Sunday, June 3, 2007

A Spiritual Drone

Last night, UAPresents and the Arizona Friends of Tibet brought the Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir to Tucson. It was a relatively spontaneous evening as these events go — it was a last-minute addition to the monks' current tour in support of a new center in California, and it filled the main auditorium at the University of Arizona School of Music after a last-minute venue change. As it turned out, Crowder Hall, decorated with prayer flags on both sides of the auditorium, was filled to capacity. Center stage was a portrait of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, flanked by representations of the palaces where the deities for the evening performance resided. Radiating from the central portrait were two carpeted and pillowed areas where eleven monks dressed in beautiful saffron and red robes, adorned with additional vestments, including very ornate head gear, and performed abbreviated versions of ceremonial rites from their monastery.

Before the intermission, the monks performed a Consecration, which consisted almost entirely of a deep drone, chanted using a special method of throat singing that is unique to this sect. It is not like other central Asian throat singers that I've heard, but a deep growling sound. Perhaps because it was sung by a choir, individual overtones were not always evident. It was also very different from the smooth and clear sound of, for example, David Hykes. One of the monks functioned like a caller, chanting short phrases by himself between much longer sections with the entire choir in unison. The only instruments were small hand bells, which the monks shook once in a while. There was also a sparse ceremony where a twelfth monk, dressed simply in a red robe offered tea and fruit to the deities. Because of its nature as a Consecration, the overall tone of the excerpt was peaceful. At the end of the ceremony, the monks stood and chanted a prayer.

The second half was an invocation to calm a wrathful deity, and therefore was a much more noisy affair. The monks incorporated two long horns, two short horns, a number of cymbals, and four large drums in addition to the bells and chants. There was a long section in the middle of the invocation where the monks chanted in a more free-form manner, creating a continuous drone uninterrupted except for an occasional roll from the cymbals. Again, after the invocation, the monks all stood and chanted a short prayer.

One of the younger monks spoke English, so the program concluded with one of the older monks answering questions through the younger interpreter. He explained that the monastery was founded in 1474 and had 900 monks in 1959 when the Chinese closed all the monasteries. The order relocated to India, where they now have almost 500 monks, most of them young refugees from Tibet. All of the monks are trained in the chanting and playing, after a long initiation period where they learn the words of the chants by heart. During the chant, the articulation of the words is deliberately obscured, becoming understandable only after a suitable empowerment. And I thought it wasn't clear because I didn't know Tibetan! In any event, the concert was an unusual opportunity to hear the rich, sacred sounds from one of the world's oldest and most esoteric musical traditions.

Photograph by John Werner from the Gyuto Monks web site.

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