Deep Breaths

Monastic vibes from on high resonate here at sea level

The Drepung Gomang college earned its name a little differently than most Western centers of learning. The Tibetan word gomang literally means "many doors," and the story is that spiritually advanced monks of Drepung Monastery were able to walk through the college's solid stone walls without the need for doors. Rather than employing any doorknob turning, they simply engaged in the contemplation of emptiness and voilà! Although you shouldn't expect similar feats when ten monks from Drepung Gomang perform at the Miami Beach Community Church this Friday, December 3, do get set for an otherworldly experience as the monks unleash a powerful repertoire of dances and monastic chants, including their internationally renowned overtone singing.

Founded in 1416 at Jamyang Choje, Tibet, near Lhasa, Gomang was an important Tibetan and Buddhist learning center for nearly six centuries. Seekers routinely made the arduous pilgrimage to the college from Mongolia, Russia, India, Nepal, and Bhutan. All this changed in 1959, when the Chinese military invaded Tibet and devastated the monastic community there. Before the Chinese occupation, the Drepung monastery boasted a population of more than 10,000 monks, more than half of whom resided at Gomang. Only 300 monks managed to escape the Chinese onslaught, along with their spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The survivors moved first to Buxa in northern India. Then, in 1969, the remaining monks were granted land of their own in Mundgod in southern India, where they rebuilt the current Drepung Gomang monastic college. Only twenty members of the original community remain today.

Throughout its history Gomang produced many eminent Buddhist masters and scholars, including Kunken Jamyang Shepa, and Gungthang Tenpair Dromea. The Gomang collegians' first-ever visit to the United States is intended to raise awareness about the problems of Tibetan monks in exile (as well as the ongoing Chinese occupation of their homeland), while also raising money for the more immediate needs of food, housing, medical care, schooling, and facilities maintenance.

Even though the educational and cultural component is reason enough to see the monks in concert, the real draw is the opportunity to experience Tibetan overtone chanting in person. The unusual harmonics generated by the chants coupled with the repetitiveness of the texts nudge even unimpressionable audience members toward uncommon states of mind. In a performance by Tibetan monks a few years ago, I witnessed a row of lights dancing off the monks' heads during a particularly intense period of chanting. Whether I'd been granted a rare peek into another world or simply projected the display via my own imagination, the power of the moment remains impressive.

Overtone singing is a vocal technique in which a singer ostensibly produces two or more different notes at the same time, singing a chord rather than focusing on producing a single tone. In normal singing and speech, the human voice actually produces a wide range of harmonics. Without these overtones, however, one person's voice at the same fundamental pitch would essentially sound like everyone else's. The discipline of overtone singing is therefore to restrict natural harmonics rather than broadening them. By tightening their throats in a practiced manner, the singers amplify only those overtones they want to emphasize, often producing transcendent results.

The best-known proponents of throat singing besides the Tibetans are the residents of the former Soviet republic of Tanna Tuva. Tuvan throat singers typically learn an entire repertoire of high- and low-pitched vocal techniques which emulate the natural sounds of their environment, the herding plains of the Siberian steppe. In contrast the Tibetan monks stick to an extremely low bass fundamental, in part because the chosen tone resonates through the entire body, firmly yoking one's physical frame to one's mind for meditation.

While the monks of Drepung Gomang have yet to issue their overtone chanting on CD, the monks of Drepung Loseling, a sister college within the Drepung Monastery, appear on two readily available discs: Sacred Music, Sacred Dance for Planetary Healing, a 1992 release on the Music & Arts Programs of America label, and Tibet: The Heart of Dharma, a 1996 Ellipsis Arts label recording. The Heart of Dharma is highly recommended not only for the quality of the music, but also for the thoughtfulness of the entire package. It consists of a beautifully illustrated 64-page hardcover book containing quick sketches of Tibetan Buddhist precepts (a perfect intro for the curious novice) along with a CD tucked inside the back cover.

The examples of chanting on this disc are unusually vivid. The musically simple yet harmonically complex rituals incorporate a slow rising of fundamental pitch over several minutes' duration, providing just enough development that an attentive listener is all but forced to slow down the usual hook-seeking mechanisms of musical enjoyment and plug into an altogether different time frame: one that eschews capsule gratification for less immediately obvious paybacks. Lest one become too laid-back about the prospects of enlightenment, Heart of Dharma also contains truly unsettling selections from a cacophonous orchestra of cymbals and bass trumpets wreaking sounds both majestic and bone rattling.

Equally striking is an example of Tibetan overtone singing on the Music of the World label's three-CD box set Global Voices. Disc two, simply titled Sacred, contains a riveting track by the monks of the Ganden Monastery. Even casual absorption through headphones reveals what seems to be an entirely independent ethereal melody floating high above the low-frequency chanting.

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