Beyond Words

By Phil Catalfo
New Age Journal Nov/Dec 1986

Our intrepid reporter sets out to study traditional chants with Jill Purce and discovers how it feels to be a "human tuning fork".

Some might have called it caterwauling. Others would surely have found it profoundly disturbing, the moans of a group that had lost its grip. I found it perfectly delightful. It was a sound, emanating from several dozen people, myself among them. Eyes closed, torsos erect but relaxed, we sat and chanted, a wordless vocalizing of specified syllables. "Ooooooohhhhhh", we began, intoning it over and over, breathing deeply and releasing both breath and sounds fully until our "conductor" rang a bell. Then a few moments' silence - and a new syllable was offered by the chant master. "Aaaaawwwwww," we followed along. "Aaaaaahhhhh." "Aaaaaayyyyy." "Eeeeeeeeeeeee."

This exercise in human tuning was part of a workshop led by Jill Purce, a Briton who has made it her life's work to teach the act of resonating, singly and in concert with others, for the sake of tuning one's mind and body as one would a musical instrument. In this case, as Purce sees it, the tuning is not only musical but also physical and spiritual. "There's never been a culture that didn't chant - until ours," she says. "There's been no other time in history when people did not sing as we do not sing. We not only don't sing any more, but we don't realize we don't. We've forgotten to do it, and we've forgotten that we've forgotten."

Purce has been working with chant since the late '60s. Born in 1947 in the English midlands county of Staffordshire (famous for Wedgwood china), she was on a University of London research fellowship in biophysics when she developed a pronounced interest in the question of "how form comes into being, how spirit comes into matter." The more Purce studied, the more she found patterns that involved sound - patterns for everything from creation myths in which the universe begins as a loud thunderclap, to a child's learning about the world by naming every new thing. Purce took this to mean that "sound calls form into being," an idea that excited her. But formal scientific training nurtured her inquiry only up to a point; when she asked her professors questions about form in nature, she recalls, "they said, 'We don't ask those kinds of questions'."

The lack of intellectual support from academia became an opportunity for other explorations and influences. In the early '70s, Purce met Karlheinz Stockhausen, the famed German composer whose work had invented new realms of music. During a year long musical apprenticeship, she worked with Stockhausen as he composed Alfabet fur Liège, commissioned by the Belgian city of Liège. Purce describes the piece as a series of installations in which "thirteen musicians, singly or in pairs, took on tasks to demonstrate the effect of sound on matter - the effect of sound on water, on flame, on the body; the effect of prayer; the elimination of sound with sound; the effect of silence; even 'making love with sound'."

Using music and sound in this way followed naturally from what she was already learning from another exploration of hers: studies with Tibetan chant masters. Their millenia-old techniques had refined the art of using sound to produce a desired effect - namely, elevated consciousness. Purce's integration of these two pivotal influences eventually propelled her on a mission: "to re-enchant the world." Purce views her ambitious quest not as quixotic but rather as a practical attempt to create a kind of spiritual antidote to the anomie that infects modern life. "If you can liberate the voice," she says, "you can liberate the human being - you can liberate yourself from your patterns of anxiety."

Sound has always had a special attraction for me: as language, as song, as "audio art". That's one reason I've spent much of my adult life working in radio. And maybe that's why I was so intrigued by Purce when I first met her eight years ago. Her observation that Western cultures had traditionally built sacred edifices specifically designed to enhance the reverberations of worshipers' song - to produce a kind of "human tuning fork" effect - has remained with me through the years as I've visited various cathedrals and churches. But Purce's thesis that sound is at the very heart of creation itself - that sound and resonance, in essence, are what we are - challenged me to go further. It was time to see what being a human tuning fork was like.

So on a typically windy and fogbound August day I arrived at a medieval-style building on the University of San Francisco's Lone Mountain campus for this workshop, "The Healing Voice." Offered by the California Institute of Integral Studies, the class was being held in an ample meeting room, with several passageways leading to or past it. With its large, leaded-glass window bays mostly covered by drapes, it gave an impression of a catacomb, the subterranean network used by early Christians to avoid detection while practicing their new faith.

This would not be the only reference, imagined or explicit, to spiritual practices of antiquity. Purce has set out to enable those who study with her to recapture the lost rapture of resonance so familiar to the ancients. She cultivates in her classes an echo of now-distant rituals, calling up ageless rhythms and sounds for her late-twentieth-century charges. As our workshop opened, for example, about fifty of us sat in a semicircle, several rows deep, radiating from the barefoot Purce, who - along with about half her students - sat on the floor. Beside her were a bell, a rattle, and a drum ("my instruments"); before her was a candle.

An earthy, energetic woman with long sandy brown hair, Purce set about preparing us for a series of purification rituals. The first was a Tibetan breathing exercise she called "Breathing In Light, Breathing Out Smoke." Closing off one nostril with the forefinger, we slowly breathed in while straightening our seated position, held the full breath, then slowly expelled it through the other nostril while bowing forward. We then repeated the exercise, blowing out through the opposite nostril. According to Tibetan teachings, Purce told us, this morning ritual removes the foul humors and passions (i.e. "attachments" and "aversions") that accumulate in the belly while sleeping, replacing them with the spaciousness and purity of light. When our group finished this exercise, it seemed as though the room had awakened from a refreshing nap and was ready to make some noise.

