Chanting & the Landscape

My initial experiences of chanting were with a friend who was keenly interested in the tantric Gyoto monks and the throat-singers of Tuva. He had spontaneously learnt to perform ‘overtone chanting’. We remembered the times when, as teenagers, we had made high-pitched droning noises while driving around in my car; this was just mucking about, but we were always amazed at the resonant quality of the tone produced when our dronings harmonized. So, soon after he had discovered overtone chanting, we began to experiment with chanting face-to-face—usually around campfires.

One of the first times we did this, I was astounded at what happened when the pure vowel sounds we were producing harmonized (I normally chant with continuous pure vowel sounds, sometimes merged into one another). There seems to be an optimum distance for doing this type of face-to-face chanting—somewhere around 10-20cm apart. When our chants ‘locked in’ to each other at a certain distance, with my eyes closed I had the distinct sensation that the space between our mouths had just dropped away, or had become a different kind of space, like a vibrant vacuum. I also lost the sensation that I was producing one sound and he another. There seemed to be just one, almost disembodied tone, uncannily resonant, suspended like a shifting form in the ‘vacuum’ between us: ‘greater than the sum of its parts’. I actually had to stop at one point because of the unnerving sense of vertigo created by this effect.

Doing chanting with other people helped me gain confidence, and impelled me to investigate it further. I began to do chanting alone, usually when I went on walks on the moors around Wharfedale. Chanting on the moors, to me, had a different quality to the chanting I had done in my room. A large part of it is to do with being in an open landscape. The ‘boxed-in’ feel of being indoors is not there, and there aren’t any people around; both of these factors lower inhibitions, and free the voice. But beyond these practical factors, I came to sense a deeper reason for the ‘quality’ of chanting on the moors. Not feeling ‘boxed-in’ is a pretty acceptable psychological factor, but I feel that it runs deeper than ‘psychology’. The sense of spatial freedom that forms the backdrop to being in an open landscape seemed to inform my voice in some way—the ‘spirit’ of the place came through me into my chanting. I soon came to relate this to the beliefs of the Tuvan throat-singers. They claim to model their styles of chanting on natural forms such as mountains and trees. For instance, the unique effect of distinctly hearing a chant’s harmonic overtones, giving the effect of more than one person singing, may be inwardly, possibly visually modelled by the singer on the form of a tree. The trunk forms the basic tone, and the overtones branch off from it, forming apparently separate tones that still relate to and reflect the base tone. Grand mountains surrounding Tuvan steppes may inspire the more guttural, deeper style of chanting, kargyraa. In simple terms, they ‘sing the land’. For me, this model expressed well my sense that being in an open landscape somehow imbued my voice with a new level of resonance.

I have yet to really experiment with chanting in enclosed non-urban spaces, such as caves or burial chambers, so I’m not sure about the more complex differences between these and open land, or enclosed urban spaces. I did participate in a spontaneous group chanting session in the end chamber of West Kennet long barrow, Avebury, the night before one summer solstice. It was a very intense experience, far too rich with pure enjoyment and concept-free ‘sonic absorption’ for me to pass any further judgement on it!

Actually, come to think of it, I once had a wonderful experience chanting in a building. I was with a group of friends, coming back from Meanwood Park, a small forest in the Meanwood urban valley in Leeds—we had just been for a bonfire at our customary spot in an old quarry in the woods. The path back to our area of Leeds passes through an old industrial estate. This section of the path is now closed because the buildings are being torn down, but at this time it was still open, and the buildings were gutted and derelict. Waiting for someone to go for a piss, I wandered into one of the derelict buildings—just an empty, trashed warehouse of some kind. It was sort of spooky, but no more so than your average derelict building at night. Some of the others wandered in, and no one spoke. A couple of us started toning, just to see what the acoustics were like. Other people gradually joined in; someone started playing didge.

What was odd and beautiful about it was the way we just wandered, slowly and without exchanging comments, into the building—just silent curiosity. And we never really ‘settled’ in there—we were all stood facing in different directions for the five or so minutes we were in there. But something ‘gelled’ in that brief period, inspired perhaps by the out-of-the-ordinary sensation of being in an unused, derelict, possibly dangerous building at night. The chorus of chanting that arose in there was intensely beautiful, and its growth and decay possessed a spontaneous life of its own; and I have no doubt, looking back, that it was directly inspired by our surroundings, this dilapidated warehouse. Not the ‘expected’ environmental stimulus for a spontaneous sacred musical moment, but then that was the feeling behind the whole experience—unexpectedness. When the chanting died down, we all walked out, silent. It only felt right to burst into superlatives about the power of the experience when we had fully emerged from that space.

A natural progression for me was to see what effect psychedelics would have on my chanting experiments. I used my first tastes of 2CB (a hallucinogenic relative of MDMA) to try this out. I did a dose which was not quite enough to produce a ‘full’ trip, but plenty to set those shifting visuals in motion. I then walked up onto Ilkley Moor, and my first stop on my trip was the Barmishaw Stone, a rock on the north edge of the moor carved with circular and ladder-like prehistoric glyphs. I sat here and chanted for a while, and was brought out of my trance by a large ladybird landing on my hand. I then chanted over the stone, looking at the carvings. While doing this, I became very conscious of the rest of the landscape around me—out of my field of vision, but tangibly there, as if sensed by the other sides of my head. The surrounding hills and the Wharfe valley behind me became a more and more vivid presence, a presence which seemed to feed into what I could see, the level carved surface of the stone. It was as if my mind made sense out of my inexplicable perception of the ‘unseen’ land around me by merging these nebulous perceptions into my visual field. Basically, I developed the sensation that the rock surface before me was in some way a model of the surrounding landscape.

