Music I’ve Loved : 6

“Hearing Solar Winds” – David Hykes and The Harmonic Choir

At first impression the “music” of David Hykes and his Harmonic Choir might just seem alien and perhaps starkly beautiful but not deserving any deeper listen. But if one persists, you will find that your ears come to be hovering along above a vast aural landscape filled with unexpected hills and valleys and spectacular hidden glades. I am not just speaking theoretically here. My first exposure to him came years ago during a sparsely attended demonstration for a class at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City one winter evening. The demo took place in one of the lovely side cupolas where the small dome ceiling seemed to amplify and cradle the singing in an extra-terrestrial fashion. Notes sung fifteen seconds ago seemed to blend with more recent ones into a thick cloud of timeless gravity-defying 3-D vibration. Without hesitation, I signed up for the 10-week course. (And I am not really a vocalist at heart.)

You also can receive a strong impression of liturgical music. In fact, Hykes prefers to record his compositions in either cathedrals or when available, ancient Cistercian Abbey chambers in France. He told me once that the he was convinced that the acoustics at 12th century Le Thoronet Abbey in Provence had been specifically designed to elicit super clear vocal overtones, which the monks equated to the singing of angels. Cistercians took vows of silence, but devotional choiring was allowed.

I explained a little about overtones in a previous article about Swedish folk singing, so I will only add here that Hykes’ core technique is to isolate, with sometimes astonishing clarity and force, a specific harmonic in the overtone series, say the 6th, while not diminishing at all the fundamental chanted tone which gives rise to it. Put differently: you hear two distinct lucid tones at once from the same voice. The overtone might be three octaves or so above the main tone! The effect is wonderful if you hear it as an audience member thirty or forty feet away. You search around for speakers and other electronics because your experience will not let you believe that what you are hearing is simply natural acoustics. But this effect notches upwards when you are actually a partcipant in his close little circle which he is attempting to tune and intonate. A group of six of us would cluster around him and listen to his bass tone and one by one chime in repeating the swell. We would hold the tone as long as breath permits, then inhale and begin again. The staggered breathing rhythms of the circle kept the sound cloud going seamlessly, with subtle and pleasing alterations of volume or color. Hykes would use these first five minutes or so to correct/adjust each member by listening to how nasal or throaty their sounds were and having them mimic him.

But then the real fun begins. Hykes would select a choir member, and while the rest of the circle was maintaing the fundamental note, he would introduce a new tone related exactly according to the harmonic series. (His intonation and ear was perfect.) The member would then mimic him until he was satisfied that a new appropriately tuned tone had been added to the sound circle. Then he would continue on to a new singer and a new tone. If you take the fifth harmonic overtone, say, which is approximately 2.3 octaves above the fundamental, and then drop it down precisely two octaves, you get a tone which is perfectly harmonically related to the original note but approximately a minor third above it. Approximate, because these notes are not even-tempered like the customary Western do-re-mi sequence. They are naturally acoustic aspects of the original tone being pronounced with emphasis. Your ears and body knows this and vibrates to it happily. This is how the ancients first produced their musical scales!

But enough abstraction! How about actually hearing some harmonic chant examples?

Rainbow Voice – (very first Youtube clip at top of article) here Hykes, as the soloist, actually constructs a melody composed entirely of overtones. You hear them weaving up and down as he comes in after the choral intro, about 1:20. Those incredibly high-pitched difficult to localize whistling sounds are the controlled harmonics of his voice while he is simultaneously emitting a lower parallel melody. In this example one can more easily detect the relationship between linguistic vowel sounds and various harmonics. The shape necessary to produce certain vowels are useful for emitting specific harmonic overtones within the harmonic series. We are vibratory.

Ascending and Desceding – I love the thick molasses texture of the chorus here as it rises and drops in close cooperation continuously along the musical frquency spectrum. Note, they are not singing specific discrete tones, but moving together in an orchestrated sensitive arc.

Hallelujah – this piece starts with the remarkable technique of producing and highlighting a bass tone below the fundamental! (This is the same technique as popularly practiced by Tibetan monks in their sacred chants.) Hykes then showcases his quite nice natural voice producing a melody with a tracing female vocalist complimenting him. Kick up the volume or you will miss much.


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  1. Stozly, I’ll be frank with you. When you first listen to this music, it feels like brown noise, but as the volume grows, you get anxious, or at least I did.

    It’s an odd, unexpected mix; it takes me to Orthodox Ceremonies, but there I can hear the words the priest sings and know they’re meant to God, and it’s comforting, but here there’s nothing. It’s like getting lost in a cave and dodging unknown sounds.

    It was an interesting experience, I’ll say. Thanks for sharing!