The chance quickly presented itself. Our next exercise was to involve a type of chanting that is Purce's speciality: Mongolian overtone chanting. Overtones are the by-products of sounded notes, created from the relationships between the frequencies that make up a note. (The most familiar kind of overtone is the harmonic, which, played on guitar, has an angelic, bell-like quality.) Some ancient religions have worked with overtone chanting as a healing tool; Purce contends that overtones have a power that operates all the way from consciousness down to the cellular level.

Overtone chanting can take various forms, from culture to culture. Tibetan lamas are able to create harmonics over profoundly low notes that seem to spring from the bowels of the Earth. Mongolian overtone chanting, by contrast, creates higher harmonics, like the sound a crystal glass makes when you wet your finger and move it quickly around the rim. By changing the shape of the mouth and the position of the lips and tongue, these high overtones can be modulated to yield a kind of melody. (In the Mongolian folk tradition, these "melodies" can be truly dazzling. Last summer I heard a public radio report featuring field recordings of Mongolian overtone chanters; their pentatonic-scale overtones sounded like Scottish reels.)

It is difficult for the Western ear to know, at first, quite what to make of overtones. At root is a simple note, sounded and maintained. Shimmering out of and "above" that is an ephemeral ringing that takes shape, reforms, disappears, and reappears, finally piercing the base note and one's attention simultaneously. But the sound isn't all that's perplexing; the notion that a human being is producing it is even harder to fathom.

As Purce demonstrated and explained the technique, bewilderment soon gave way to "I wanna try". Usually, Purce's students can begin to emulate the overtone sound, or something approaching it, in just a few attempts. (When I first encountered Purce and her chants years ago, I took to practicing them in the shower, where everything sounds like I want it to; I don't know how accomplished I was at it, but it not only sounded good, it felt great.) On this day, with Purce on hand to provide instruction, fifty non-Mongolians were soon ringing like chimes. The sound filled every cubic inch of the room. "Enchantment really means to make magic through chant," Purce is fond of saying, and in her work one chant is quickly followed by another. In this case, we had scarcely finished the Mongolian overtone chanting when she led us in a Zuni moon chant, in honor of the full moon that was beginning to rise in the day sky. Purce loosely translated the Zuni words - which we sang phonetically - as: "Grandmother Moon/Us people down here are doing just fine."

Soon we were off in pairs, listening to Purce explain an exercise in dyad overtone chanting that she was about to lead us through. As we began to practice sliding through the overtones together with our partners, it was at first a tricky proposition - having to not only change the overtone by pressing the tongue forward or back, but also do it in coordination with a partner. But gradually it became both possible and intriguing. When my overtone didn't match that of my partner's, there was a buzzy dissonance, like the annoying hum of a fluorescent light fixture. But when our overtones matches, a generous and not unpleasant ringing pervaded the space between and around us.

Once we started to get the hang of overtones, Purce prepared us for a ritual in which we would begin to experience the healing powers of chant. "The Tibetans say we're called into an incarnation by the residues of passions from previous incarnations," Purce told us. "These seeds of passions, like traces of scent left in an empty perfume bottle, situate themselves along the spine, where they can be cleansed, opened and expanded." The ritual she was about to lead us through was an exercise Tibetans use to purify these energy centres, or chakras. According to several Eastern disciplines, these centres pertain to various aspects of a person's physical, emotional, and spiritual being.

The objective of the chakra cleansing ritual was to "aim" our chant at selected centres - in turn, the chakras located at the base of the spine, the navel, the heart, the throat, and the so-called third eye. We would chant the same note at each point, while making the overtones progress to higher frequencies as we proceeded, Purce explained. And as we climbed the chakras, she instructed us, we would change the vowel sound - starting with "oooh" and moving on to "awww," "ahhh," "ayyy" and "eeee.." By focusing the chant and overtones on these centres within us, we were aiming to blow out any spiritual lint that had collected there.

Just before we began, Purce instructed us to "imagine each chakra centre to be quite dense, polluted, and contracted; and as you chant, it opens and becomes luminous." Then she urged us to press through any resistance we might encounter. "The idea here is to go beyond the boredom threshold, where you want to scream or do anything else but chant, and then carry on," she explained. "That's where it becomes life-changing."

I don't know if my life was changed or my chakras steam-cleaned, but I can say that I had no difficulty carrying on. Quite the opposite, in fact. What I experienced was a sensation of being swallowed up in sound - of being at its epicentre - unmatched even by being in the first row at a Who concert. Once I loosened my jaw and got comfortable in my seat, I found that simply opening my mouth and letting my breath leave my body produced the most wondrous, comforting sound. And after playing a bit with the register and deepening my breath, the overtones started to come unbidden. Once that happened, I just rode the waves of harmonics pealing like cathedral bells in my body. Soon it seemed that the overtones were emanating from my very bones - from the region bounded by my shoulders, collarbone, and cranium. And I had the thought, This is what the crystal glass must feel like when I rub my finger on it. After a lifetime of singing at the slightest provocation, there were no psychological barriers to press through. Indeed, the only problem I had with the exercise was that it ended too soon. What was surprising to me was that, although I am normally about as given to meditative exercise as a cow is to flying, I found this particular ritual effortless, pleasurable, and uplifting. "If this is meditation, I guess I can do it," I thought, just about the time Purce was saying, "Chanting in general is the easiest way to meditate. Drumming is easy too, but singing takes hold of all of you."

