The New Yorker
Talk of the Town
1988, Dec 12
By Katy Butler
The Gyuto Monks
IT TAKES A LEAP of the imagination to describe the chanting of the Gyuto monks as song, or even as music. Its predominant sound is a sort of deep, pebbly growling, a note and a half below the bottom of most bass ranges, approaching the frequencies of garbage disposals and earthmoving machinery. For almost five hundred years, in ceremonies in Lhasa that sometimes lasted for days the monks visualized deities like Mahakala, a six-armed demonic protector who carried a rosary of human skulls and danced in a sea of fire. It was prayer, not performance. After the Chinese suppressed the Tibetan rebellion, in 1959, most of the Gyuto monks were imprisoned or executed, and the others scattered. Roughly ninety escaped through the mountains to northern India. There, shortly before dawn one day in the fall of 1964, Huston Smith, a philosophy professor on sabbatical from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discovered that each monk was capable of singing three-part harmony by himself—a deep bass B, a well-amplified, overtonal D-sharp near middle C, and a barely audible, whirring F-sharp nearly two octaves higher.
“They began with low, guttural, monotonous chanting of a type that I’d heard before,” Dr. Smith told us recently. “After about an hour, I dozed off, frankly. I came to with a start and I was surrounded with heavenly choirs. I thought, ‘This is strange—they’re singing in chords.’ Chords are a Western invention, of course. Then the choir blanked out and the cantor sang alone. He was singing a full chord—a first, a third, and a barely audible fifth. My scalp began to tingle. My first thought was that Klaus Licpman—he was the musical director at M. I. T. — would never believe me.”
Early last month, twenty-one Gyuto monks flew into San Francisco from their monastery-in-exile, in Bomdila, India, to begin a small national tour (they were at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on December 3rd), and a friend of ours, a Buddhist priest named Yvonne, invited us to hear them chant in a recording studio, behind a cement plant in San Rafael, north of San Francisco. It would not be a formal performance, she explained. They were testing new microphones, and Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, was going to help. “I’d always thought of Deadheads as sybarites,” Yvonne said. “But this has turned out to be a meeting of sweethearts. “
So late one Friday afternoon we found ourselves in a van filled with monks and rolling into the studio parking lot. The monks all wore maroon sarongs and robes. One had added a watch with an expandable band; another wore bright-red-and-orange striped socks; and a third wore an “IV Tibet” button. Mickey Hart, a handsome man in his mid-forties with pointed, fox-like features and a wide grin, met us at the door, He was wearing Nikes, jeans, and a tie-dyed T-shirt of the type sold in parking lots before Dead concerts, and he seemed a little nonplussed when the abbot of the Gyuto monastery came up to him and draped a ceremonial white silk scarf around his neck. The abbot gave another scarf to the sound engineer, Dan Healy, who was tending the electronic equipment with his own kind of devotion.
“Just let the monks vibrate for a while and get used to it in here,” Mr. Hart said to Mr. Healy as the two men went over to the mixing Hoard. Someone had thoughtfully wedged a stick of burning incense behind a length of conduit.
The monks, surrounded by speaker boxes, sat down on rugs on the concrete floor and unpacked their instruments. They screwed big barrel drums into red carved stands, and pulled out jointed brass trumpets that expanded like telescopes to a length of five feet. They laid out curved yellow bamboo drumsticks that looked like giant carpet-beaters.
“Matrix out, one and two,” Mr. Healy said. “Set patterns to omni. “
“Figure eight?” asked an assistant with long blond hair.
“Circle and no pad, no roll-off,” Mr. Healy said.
Below the mixing board, a tall monk with big biceps was unwrapping cymbals from an Indian newspaper. “We will actually do our real religious practice, not just for the microphone,” he said, and then introduced himself as Tubten Jigme. “We will visualize Mahakala in front of us. When we go to touch him, there’s nothing, but we can see him.”
Tubten Jigme sat down cross-legged and put his cymbals in front of him. The monks formed two rows, facing inward. The monk with the “I (heart) Tibet” button handed around a yellow tin of Ricola cough drops.
“This is the hardest thing in the world to deal with acoustically,” said Mr. Healy, behind the mixing board. “Compared to a rock concert? No comparison. An electric guitar is so much louder than anything around it that you just have to be somewhere in the ballpark and you’re O. K. But, with the monks, their loud sounds are very loud, and their softest sounds are very soft. The air-conditioning in the hall and the rustling of their robes may be louder than some of the sounds they’re making,”
“I’m throwing in my rig for the tour,” Mr. Hart said, indicating the mixing board, a thirty-two-track affair bristling with dials and switches, which he uses for his drums at Grateful Dead concerts. “This is space-age. This could take the monks into the twenty-first century. We want the music to sound to the audience the way it sounds to the monks. It should shake your insides and vibrate your inner core. Every day, they wipe their slates clean. They chant at seventy cycles per second—the lowest range of the human voice. They’re used to resonating in a courtyard, but at St. John’s there will be five thousand people. So we found these special microphones that hook over the ears.” He picked up a headset that looked as though it belonged on a bomber pilot. “I just want to make sure they’ll be comfortable with them. I’ve tried one myself, but I’m not a monk.” Then, Mr. Hart excused himself, saying, “I want to dig the monks. I want to hang out with the monks.” All the monks put on headsets. They looked like a double line of medieval telephone operators, “All right, “ Mr. Hart said. “Are we ready to rock ‘n’ roll?”
The chant master, Sonam Thargyal, closed his eyes and pushed his head forward until the sinews stood out on his neck. He let out a low “oooooooh, uuuuuuuaaaaaaa.”
The other monks pushed their heads forward, and an avalanche of deep, guttural chanting began. Then the words stopped, and we heard drawn-out vowels, a bass woodwind note married to a high sound like whirring mosquitoes. Cymbals clattered like waves breaking on a beach, and horns wailed like trumpeting elephants. The monks swayed back and forth with their eyes closed.
When the monks put down their instruments, two hours later, nobody spoke. The blond-haired sound engineer simply stood with his eyes shut. Mickey Hart nodded twice. The monk with the “I (heart) Tibet” button handed around cans of soda. Sonam Thargyal had a Classic Coke, and Tubten Jigme had a Sprite.
“It’s good, it’s good,” said Mickey Hart. “See how loud it sounds? No feedback.”
©1988 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.