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The Gyuto Multiphonic Choir
The first recording of its kind, this is Huston Smith's
historic 1967 recording.


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Music of Tibet in the Media: NPR's (National Public Radio) Morning Edition aired an Anil Mundra story about multiphonic chanting, Gyuto Monks: Ancient Practice, Modern Sound, featuring Huston Smith. Listen online or read the transcript.

The style of chanting heard on this tape was introduced into Tibet from India (where the art has long been lost) by Marpa in the eleventh century. In 1474, Gyuto was founded (along with Gyume) as one of the two Tibetan monasteries that were dedicated to using this mode of chanting for the ritualistic transmission of the most ancient, sacred, and esoteric teachings of the Buddha. The extraordinary vocal abilities this chanting requires first came to the West’s attention in 1968 through Huston Smith’s The Music of Tibet (Anthology Records), and it is from the masters for that disc that this CD was recorded. 

What’s Different Here? 
The precise if paradoxical answer to that question is the ability of these monks to sing solo chords. Periodically their deep, guttural monotones splay out into polyphony. At first sight, or rather sound, the Western listener is likely to assume that the monks are singing in parts —basses here, baritones there, tenors in yet a third register—but this is not the case. Each lama is producing the full display of sounds one hears: a musical first, third, fifth, and for trained ears, additional overtones as well.

How They Do It?
Every sung tone is accompanied by overtones. We hear these, for they are what give richness and color to our voices. Normally, however, overtones are too soft to be heard as distinct tones in their own right. What these lamas have done is to discover ways of reshaping their vocal cavities — they do not know where or how; the micro-changes are monitored subliminally—in ways that resonate certain overtones. This amplifies their volume to the point where we now hear them as discrete tones in their own right, distinct from the fundamental that awakens them.

 Acoustical Analysis 
Analysis of the chord-like vocal phenomenon that recurs most frequently on this tape shows that the effect is achieved through a remarkable and precise adjustment of the resonant frequencies of the vocal cavities relative to each other and the fundamental frequency of vocal-chord vibrations. The resonant frequencies of the vocal cavities are called formants, and these are usually numbered in order of increasing frequency. The formant frequencies are the principal determinants of vowel quality, and they can be manipulated by adjusting the positions of the tongue, lips, and other structures, thereby modifying the shapes of the vocal cavities. 

Spectral analysis of a segment of the chord-like tone shows the individual harmonics of the sound as multiples of the fundamental frequency, and indicates that the spacing between the harmonics is about 63 Hz. The harmonics at 315 and 630 Hz are accentuated, showing that the first and second formants are centered at these frequencies. In addition to the tone with these frequency characteristics, the CD also contains examples of a chord-like sound with similar properties but with all frequencies a semitone lower. That is, the fundamental frequency is 59 Hz. And the formant frequencies are adjusted downwards to 295 Hz and 590 Hz. These appear to be the only chord-like tones that the lamas are capable of producing. 

From the analysis of these sounds, one can hypothesize the reason for the auditory impression of a chord. A listener hears, of course, a pitch corresponding to the fundamental frequency of 63 Hz (in the case of the first of the two tones)—a musical note that is approximately two octaves below middle C. The listener can also identify a note at the formant frequency of 315 Hz, i.e. close to E above middle C. Ability to hear a clear note at the formant frequency is a consequence of these factors: (1) the first-formant frequency is located precisely at the fifth harmonic of the fundamental; (2) the second-formant frequency is located at precisely twice the frequency of the first formant and hence at the tenth harmonic of the fundamental; and (3) the formant bandwidths (which are proportional to the amount of damping in the vocal-tract resonators) are sufficiently narrow that the intensities of the fifth harmonic and the tenth harmonic an octave higher combine to yield the impression of a tone. The combination of this tone with the fundamental frequency forms a musical major third. Religious Import Awe is the primary religious sentiment, and Gyuto’s chants are nothing if not awesome. In addition, they capitalize on the power of overtones to awaken numinous feelings. Sensed without being explicitly heard, overtones stand in exactly the same relation to our hearing as the sacred stands to our ordinary mundane existence. Since the object of worship is to shift the sacred from peripheral to focal awareness, the vocal capacity to elevate overtones from subliminal to focal awareness carries symbolic power, for the object of the spiritual quest is to experience life as replete with overtones that tell of a “more” that can be sensed but not seen, sensed but not said, heard but not explicitly. Ultimately, though, for the Tibetans these chants are spiritual technology. Reality is energy, energy is waved, waved energy is sound. It follows that reality is sound, and the question for us becomes, which wavelength is our life vibrating on and therefore sounding. In these chants, the lamas are modulating their lives to the wavelengths of the gods, tapping into their power and transmuting that power to others. Reciprocally, they “feed” the gods with the sound which in a very real sense is what those gods are.

