As you begin reading about Spectral Voices' origins please listen to "Inner Voices (Calling)" (click the YouTube window)
Jim is singing an overtone melody. He is not whistling. There are no flutes or other instruments, and there are no overdubs. This is the first track of Coalescence.
Background & Influences
For centuries people in many parts of the world have been developing harmonic overtone singing traditions (aka:khoomei - throat singing, overtone singing, harmonic chant, multiphonic singing), and in central Asia it has reached great refinement and variety. You may have heard the high whistling melodies, expressive warbles, and intense low croaking tones of Tuvan throat singers. A similar folk tradition occurs among the herdsmen of Mongolia. Certain groups of Tibetan Buddhist monks practice a deep sub fundamental type of sacred harmonic chant.
Origin of Spectral Voices
In 1991 Jim Cole began practicing overtone singing after hearing recordings of the Tibetan Gyuto monks and David Hykes and The Harmonic Choir's Hearing Solar Winds. He was astonished that the haunting otherworldly sounds he heard were produced entirely by human voices. Within a year he was turning people on to the wonders of harmonic overtone singing, teaching others as he continued to learn, and gathering an ever-evolving group. Asian throat singing was never really a public art, developed instead by solitary wandering herders communing with nature and by monks deep in meditation. Jim's group likewise experienced the focus and peace that can come from overtone singing. Members enjoyed the shared opportunity for musical exploration, self-expression, and interaction with each other, but originally had no intention of singing for anyone but themselves. As the group evolved into Spectral Voices, the singers became increasingly experimental, playing with their voices to create new sounds and techniques and discovering the challenges and joys of totally improvised group work.
Finding an Ideal Space
Here are two singers in the water tower, recorded in real time:
Expanding musical ideas and a continuing search for special places eventually led to a hilltop in the woods only a stone's throw from civilization where stood an enormous empty water tower. The 120-foot-tall steel cylinder turned out to be the ideal space in which to develop and record the vocal space music that makes Spectral Voices' sound unique among ambient musicians as well as distinct from the music of most other harmonic overtone singers. Imagine the setting: Looking up at the modern-day megalith looming above, you're surrounded by sights and sounds of the natural world -- birds and wind and rustling leaves. Using a large pipe fitter's wrench, you loosen two large bolts enough to swing open the squeaking oval hatch near the base of the tower. With some difficulty you crawl through the opening in the thick steel wall and emerge into a vastly different world of total darkness and unfamiliar reverberation. (The sensation is somewhat akin to diving deep below the surface of water and realizing you're in a whole new slow-motion world.) The senses are necessarily heightened. A flickering candle casts dancing shadows on the curved wall, evoking images of some ancient cave. Every sound lasts twenty to thirty seconds, making speech barely intelligible, but music -- when it is slow and spacious -- is exquisite. In 1994, after a brush with the law reminiscent of the "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," the water tower became Spectral Voices' new home (the story is also recounted in this article).
Playing the Space
Listen to 3 singers in the water tower:
Working in this extremely reverberant environment, Jim and his group learned to use the water tower as an instrument, adapting their ideas to the acoustics of their surroundings. An amazingly long decay time contributed greatly to the depth and richness of sound. The huge reverberation made it possible for a single voice to build complex chords simply by singing several pitches in succession. A series of notes would hang in the air, turning melodies into chords. The resonant acoustics reinforced even the quietest sounds, giving a sense of fullness and volume. Singing long notes with very long reverberation creates music that lingers in space and in the mind. The experience is very peaceful; time seems to stand still.
Enhancing the music is an appealing natural ambience. Three small holes in the ceiling allowed sounds of nature to enter: in the background of many tracks on Spectral Voices recordings Coalescence, Sky, and Innertones, one can hear birds calling, the wind blowing, or rain falling outside the water tower and echoing within.
An Interactive Process
More than anything else, careful listening is the key to this experience (for singers and audience alike). The recorded music of Spectral Voices is entirely improvised, each chord and melody unfolding in the moment as singers respond to each other and to the often surprising sound that emerges from the gathering of voices.
Listen to Jim and Alan Sing with Tamboura:
Recording Sky, Coalescence and Innertones
All the music on these three albums was performed in real time and created solely by human voice (except for two tracks on Coalescence). The music in the water tower was recorded in candlelit darkness using a stereo microphone and digital recorder, without any electronic manipulation, studio overdubbing, or other artificial enhancements.
What one hears on Sky and Coalescence (and the 3 water tower pieces on Innertones) is almost exactly what it sounded like inside the water tower as the music was being created. Most of the tracks are just two or three people singing in real time -- and nothing more. Much of the richness, complexity, and uniqueness of these recordings comes from the interplay between the reverberant environment, in which several notes linger for many seconds, and harmonic overtone singing (one voice singing multiple notes at once).
What is Overtone Singing?
To learn more about specific overtone singing techniques and get a mini-lesson, click here.
Whenever a tone is sung, overtones (harmonics) naturally occur at fixed intervals above the fundamental tone. The combination of harmonics is what gives a particular voice or instrument its distinctive timbre. Through careful listening and subtle adjustments of the lips, tongue, jaw, soft palate, throat, and the rest of the vocal apparatus, harmonic singers isolate and amplify chosen harmonics while suppressing others. This enables a single person to produce two (sometimes three or four) distinct tones at once. With practice and control, it becomes possible to harmonize with oneself. Another kind of overtone singing involves sub fundamentals, which do not occur under normal conditions, but can be produced at fixed intervals below the "normal mode" vocal fold fundamental tone.
Vocal overtone techniques seem mysterious partly because their effects are so extraordinary. Researchers have found that harmonic overtone singers use their mouth/throat anatomy to create interconnected but distinct resonating chambers of varying sizes and shapes that alter the loudness and distribution of harmonics. Thus, much of Spectral Voices' music involves sculpting internal spaces to interact with external spaces.
Listen to "All Within Your Heart and Mind" from Innertones: