By: Trevor Pour
When Robert Hunter gave a cassette tape of Gyuto tantric chants to Mickey Hart in 1967 neither could have possibly imagined the eventual consequences of that moment. Hart listened to the recording for three straight years with no knowledge of their source, not realizing that the sounds he would eventually describe as "magnetic" and "all-consuming" were, in actuality, human voices. So, once he learned of Tibetan Buddhism's elite Gyuto Tantric Monastic University and their characteristic polyphonic style he was drawn so passionately to, Hart became transfixed with bringing their tradition to the United States to share with thousands of uninitiated ears. He, along with the Grateful Dead organization, first sponsored a tour of the Gyuto Monks Choir in 1988, which sold out all 22 venues. Subsequent tours followed in 1991 and 1995, then in 2001, the Gyuto Vajrayana Center opened in San Jose, CA, essentially opening the doors of their school to the West. That same year, Hart invited fourteen monks to his home studio to record Tibetan Chants for World Peace (White Swan Records). In order to reproduce something like the authentic, time-honored sound of the usual 100-member choir, the monks allowed Hart to multi-track their voices to create a vast tapestry of sonic scripture.
The brief a capella "Mandala Offering" opens the album with a solo chant and quickly transitions to a full choir. The 'multiphonic' chant style that permeates the entire album is initially overwhelming. Each monk's vocals are deep, hearty and truly more like a chord than a single note. With a great set of headphones or some powerful tower speakers, this music hits you and shakes you to your core. It's enveloping; you instinctively want to study the sound. I presume that this curiosity is set in motion, at least in part, from the initial disbelief that these are human voices alone. "Praising Chakrasamvara" is slightly longer and includes some scant instrumentation. The traditional damaru (pellet-drum) and drilbu (small bell) can be heard at the end of each verse, struck or rung by the Abbot in perfect time. This track's length allows for more complexity and harmony from the choir, reaching yet deeper layers of sound. The tried and cliché adjectives used to describe powerful music - penetrating, overpowering, intense, passionate - seem inadequate to describe the profound insight and understanding of humanity that these chants represent. The monks reach inside themselves to produce this music, and in doing so allow the listener an opportunity to extend to those same depths. Hart once said, in discussing this work, "The Dalai Lama once told me that even if one human ear hears these chants it can do some good."
The third and fourth tracks are the core of this record. With a combined 38-minutes between them, they move beyond mere display of skill and awe-inspiring production and extend more distinctly into the realm of Buddhist philosophy. "Blessing of the Offering" is punctuated by more instrumental sections than any other recording on the disc, incorporating the aforementioned damaru and drilbu but also the short trumpet and long-horn (dungchen), as well as more pervasive drum and cymbal accompaniment. The complicated intertwining of sounds on "Blessing" give the listener a sense of unity amongst the chaos, a true co-dependent arising of musical intentions from each monk. "Great Sacred Music," the final piece on this album, is "intended to please the ears of the deities," and is traditionally only performed once each year at the Gyuto Monastery. In fact, Tibetan Chants for World Peace contains the first ever recording of this music. It manages, somehow, to exceed the intricacy and magnitude of the other recordings found herein. I have made many attempts at meditating with this track, despite the realization that doing so is counterproductive to the true purpose of meditation. But unlike other attempted strategies for a meditative beginner, this music kept me solely focused for long periods of time, able to transfix my mind on the sound and nothing else. Perhaps the universality of the vocal resonance, the total and intentional dissociation from individuality and self, allows the listener to explore a vast world of detail while remaining focused on a single source. Or perhaps this music contains so much beauty and simplicity as a result of the basic Gyuto intention. As Hart says, "They are not chanting for themselves and salvation. They are chanting for every living thing."
At first, in my attempts to capture this music in an album review, I was afraid that Tibetan Chants for World Peace would have a very small niche audience. I have, however, come to the conclusion that these universally accessible chants are approachable from many angles. The student of Western philosophy will find this to be a fascinating and deeply intricate study of prayer and culture. The aspiring Buddhist will find it a functional yet beautiful tool for meditation and a fully enlightening experience. The open-minded music listener will be overwhelmed and surprised at the power and unique nature of these elaborate chants. And finally, longtime fans of the Grateful Dead will be fascinated by the very performances, which had such a profound effect on Mickey Hart in the late 1960s and almost certainly influenced his perception of sound and music thereafter, thus helping to shape, very literally, the past 40 years of music as we know it.
Here's Hart discussing the monks and their music on a Bay Area news segment from 1985.
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