But not just a model; I felt like I was in the sky above it, looking down on it, flying over it. It ‘stood for’ the landscape, but this representation had a reality to it at the same time. I began to think about shamanic perspectives, the perspective of flying over the land, and considered the idea that some shamans may have used small surfaces like this as meditational focuses, as ‘microspheres’, to transpose their consciousness into a wider, panoramic form that embraced the ‘macrosphere’ of the surrounding environment.

Well, no one’s found any carved rocks in the British Isles that correspond to features in the landscape in a literal map-like fashion, so we shouldn’t take this idea too seriously. But then again, who says archaic humans understood the land the way we do with our linear grid-maps, which have very little relationship to the way in which we experience movement through a landscape, and tells us nothing of the spirit there?

My next stop after this intriguing flight of fancy at the Barmishaw Stone was the nearby Badger Stone, one of my favourite haunts on the moors. It too bears a range of prehistoric carvings, cup-marks and interweaving grooves. But these played no part in my next little adventure.

By this time I had reached the peak of the 2CB’s effects, enough to give the heather and grass a vibrant, if sometimes sinister appearance of gently writhing life. Also, the edges of most forms around me, mostly the stone, had a glowing violet hue to them. The Badger Stone is about chest-height, four feet wide and about ten feet long. One side slopes down sharply, the other more gently; it is the gently sloping side which bears the carvings, and it was in front of this side where I crouched down to chant. I began by intoning my usual vowel sounds, moving my mouth over the surface of the rock, a few inches away from it, listening to the different acoustic effects formed by different undulations in the surface. As I was doing this, I noticed a beetle running across the stone towards me; by now I had developed the idea that the buzzing sound of my voice was attracting insects!

I finally rested on one spot, and although cup-and-ring glyphs cover most of this side of the stone, I focused not on a carved pattern but on a patch of plain rock. A familiar perceptual shift occurred: when faced with a repetitive but irregular pattern, visual perception influenced by hallucinogens seems to smoothly rearrange the pattern into a more regular and geometrical (but constantly mutating) one. I experienced this with the minutiae of the rock surface’s texture, the irregular arrangement of tiny crystalline structures. They shifted, arranging themselves into different regular patterns, sometimes with diaphanous shapes and symbols embedded in the network. The mutation of the patterns seemed, as I had expected, to be governed by my modulation of my voice.

This cross-over area, where sound influences vision, seems important, especially in relation to psychedelics. Amazonian shamans who use ayahuasca are said to sing their songs not for how they sound, but for the visual sculptures they carve out in hallucinogenic space. I’ve also discovered that the pineal gland in the human brain is rich in a substance called neuromelanin, a ‘phototransducer’. This means it can convert sound waves into light waves, and vice versa. Perhaps certain vocalizations and/or drugs can stimulate this gland, and neuromelanin is involved in synaesthetic experiences where sound affects—or becomes—vision. Whatever the explanation, I find the interplay of sight and sound to be fascinating. What I saw on the surface of the Badger Stone was not ‘pure hallucination’, it was a modification of the rock surface I saw made by the 2CB in my system in conjunction with the ‘shape’ of my voice. This combination really gives you a vivid sense of rock being a living thing!

The most powerful part of my chanting at the Badger Stone was one of those tantalising and elusive psychedelic moments where you feel like you’re on the verge of something big and then feel that the effects of the drug are on their way down—like hitting the accelerator to catch up with something and finding you’re out of fuel. Or maybe it just wasn’t the right time. It had a big effect on me, nevertheless, and it’s given me a good idea of where to head for. At one point in the chanting, as I hit a particularly piercing and resonant tone, I felt the atmosphere change noticeably. The shifting patterns in the rock surface seemed to stabilize, slightly ominously. I felt that if I hit a certain tone, the patterns would part, and I would be able to go through. An intentional ritual based around this idea, and maybe a higher than ‘museum-level’ dose of sacrament, would be useful to explore this further.

This experience may sound tenuous to anyone who hasn’t had a similar ‘not quite there’ moment on psychedelics. Also, it was almost certainly affected by my having read Grant S. McCall’s article ‘One Medium, One Mind‘ months before, where he notes that

In many cultures, the shaman in his trance passes through the rock into the spirit world, and to communicate what had happened in the trance, the shaman depicts what had happened on the other side on the rock. . . . In addition, several contemporary shamans have acknowledged that the rock art is a marker for where a shaman could enter the rock.

He also mentions the opinion of African rock art researcher J.D. Lewis-Williams, that “the rock is merely a ‘veil’ between this world and the spirit world, and that rock art is the destruction of this veil.” It could well be that my trance was influenced by my having previously considered this theory.

Still, I quickly recalled an experience my friend who I first chanted with had had in Avebury. I remember him coming back from doing some chanting at one of the stones in Avebury henge, almost white-faced with shock and excitement. He said he had be toning at the surface of the rock, much as I did at the Badger Stone, and had suddenly felt like something inside the rock was about to pull him inside. This experience was drug-free, and he had not been informed at that point about anthropological evidence of shamans ‘entering rocks’. So, I think there’s something in this technique that’s well worth exploring.