Mongolian Sacred Chord?

I heard there was a sacred chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.
Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah
And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.
I Samuel 16:23

Do eastern sacred chants have “chords” or is that a western concept?

I first ran across dual tone singing, a form of chant where two notes/overtones are sung at the same time by one person, on a CD that includes “The Sacred Chants of Tibetan Buddhism” sung by monks.   There are instruments playing at the same time, but whether it is a “chord” or a “cacophony” probably depends on your frame of reference; I find it soothing.

There are also Mongolian “throat singers” who sing dual tones. On the border between Mongolia and Russia, the Tuva throat singers sound like a two string instrument tones playing simultaneously with a third vocal tone. Throat singing is traditionally a male pursuit — I never knew the female voice was capable of producing dual tones, but here is a woman braving custom and breaking taboo.  The male throat singer with the accordion is also a rebel; under the soviet system, throat singing was also considered a form of dissent, along with shamanism and Buddhism. Not sure what to think of the accordion, but it doesn’t sound like  a traditionally Western tonal scale, likewise with the tuning of the autoharp (goats at 10:45).

This one is from Siberia — a duet with a two-stringed instrument (I am reminded of the bedouin rebaba) and vocals that sound almost like whistling.  In the background: some footage of Siberian ice fishing.

Here is  a very polished Tuvian singer, Kongar-ol Ondar on Letterman show with three-stringed instrument and playing what looks like chords that aren’t quite western (or do I hear a 7th?) but seem to resolve like western chords. Somewhere I saw that out of 100 Mongolians who go to the throat class, only 7 or 8 go on to actually study it. Something like our western chorus.

A Mongolian with a two-stringed instrument, one string is in unison with the voice and the other sounds like a drone, similar to the low note on bagpipes.  Again there is a sort of harmony that seems to resolve, but I’m not ready to call it a tonic.

From my favorite travel show, Ian Wright on Globetrekker (a British production, obviously): four musicians singing with stringed instruments sort of illustrates the problem of trying to define the question in terms of western music. Where we would look for chord progressions — the tonic, the fourth, the fifth, the minor third, (and if you will, for Leonard Cohen fans, the major lift) — they seem to be naming their sounds “steppe, mountains, river, forest, Gobi desert.”

I would also not think that just because there are not two notes playing simultaneously at a given time that no underlying “chord” exists. Imagine “Amazing Grace” sung a capella (Judy Collins 1970). Each note can only fit into a certain chord, or a certain set of chords, so you can hear in your mind’s eye (sheet music) the chord progression I, IV, I, V7, since the note “G” can only fit into a C-chord or a G-chord, but not a D7 chord, etc. Since I can basically sing in tune, and hear half tones and whole tones, but not quarter tones, I can’t imagine what they must be hearing in their mind’s eye (if that isn’t too mixed of a metaphor), but they must be hearing something.


2 Responses to “Mongolian Sacred Chord?”

  1. Karen Says:

    I like the last video… sort of. :-)

  2. Nijma Says:

    The music takes onomatopoeia to a new level. I love Ian — but I’m not sure I’d want to travel with him!

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