This is the motivation that came into play listening to Echoes from Blue Heaven, a survey of Mongolian traditional music which has occupied Radio 3's Sunday night world music slot over the past fortnight. The most distinctive Mongolian musical form is "khoomi", or overtone singing, in which the singer produces a low drone and a series of harmonics. The effect is astonishing, and astonishingly ugly, a challenge to even the most determinedly open- minded - sure, nothing human is alien, but this doesn't sound human: it sounds like frogs or tractors or malfunctioning electrical equipment.
Naturally, this is all about familiarity. To Michael Ormiston, who presented both programmes and has actually been taught the techniques of khoomi by a master - it can sound heartbreakingly moving. He ended the series last night with a story about an explorer of the 1920s visiting the Altai mountains, home of khoomi, who felt he had found the Buddhists' mythical heaven on earth. "I wonder if the khoomi singers, through the infinite harmonic series, may have already discovered its entrance." Cue sound of man suffering terribly in his bowels. Along the way, too, we heard about a video Ormiston had seen in Ulan Bator of a herdswoman singing to a mother camel which had rejected its calf: she sang so movingly that the camel shed tears and ended up feeding the calf. This, you feel, makes the kind of emotional traumas you see on Oprah seem fairly tame.
This wasn't, you'll gather, one of the most instantly appealing music programmes you're likely to hear; but it's always healthy to be reminded that there is life outside our own narrow daily grind. I suppose you could think of it as a little holiday for the ears.Reuse content