’s not like going to the conservatoire and doing singing lessons,” Cunio says. “A monk might be shown quickly, ‘This is how you do it’, and then expected to learn it through being a part of the group.”

Novice monks begin their training around the age of 10 and spend five years memorising 2,500 pages of text before learning harmonic chanting.

Cunio is looking forward to hearing and recording the sounds of the novice monks when he visits the Dharamasala monastery.

During the monks’ tour of Australia in 2014, he did a detailed case study of chant master Lobsang Yeshi. He was able to record the normal and harmonic voices of the master, and analyse the differences using computer software.

“What I found was quite amazing – even though the harmonic voice is lower, it has more high content, which is the harmonics,” Cunio says.

“So you can see the points where the human ear is struggling to consciously hear, and you can see a spike in this content.”

This means the monks are producing frequencies that are on the edge of what others can hear. However, Cunio suspects the monks hear more because they’re hearing the sound within their own bodies.

“If you put your fingers in your ears and you sing, you hear a completely different sound because you hear the sound of the resonance through the human body, particularly through the sinuses and the cavities of the face,” he says.

“And so the monks, by virtue of doing that chanting, will be hearing a level of harmonic detail that we just can’t hear.”

Heather Lee and Kim Cunio with the Gyuto monks of Tibet. Photo: Maureen Fallon

He plans to investigate this further in India by placing small contact microphones on the throats of the monks. He also hopes to take one or two of them to an ear, nose and throat specialist to put a camera down their throat while they’re chanting.

He believes this procedure will help show that what happens in their throats is completely dissimilar to how people sing using other traditional and western classical techniques.

Which isn’t to say that a westerner couldn’t learn to do what the monks do, according to Cunio.

“The question that people ask of the Gyuto monks is, ‘Surely you’re rarities of nature in a sense and no one else will ever be able to do this?’” he says.

By looking at the monks’ vocal range within the harmonic chant, he has found their normal voices are no different to those of other people.

“That was the first finding I’ve made that no one else has made so far,” he says. “It’s something that can be practiced as opposed to something that you’re born with and then practice.”

As the academic’s research progresses, he will be limited on the information he is permitted to uncover about the monks’ sacred traditions.

“I’ve had this sort of experience myself, of having texts that I might sing only once a year and not share with the outside world,” Cunio says, recalling his childhood in a small subset of Far Eastern (Mizrachi) Judaism.

Outsiders are not allowed to intellectually understand what the monks do but are offered an essence of it.

“As I understand it, part of the reason is the texts are very spiritually powerful and disturbing if you don’t have the practice to work with them,” he says.

This is also a practice to keep a 600-year-old ritual unbroken.

“As soon as you enable other people to do it, you’ll get copies or versions of it, so it’s a way of keeping it authentic and unchanged.”

Even within the limits of what Cunio is permitted to understand, he might not – or might not be able to – communicate his findings.

“I have a feeling even if they say it’s okay because they love to share what they do with others, I might still feel it’s not okay to share how they do it,” he says.

“Part of my job is to think how unscrupulous music fans can be. I would personally hate the idea that I was partly responsible for people doing a non-spiritual version of this chant. But to make the findings, at least, is important.”

Top image: Monks at the Gyuto Monastery in Dharamshala, India. Photo: De pictz/Alamy Stock Photo

Related tags:

You may also like

Article Card Image

Portraiture allows everyone to be a critic – just ask King Charles

In an age of selfies, portraiture is still one of the most talked-about art forms. Associate Professor Robert Wellington explains why.

Article Card Image

Dr Jilda Andrews is reimagining the future of museums

Dr Jilda Andrews is breathing new life into museum artefacts —illuminating inclusive futures for Indigenous cultural heritage worldwide by exploring the troubled past.

Article Card Image

Do AI images mean the end of photographic truth?

Can you trust your own eyes? These ANU researchers say spotting AI images may be more difficult than ever.

Subscribe to ANU Reporter