Boston Sunday Globe, January 26, 1969
Some Evidence from Tibet 
By Huston Smith

ONE-MAN bands are commonplace, but what about a one-man chorus or choir? Is this possible? Is the human voice capable of producing more than one note at a time – of singing a chord and thereby, in effect, accompanying itself? 

Thus far the presumption has been: no. Hollywood can, of course, fake the feat, as did Disney in “Fantasia” with his whale that sang a quartet. But the charm of that scene derived precisely from its impossibility – a double impossibility, solo quartets being as contradictory as singing whales. Sober adults knew that Nelson Eddy was doing it all, having sung serially into four tape recorders which were then played together. 

Other simulations are equally spurious. A Tyrolean can yodel fast enough to make his notes seem simultaneous, but of course they aren’t. He is really trilling, like a whistler who appears to be whistling two notes at once but is actually oscillating between them. A French horn player, on the other hand, can indeed produce three tones simultaneously. If he hums a “third” above the fundamental he is blowing, these two frequencies can awaken their “fifth”. But this doesn’t count because he has an instrument helping him. 

Perhaps one other report should be mentioned: I have just heard that Sir Richard Paget of Cambridge University is said to have sung quartets with his daughter. I shall look into this, but suspect that it involved an acoustical trick like the ones mentioned. 

So the presumption remains that the human voice can sing no more than one note at a time. 

Until we suddenly find this presumption shattered – not by musicologists or scientists working on the acoustics of the human voice, but Tibetan lamas. 

The source of the refutation is poetic in itself. Tibet – Land of Snows, Roof of the World, Shangri-la. For centuries the Western imagination has all but forced Tibet into the role of custodian of secrets and surprises. Science and mechanization seem to have fanned the Westerner’s hope that his modernizing planet still closets mysteries somewhere, and Tibet has been a natural place to posit them. A natural place, first because – being nearly inaccessible – her tall tales couldn’t be readily checked; but also because her tradition roots back unbroken into the archaic human past which may have possessed perspectives and capacities that science and technology have inadvertently eroded. 

The mischief, of course, has been lack of solid evidence. Even eye-witness reports, such as those of Mrs. Alexandra David-Neal in With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet, are open to double suspicion: if they were not exaggerated by the reporter’s standing hope of discovering something sensational, the perceptions – faithfully described – may have been induced by hypnosis. 

Precisely because firm evidence bearing on Tibetan strangeness is hard to come by, it is gratifying to find that in this case, wherein she confounds our notions of the vocally possible, the evidence holds up in the face of rigorous inspection: spectroscopic analysis and computer simulation. 

Let me first relate how I stumbled on the Tibetan phenomenon, then describe its acoustics and what it meant to the Tibetans themselves. 

Discovery: Debarred from Tibet proper because the Chinese had occupied it and I am a United States citizen, I spent my sabbatical autumn of 1964 among lamas currently in exile in north India. A chance meeting with a high lama of the Gelugpa (“Yellow Hat”) sect on a bus to Dalhousie led to admission to Gyuto Monastery on the outskirts of that Punjab hill station. The original Gyuto, in Lhasa, boasted some 800 lamas; its reconstituted, exilic version housed one-tenth that number in refugee quarters the Indian government provides as partial compensation for work on high roads done by Tibetan laymen. 