A public bus belches and whines as it pullls away from the curb just outside the restaurant where Purce and I are sharing lunch the day after her workshop. She stops in midsentence, waits for the bus's sound to fade away, then comments, "We used to live in a natural world full of natural sounds: the songs of birds, the wind in the trees, oceans, storms - and within it, ourselves, singing and chanting as we praised the Divine. Now we live in a noisy world within which we ourselves are silent. Today," she continues, "those natural sounds are deafened by the cacophony of city life, car life."

A recent trip to New York made Purce realize how much of our life has been taken over by city noise. "I realized that, if you want to have air, you have to have noise," she says. "You either have to turn the air-conditioner on and listen to its mechanical hum, or you have to open the window and hear all the noise of the city, including other people's air-conditioners. Just to breathe, you have to hear all this noise." And we become part of the noise. "The only sounds we make today come through the music of the city," says Purce. "And that's the music of alienation. The music being made today is the scream to be heard over machines. That's our music: alienated screams."

Having painted this dismal picture of society, Purce nonetheless envisions a time in the future when humanity will rediscover its natural, healing voice. "Instead of going around with our mouths closed, we will go around with our mouths open again, chanting and singing with each other," she says. "The balance of sounds will change. The mechanized world will diminish its noisiness, and our song will again float on the atmosphere and rectify our lives emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. We will become, literally, sound in mind and body."

How does she envision this fanciful scenario coming to fruition? Purce doesn't say specifically, but clearly her faith in the power of chanting has a lot to do with it. Moreover, she believes that sound is simply a part of our nature that we cannot deny forever. "In all traditional societies, chanting is the principal way of communing with the Divine and of keeping society in tune with itself," she says. "In the Christian world, until fifty or sixty years ago, everyone went to church and sang. They didn't do it because they sang well; it was simply the way to achieve and maintain harmony. By singing, chanting, and intoning together in church, people tuned themselves. Our body is a kind of vibratory system with many different kinds of resonances. If we stop chanting, we no longer keep ourselves in tune". Here, we're approaching the very heart of Purce's work: the idea that, as resonant bodies - indeed, as resonant beings - we must continually resonate in order to optimize our being alive, individually and collectively. "At church," says Purce, "people would be surrounded by their family, so they would not only be tuning their own body, soul and spirit but would also be tuning with their family. The family would be in tune with itself. And since the family would be surrounded by the people of the village, all the village would be tuning itself together. All parts of Christendom, to its furthest reaches, would be in resonance with itself by tuning in similar ways at similar times. And this great resonant network would be tuned with the overall Divine purpose."

This concept bears some relation to the "morphogenetic fields" work of Purce's husband, plant physiologist Rupert Sheldrake, who theorizes that fields of "morphic resonance" build up around a body of experience, making it easier for subsequent conditions involving similar organisms to replicate a result. Asked how her ideas of sound relate to her husband's theories, Purce cites the example of mantras, the specially chosen word-sounds used by practitioners of Eastern religions to produce a certain quality of consciousness. "Rupert thinks that mantras and rituals work through morphic resonance," she says. "Both are highly conservative, in the sense of preserving something in the same manner for posterity. By using a mantra repeatedly, you reach a certain level of attainment; and if someone becomes enlightened using that mantra, something of that attainment is passed on - there is a gradual accumulation of all the attainments of all the people who have ever used the mantra."

How does chanting fit into this? "Until about the seventeenth century people had this sense of an all-powerful force and felt a need to resonate with it," says Purce. "So they used praise (hymns and psalms), petition (prayer), and participation (meditation and contemplative exercises). We need praise, prayer, and participation again, and chanting is the only way to do all three at once." But there are chants and there are chants. Overtone chanting, Purce believes, is the most potent form of chanting because of its correlation with our basic nature. "The overtones are the geometry of our universe made audible," she says. "The proportions of the overtone scale - from the fundamental, going up an octave, then a fifth, then a fourth, then a major third, then a minor third - these proportions are defined in our physical nature. They're similar to the kind of proportions you find when comparing the size of the finger joints to that of the wrist, the forearm, the upper arm; you also find them throughout nature, in the proportions of unfolding plants. That's why the overtones are so powerful: They're the sounds of our own structure; we're hearing what we are."

Purce is working to ensure that we hear more of it. "Until we quiet the sounds of our environment so we can hear ourselves sing, we won't sing - and we have to sing. It doesn't happen very naturally anymore; you have to help it along. I'm trying to enable us to do that, trying to help it along."


Sign Up to Newsletter