The present article is limited in its scope to our own original research and to acoustical analysis of biphonic singing, this is preceded by a summary of the various terms proposed by different researchers. The first half the article concerning xöömij technique was written by Tran Quang Hai. Guillou has written the second half concerning acoustical analysis.
Until the present time it has not been possible to confirm that the centre, of biphonic singing within Turco-Mongol culture is in fact Mongolia. Biphonic singing is also employed by neighbouring peoples such as the Tuvins (Touvins), Oirats, Khakass, Gorno-Altais and Baschkirs; it is called kai by the Altais, uzliau by the Baschkirs, and the Tuvins possess four different styles called, sygyt, borbannadyr, ezengileer and kargyraa. A considerable amount of research is at present being carried out throughout the world into this vocal phenomenon, particularly as it is practised in Mongolia.
Research can be carried out in various ways: by means of observation of native performers after one or more visits to the country concerned, or by means of practical instrumental or vocal studies aimed at a better understanding of the musical structure employed by the population being studied. My own research does not belong to either of these two categories since I have never been to Mongolia and I have never learned the xöömij style of biphonic singing from a Mongolian teacher. What 1 shall describe in this article is the result of my own experience which will enable anybody to produce two simultaneous sounds similar to Mongolian biphonic singing.
Simultaneous two-part singing by a single person is known in the Mongol language as xöömij (literally “pharynx”). The manner in which the Mongol word is transcribed is by no means uniform; homi, ho-mi, (Vargyas 1968), khomi, khöömii, (Bosson 1964: 11), xomej, chöömej, (Aksenov 1964) chöömij, (Vietze 1969:15-16. Walcott 1974) xöömij, (Hamayon 1973). French researchers have used other terms to describe this particular vocal technique such as chant biphonique or diphonique (Leipp 1971, Tran Quang Hai 1974). voix guimbarde. voix dédoublee (Heitfer 1973, Hamayon 1973), and chant diphonique solo (Marcel-Dubois 1979). Several terms exist in English such as split-tone singing, throat singing and overtone singing, and in German sweistimmigen Sologesang.
For convenience 1 have employed in this article the term biphonic singing to describe a style of singing realized by a single person producing simultaneously a continuous drone and another sound at a higher pitch issuing from a series of partials or harmonies resembling the sound of the flute.
Origin of My Research.
In 1971, the date of my first contact with Mongolian music in the form of recordings made in Mongolia between 1967 and 1970 by Mrs. Roberte Hamayon, researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and especially after listening to a tape on which were recorded three pieces in the biphonic singing style, I was struck by the extraordinary and unique nature of this vocal technique.
For several months I carried out bibliographical research into articles concerned with this style of singing with the aim of obtaining information on the practice of biphonic singing, but received little satisfaction. Explanations of a merely theoretical and sometimes ambiguous nature did nothing so much as to create and increase the confusion with which my research was surrounded. In spite of my complete ignorance of the training methods for biphonic singing practised by the Mongols, the Tuvins and other peoples, I was not in the least discouraged by the negative results at the beginning of my studies after even several months of effort.
The xöömij refers to the simultaneous production of two sounds, one similar to the fundamental produced on the Jew’s harp (produced at the back of the throat), and the other resulting from a modification of the buccal cavity without moving the lips which remain only slightly open; positioning the lips as for a rear vowel results in a low sound, whereas front vowel positioning produces a high sound (Hamayon 1973), a technique similar to that used by the Tuvins (Aksenov 1964). The cheeks are tightened to such a degree that the singer breaks out into a sweat. It is the position of the tongue which determines the melody. Anybody who possesses this technique is able to copy any tune (Hamayon 1973).
I worked entirely alone groping my way through the dark for two years, listening frequently to the recordings made by Hamayon stored in the sound archives of the ethnomusicology department of the Musee de I’Homme. My efforts were however to no avail. Despite my efforts and knowledge of Jew’s harp technique, the initial work was both difficult and discouraging. 1 also tried to whistle while producing a low sound as a drone. However, checking on a sonograph showed that this was not similar to the xöömij technique. At the end of 1972 I got to the stage that I was able to produce a very weak harmonic tone which when recorded on tape, showed that 1 was still a long way from my goal.Then, one day in November 1973, in order to calm my nerves in the appalling traffic congestion of Paris, I happened to make my vocal chords vibrate in the pharynx with my mouth half open while reciting the alphabet. When I arrived at the letter L and the tip of my tongue was about to touch the top of my mouth, I suddenly heard a pure harmonic tone, clear and powerful. I repeated the operation several times and each time I obtained the same result. I then tried to modify the position of the tongue in relation to the foot of the mouth while maintaining the low fundamental. A series of partials resonated in disorder inside my ears. At the beginning I obtained the harmonics of a perfect chord. Slowly but surely, after a week of intensive work, by changing the fundamental tone upwards or downwards, 1 had managed to discover all by myself a vocal jaw’s harp technique or biphonic singing style which appeared to be similar to that used by the Mongols and the Tuvins.
After two months of research and numerous experiments of all kinds I was able to establish some of the basic rules for the realization of what I call biphonic singing.
1) Half open the mouth.
2) Emit a natural sound on the letter A without forcing the voice and remaining in the middle part of the vocal range (between F and A below middle C for men, and between F and A above middle C for women).
3) Intensify the vocal production while vibrating the vocal cords.
4) Force out the breath and hold it for as long as possible.
5) Produce the letter L. Maintain the position with the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth.
6) Intensify the tonal volume while trying to keep the tongue stuck firmly against the palate in order to divide the mouth into two cavities, one at the back and one at the front, so that the air column increases in volume through the mouth and the nose.
7) Slowly pronounce the sounds represented by the phonetic signs “i” anti “u” while varying the position of the lips.
8) Modify the buccal cavity by changing the position of the tongue inside the mouth without interrupting or changing the height of the fundamental already amplified by the vibration of the vocal cords.
9) In this way it is possible to obtain both the drone arid the partials or harmonics either in ascending or descending order according to the desire of the singer.
For beginners the harmonics of the perfect chord (C. E. G. C) are easy to obtain. However, a considerable amount of hard work is necessary especially to obtain a pentatonic anhemitonic scale. Every person has his favourite note which permits him to produce a large range of partials. This favourite fundamental tone varies according to the tonal quality of the singer’s voice and his windpipe. It often happens that two people using the same fundamental tone do riot necessarily obtain the same series of partials.
Regular practice and the application of the basic techniques which 1 have just described above permitted me to acquire a range of between an eleventh and a thirteenth according to the choice of the drone. Biphonic singing can also be practised by women and children, and several successful experiments have been carried out in this connection.