It happened that I had entered the monastery on the eve of the annual four-day puja (ceremonial observance) commemorating the arrival in Tibet of two renowned statues, one from Nepal, the other from China, important symbols of the Indian and Chinese civilizations on which Tibet has drawn and whose features it has blended so uniquely. 

The ceremonies began at three o’clock the following morning in the “ceremonial hall,” which – we were in refugee quarters – was in fact no more than a large tent. I mention this detail because the immediate impulse of the first musicologist who heard my recording of the chanting I am about to describe was to credit what he heard to “the thick walls of those Tibetan fortress monasteries.” In actuality, the acoustics of the “hall” contributed nothing to what he was hearing. 

Some eighty lamas, richly robed, seated themselves on cushions on the dirt floor in six rows running the length of the tent, three on each side of the center, all facing the center. I was end man on one of the back rows, near the altar. 

Rhythmic chanting began. Echoing from the bottomless cavern of thousands of years of unshaken belief, it was at first impressive, but so unvarying that it became in time monotonous. A guttural, gravelly, low-pitched growl, it reminded me of the chanting in Japanese monasteries and recalled the fact that Tibetan Vajrayana and Japanese Shingon are sub-branches of the same Buddhist limb. 

The darkness of the early hour combined with the monotony of the drone to make me sleepy, and I was on the verge of dozing off when I was brought to my senses abruptly by what sounded like an angelic choir. The boring monotone had given way to rich, full-chorded harmony. If the accompanying bells and cymbals had begun to simulate the tones of the King’s chapel organ. I could hardly be more astonished. My first thought was: they’re singing in parts. This was striking enough, for I had always known harmony as a Western art form. Asia having concentrated, by contrast, on rhythm and melodic line. But this jolt was nothing to the one that awaited me, for after several minutes of such chords the choir suddenly cut out, leaving everything to a single soloist or cantor. And he, seated perhaps ten feet to my right and two rows in front, was singing by himself a three-tone major chord composed of a musical first, third, and faintly audible fifth. 

The balance of the story is brief. The rituals lasted for fifteen hours on each of the four days, punctuated by two ten-minutes toilet breaks and two meager meals served in place within the tent. Most of the time the lamas were seated, bell in the thumb-groin of the right hand, diamond scepter in that of the left. Periodically, they would wave and interweave their hands in elaborate mudras (symbolic hand gestures) to accompany their chants. For about ten minutes out of every hundred their voices would splay out from their monotone drone into the chords of which I have spoken. Richly embroidered vestments and elaborate headgear were changed periodically, and each afternoon there were ceremonial processions around the inside of the tent, culminating before the altar. The entire clebration climaxed in an elaborate outdoor fire sacrifice in the late afternoon of the final day. An anonymous benefactor provided each lama with a rupee (20¢) for his sixty-hour vigil, in which recompense the writer was generously included. 

On the day following the puja, I located a tape recorder in a school near Dalhousie and returned to the monastery to record the effects described. On reaching M.I.T. I took the tape to my colleague, Professor Kenneth N. Stevens, who specializes in the physics of the human voice. He had not heard, or heard of, the human voice performing in this way. After a spectroscopic analysis of the tape, he produced with his colleague Raymond S. Tomlinson, an explanation of the solo portion of the lamas’ chant which I shall capsule, omitting the technical details of their report which appeared in the May, 1967 issue of The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 

Acoustical Description: Every coherent sound man produces, whether spoken or sung, is accompanied by overtones. We hear these; one evidence of this is the fact that when we listen to a human voice through a vocorder which modifies the overtones, the voice sounds unfamiliar and rather unpleasant, somewhat like Donald Duck. But though vocal overtones are audible, their intensity is normally too subdued to permit us to hear them as distinct tone independent of their fundamentals. What the lamas have done is to discover ways of shaping their vocal cavities – we don’t know how they do so – to re-enforce or resonate certain overtones. This magnifies the intensity of these overtones to the point where they sound like distinct tones in their own right. 

The Point of It All: To produce these chords is no simple matter. Only two monasteries in all Tibet cultivated the art, and training began at the age of 12. How they trained I was unable to discover – the language barrier was too great. Whether the Tibetan physique favors such chanting is likewise unknown, but it might. Inhabitants of high altitudes tend to develop special physiques and Tibet boasts the highest average elevation of any country in the world. 

Though the “how” of the chord remains unknown, its “why” can, I think, be surmised. It is not cultivated for its esthetic yield alone, any more than medieval monks perfected Gregorian chant solely for the sake of art. Music inspires as well as delights, and as lamas are not primarily musicians, we can presume that they developed the chord primarily for its inspirational power. 

To “inspire” means, of course, to “induce spirit,“ or if (as Buddhists believe) the Buddha-nature is in man from the start, so to inspire is to bring it to the fore. Sound can facilitate this process, for if through language man reached out and took possession of the world, through it he also reached inward and awakened, among other things, intimations of a higher life. India and, through her, Tibet have been vividly aware of language’s creative power, considering it no less than metaphysical. According to legend, Brahman, God himself, was born from the cosmic being’s mouth, a notion embedded in the fact that the root of the word “Brahman” means breath. In the West, the question “Are you sound?” usually means “Are you healthy?” In Tibet it would be taken literally, as meaning “Are you not in fact composed of vibrations?” 

Believing themselves to be in some sense sound, the lamas were unusually open to influence by what they heard. They felt aligned – or better, identified – with the sounds they resonated to. 

The specific importance of the “chord” derived from the power of overtones to awaken numinous feelings. Sensed without being explicitly heard, overtones stand in exactly the same relation to our hearing as the sacred stands to our ordinary mundane existence. Since the object of worship is to shift the sacred from peripheral to focal awareness, the vocal capacity to elevate overtones from subliminal to focal awareness carries symbolic power. For the object of the spiritual quest is precisely this: to experience life as replete with overtones that tell of a “more” that can be sensed but not seen, sensed but not said, heard but not explicitly. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” To consciously, explicitly hear those “unheard melodies” was the lamas’ unique achievement. 

Coda: We began by asking if a one-man chorus is possible. The Tibetan answer is ambiguous. It shows that a single voice can sound a chord, but the number of chords it can sound appears to be severely limited. Indeed, there are only two, both of which require a fundamental too low for most men (and all women*) to reach. The fundamental of the first is 75.5 cps (cycles per second) which is the D almost two octaves below middle C. The other is a semitone above that, D sharp. At this point the only chords single voices are on record as having produced are the major chords built on these fundamentals, and there is no reason to think we shall discover more. So, though a single voice can sound a chord, to claim that with a repertoire of two such chords it qualifies as a chorus or choir is to mock the terms. In singing as elsewhere, we still seem to need one another.


*On October 21, 2012 we got an email from Vicki Taylor, an Australian woman who has been a follower of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism since 1977 and, since then, has been developing the style of chanting as practiced at Gyuto Monastery, which is to say, women can do multiphonic chanting. She goes on to write: "By way of demonstration, here is a recent video - [see video below]- of my venerable teacher, Kyabje Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, at one of the centers of his organization (the FPMT), Root Institute, near Bodhgaya, late last year. Even though the clip is quite long, the relevant segment is early in the video (just the first 2 minutes). Rinpoche asks me to chant, Gyuto-style, and I do so."




1. Drumbeat to Summon the Deities 2. Guhyasamaja Tantra (excerpt) 3. A Prayer for Refuge 4. Invocation of mGon-po 5. Invocation of Mahakala 6. Prayer of Absolution and Purification 7. Selections from Guhyasamaja Tantra (Chapter 5) 8. Prayer to mGon-po (Mahakala) 9. Prayer to Hla-Mo 10. Prayer to Chos-Gyal (Dharmaraja or Yama) 11. Prayer for the Preservation of the Buddha Dharma 12. Invocation of Mahakala 13. Prayer to Mahakala

The disk art features a detail from the mandala A Vision of Inseparability by Romio Shrestha from the book Celestial Gallery, courtesy of Mandala Publishing

This CD has been re-mastered from the original tapes. The front cover features a photograph of half of the Gyuto Choir. The two halves sit facing one another while chanting. The back cover illustration features the cantor. Both photographs, plus an extra photograph of the cantor are featured on this page.