Traditional Mongolian music
adapted from Boris Avramets
Legends | Exclaimation singing | Throat singing | Shamans | Instruments
Mongolia, with its relatively small population, has a strikingly rich and varied traditional musical culture. It combines archaic elements dating from ancient times with musical traditions connected with borrowings dating from later periods. Traditional music was influenced deeply by the lifestyles and economy, as well as by the beliefs of the Mongols. Many specific features of Mongolian music the way the sound is produced vocally, the timbre and coloring of the sound, the way musical instruments are played all of this is determined by the close relationship of music to the natural environment and by the Mongol's notions about the essence of music and its purpose. It is a reflection of the relationship between people and nature as seen through the patterns of its inherited and evolving logic.
Although the legends are variously stated they all contain the following common elements: a cultural hero who is a nomadic cattle-breeder, and his friend - a winged steed. In the horses mane, which flutters in the wind, an enchanting melody appears; its sounds help the cattle-breeder to drive the horse-herds together. An evil witch interferes through the medium of the hero's jealous wife. She cuts the steed's wings and it dies. The inconsolable hero makes from the steed's remnants the first Morinkhuur. The Morinkahuur, or pike fiddle, consists of a trapezoidal wooden frame covered with horse's skin. In earlier days horse-ribs were used as the shaft of the bow. At the top of the wooden peg-box of the fiddle that head of a horse is carved. It is worth noting that when the legend about the origin of the Morinkhuur is performed, the singer, while playing the instrument, imitates neighing and the clattering of hoofs, and reproduces the sensation of galloping and flight using expressive melodic, rhythmical and onomatopoeic devices.
These ancient forms of musical expression directly connected with cattle-breeding and hunting, have been carried over to our time. Among these forms are exclamations-incantations and invocations-calls addressed to animals; instrumental playing, and melodic whistling. Many examples of more modern Mongolian music are closer to the western concept but are still rooted in melodic formulas as the types of expression dating from ancient times. Gyngo, or shepherd's signals-exclamations used to drive together herds are widely used in the open steppe spaces. It is worth noting that every arat family has its own favored and freely varied melodious cries usually sung by adolescent riders. The signal is often a long melodic phrase with a complex modal and rhythmical structure.
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The purpose of communicating across considerable distances and the expression of man's contact with majestic nature determined, to a considerable extent, the purely musical peculiarities of one of the highlights of Mongolian traditional music: the long songs called Urtin Duu. Urtin Duu is a strophic song without real refrain, performed with a full voice. The voice production is trained and guttural. The ornaments are largely improvised. The range up to three octaves and the size of intervals may be considerable, and this range is emphasized by the frequent passage from throat voice to falsetto. Urtin Duu are performed by women too, but male performances are characterized by greater variety of specific ways of sound production. In the highest registers their vibration and tremolos bear witness to a highly developed vocal technique. To expand the vocal range and to develop a unique vocal technique is an honored accomplishment. Mongolian folk music for the voice aims to overcome the natural limitations of the human voice. The Mongols have developed a technique whereby an individual can sing in two voices at the same time. It is true that one of these is a single prolonged droning, fundamental tone above which a flute-like melody is sounded in a high register. Even so, two voices are heard simultaneously from the same throat! These sounds were simulated from the Jew's harp which, in essence, is an instrument producing a drawing fundamental tone when the small vibrating metal tongue is held to the lips, and whose overtones are produced by altering the shape of the oral cavity.
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Music, as an essential part of the shamanic ritual, is a most important vehicle of influence. Singing and playing and the frame drum leads to the condition of trance. This music, especially, secures a communication with the supernatural. Obviously the practice of Shananisity, so widespread in Mongolia, is rooted in the Mongolian concept of music as a symbolic journey to the supernatural world. Music, and singing in particular, is an obligatory component of most of the actions in traditional Mongolian society. Thus well-wishers Yorolchi sing solemn songs at family and social festivals. In ancient times even the reports of counting in the form of singing - or reading any prose in a sing-song, even including newspaper - is noticed till this day. Moreover, even the record-keepers and accountants count money in this way; distinct melodious, rhythmical formulas are always utilized. In modern conditions this tradition sometimes produces astonishing results. B. Smirnov describes one such case: "A strange effect of multi-party sonority I once happened to hear in the choir of some tens of voices of 'The Trade Ministry's record keepers', placed under the roof of money-bills in a song form. But through the velvety sound haze and continuous glittering one could sense the common, basic principles and sounds of one pentatonic mode."
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1 church and palaceBesides these there are also the shepherd's instruments - for example, the flute limba. Until the end of the XVI century instruments making loud ringing sounds were used during hunting and wandering. In Mongol Buddhist monasteries - till the revolution there were more than 740 site specific and original orchestras. Their instruments were identical to the orchestras of the Lamaic monasteries of Tibetan included copper trumpets, short trumpets made from human bones, and different percussion instruments. Most of the string instruments, associated with court music or with theatrical forms, came from China or were widespread throughout Asia. These include the Yatag board zither, and the Shurdaga or Shadz - a long necked lute which has three plucked or bowed strings. The Kluchir has four bowed strings which are tuned to a soprano register. A variant of tenor register - called Khuur, is the favorite instrument of tale-tellers - musicians Khuurchi from the east country. The yoochin is a string percussion instrument of trapezoidal body. Its sound is seduced out by the strokes of plaint reed sticks on its strings. Such instruments are popular in Asian countries. In Mongolia Yoochin is mostly used as an ensemble orchestral instrument.
2 home, for marriages and other feasts
3 mass musical instruments.
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