ARTS / Outside Edge

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The Independent Culture
Listening to Michael Ormiston, it is difficult not to get enthusiastic about Mongolian throat-singing. When he tells you it's an ancient vocal technique which enables two notes to be sung simultaneously, you think you have stumbled on the perfect party piece. But is not until he has actually given out a 30-second blast of other-worldly noise - a cross between a human bagpipe and didgeridoo - that you realise Mongolian throat-singing is a bit more, well, cosmic than that.

Ormiston is a walking advertisement for the life-changing power of khoomii (pronounced humi, Mongolian for larynx) singing. In 1988 he was a computer database analyst, who spent his spare time as a backing vocalist in a rock band and improving his skills as a saxophonist, guitarist and player of Tibetan singing bowls. Then he heard a member of a Mongolian folk-and-dance ensemble throat- singing at the Commonwealth Institute in London and was 'gobsmacked. I never thought you could sing two notes at the same time. From the moment I heard it, I had to do it.'

He set about teaching himself, 'making funny noises in the loo'. He learned a kind of khoomii called Isegeree (Mongolian for whistling). 'With one long breath you concentrate on keeping the lower element steady then manipulate various positions in your mouth, tongue and throat to change the high whistling notes,' he explains. 'In Mongolia they keep the drone going and sing a traditional tune on top.'

In 1992 he turned up backstage at the concert of a well- known Mongolian khoomi singer, Gereltsogth, and impressed him so much that the singer gave him a medal on the spot and an invitation to visit his teacher back home. For Ormiston it was a vital turning point - he gave up his job. 'I realised it was either one or the other. As I learned to isolate the atoms of sound, it made me more aware of the harmonic series - where the lower note is empirically related to a set of higher notes. Everything vibrates in this way. When I'm singing it's as though I'm connecting up with everything.'

Last year he spent his life-savings travelling out to the village of Chandman Sum in western Mongolia where, legend would have it, local herdsmen imitated the sound the wind made after it had swept across three lakes and been echoed in the mountains for three days.

The reaction in Mongolia was, unsurprisingly, one of astonishment. 'They were amazed that a Westerner had learned to sing like them. One man gave me a medallion, another just cried.' This was nothing compared to the reaction he got back in England after picking up some tunes from his teacher Tserendaava. He left one opera singer speechless while another singer 'just looked inside my mouth trying to puzzle out where the sound was coming from'.

At 33, Ormiston is less concerned about using his skills to cash in on New Age music - he has detected a khoomi sample on a track by the KLF - than giving the fledgling democracy something in return. In August he sets off on a tour of the country with a new band followed by a television crew. 'At the moment their view of the West is shaped by the fact that they only hear Madonna records. I feel obliged to give them a slightly less depressing idea of Western culture.'

Mike Ormiston will hold a Mongolian Overtone singing workshop on 19 June in London (info: Tibet Foundation 071-404 2889)