    1. Wow, your reaction is so different than mine! Where you hear brown I hear colors. Where you want to dodge anxiety, I feel bathed in devotional beauty. I’ve listened to Orthodox chant as you’ve mentioned, in Greece, and in Russia, never Romania. I found it quite beautiful and lovely though I knew or at least could make out none of the words. This music, however, seems to me to go higher than the level of words.

      You’re right, an interesting experience. Thanks for your thoughts. Katherine.


      1. Yeah, I’m not sure what provoked this feeling in me, but it must have something to do with my path in this life and possible former lives. 😅

        Thank you!

  2. I had wanted to take the time to listen carefully (at least twice) to all of these before commenting. I’m quite impressed, especially by the first and third pieces. and especially the third piece (Magnificent!). Caused me to look up some information about David Hykes.

    You may have surmised that I have an East Asian aspect, and very much appreciate sounds I can associate with my background. The last piece brought together three very moving personal experiences:
    -The chanting of monks when approaching a Buddhist temple during ceremonial events. -Yungchen Lhamo at a small gathering in Vancouver (BC) many years back. She was traveling with several Tibetan throat-singers, and their vocalizations at times elicited tears.
    -A Christmas Eve night, listening to the choir in the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. Utterly moving experience in an amazing environment.

    I can also feel some aspects of Lisa Gerrard, and some of the perhaps less familiar to you work of Kenji Kawai (川井 憲次), particularly some extremely moving traditionally ornamented, pentatonic choir. I’m not sure most Westerners can feel the emotion in traditional pentatonic music, but it definitely moves me to hear those relationships within the music. Perhaps not the “agape” experience. But it captures the hauntingly beautiful tension associated with the East Asian perception of spiritual experience.


    1. Yes, Hykes is amazing, especially in person. In your research you may have uncovered that he studied in Mongolia a bit early in his career, the so-called hoomij singing. He had two remarkably great CDs in the 80s, Hearing Solar Winds and Harmonic Meetings. Perhaps difficult to locate now. I hadn’t speculated as to your ethnic background, but interesting to know.

      I also have had a few close-up aural experiences with travelling Tibetan monks. Years ago there was an outpost/monastery of sorts in Staten Island, and I went there to hear chant ceremonies. The deep bass undertone singing was powerful and so were the outrageously long metal trumpets — designed to imitate or banish (maybe both) demons.

      I do personally like various pentatonic musics. For example I stayed in Yunnan, China for a summer many years back and was fortunate enough to get exposed to an indigenous musical studies research program there. Quite a bit of the music restricted itself to five tones. Also some Japanese shakuhachi and koto music does this. Starkly beaeutiful. In University I joined a Javanese gamelan for two years… do you know them? There were two main scales we worked with, slendro and pelog; the latter was pentatonic. I still recall a great melody from those days, called Hudan Mas, meaning Golden Rain. Have a quick listen:

      Finally I could mention Swiss hangs, a musical instrument developed by metallurgists around 2000 which came in a variety of distinctive pentatonic scales, many Arabic in origin, but some East Asian, and also some Pygmy! Not sure if they still make them., but I owned one once. You could try this link to gain a brief intro:

      And here is a clip of the instrument, but using a 7-tone scale:

      A couple of the names you bring up are either unknown or marginally known to me, but I will look into them. In my copious free time. 🙂 Thanks for writing.


      1. Thank you for the response! In Tokyo from 2002 to 2004 with a lot of time on my hands. The city is dotted with small, up-close-and-personal music venues ranging from obnoxious-punk to traditional, and everything in-between. It’s a wonderful place for music. I recall the hang becoming popular. Didn’t know the idea was Swiss.

        At the time, there was a move by several schools to re-popularize some traditional instruments. I saw some performances by Mizuo Komiya, who rather controversially (at the time) added twelve more strings to the koto and began to mix scales. Actually a very versatile instrument. Nowadays, the koto compositions are amazing. “Soemon” (箏衛門 ) are a well known and divergent Tokyo koto orchestra, sometimes play at “Musicasa” in Shibuya (150 people?).

        Ikue Asazaki has contributed greatly to keeping pentatonic vocals alive in Japan. She’s from the Amami Islands in the south, and sometimes performs with contemporary accompaniments that make the feel of the songs more accessible those accustomed to Western sounds.

        I’m familiar with the sound of Balinese gamilan. Very interesting to hear the Javanese form.

      2. Didn’t know this about Tokyo, but it makes sense. I had an old record somewhere of a traditional Japanese male vocalist, sparse and striking. Somethig like shakuhachi music transposed into singing. Used to go to sleep to it. Cannot recall the artist’s name.

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