Phurpa – Trowo Phurnag Ceremony

03/07/2011 § Leave a comment

“There fell upon my ear the holiest sound I have ever heard” recalled Huston Smith, describing the first time he heard Tibetan overtone chants. Before 1967, the Western world was unaware of the practice, and to a large extent still are. Huston Smith, a US religious scholar on a visit to a monastery in the Himalayas in the mid 1960s, was awoken one morning to the sound of deep singing. But what was different about this chanting was not only the incredibly low vocal sound, but the fact that the monks were using several tones – in the same voice.

I wondered for many years whether it were possible for a person to sing two notes at the same time so, in effect, to be vocalising a chord. That quandary has now been laid to rest, since the practise of overtone chanting, which began in Tibet many hundreds of years ago, does exactly that. Overtone chanting is the ability to sing a very low note, but to use harmonics over the top so that multiple notes are produced at the same time. In some cases, it’s possible for up to nine notes to be produced simultaneously by a choir.

This was a very secret practise until Smith brought it to the West. It was then dubbed a “vocal miracle”. On listening to the choir, one would assume that the monks are singing in parts when in fact each individual is singing a first, a third, a fifth and additional further harmonics, the overtones being initially ‘sensed’ rather than directly heard, representing the way in which the spiritual realm can be sensed by us in the causal realm.

Several decades later, the project of Phurpa came into being when Alexei Tegin from the Fabrique of Cardinal Art began his studies in traditional ritual music. He ventured into Iran, Tibet and Egypt to do so. I, for one, would love to know more about the Cardinale since in spite of research I can cede nothing about it, my only assumption being that it’s based somewhere in France. Nevertheless, it was not until 2003 that the Phurpa project began to take shape.

This release is the first full album from Phurpa, comprising of eight tracks and over an hour of traditional ritual music. The songs themselves are long, slow and drawn-out numbers with deep chanting which puts many other ‘ritual ambient’ bands to shame. There are no synths, no inorganic instrumentation, and most of the music is conducted through vocals alone, though occasionally traditional instruments are heard as well. If the listener is unaccustomed to overtone chanting which, let’s face it, will be most of you, the sound will come across as unusual at first, if not highly unsettling. The resonating bass tones have a dark feel to them, but to truly understand their concept and function is to understand that they are, in truth, anything but dark.

And this is an important point. This original recording of Trowo Phurnag Ceremony was first issued in 2008 and now, three years later, is being reissued on Steven O’Malley [Sunn O)))’s] label, the only immediate difference between the two releases being that the 32 minute “Conferring Empowerment and Self-Transformation” has been split into two halves in the reissue. Of the ensemble, O’Malley says the music “unveils many spectral illusions and invigorates evolutions in sonic possibilities” which means little to me and sounds mostly nonsensical. Still, doubtless O’Malley’s involvement in this reissue will bring these sounds to a much wider, and arguably younger audience. Whether that audience understands the true intention behind the music is unlikely, with the religious essence of the sounds potentially shooting over many of their heads. To the new listener, these droning noises will come across as homogeneous, but this truly is ritualistic music in the genuine sense, and in a time when a lot of ritual ambient is based on summoning dark feelings or entities, the intention behind Phurpa should be completely the opposite, paying homage and respect to an age-old Eastern tradition and pledging its fealty with accuracy and authenticity.

In truth, if we are going to listen to ritualistic music, then guiding ourselves towards projects like Phurpa should be more in line with our concern. Rituals should be organic, and only the most effective ones adhere to that standard. Phurpa’s homogeneity may not hold the interest of many a seasoned ambient listener, but concentrating on the textures and prayer that its harmonics intonate would be doing it the greatest service. Aside from the work produced by the Helixes Collective and possibly Herbst9, Trowo Phurnag Ceremony calls into question the legitimacy of nearly every ritual ambient project I have heard. It stands as a proud, timeless monolith to ancient religious tradition at the beginning of the 21st century.

Rating: 4/5

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