Cherry Canyon Overtones

The Cherry Canyon trails and fireroads have become a favorite weekday morning run. There’s a network of fireroads over rolling hills, and on the northern half of the park there is also a network of short singletrack trails intersecting the fireroads – Cerro Negro trail, Liz’ Loop, Owl Trail, Ultimate Destination, and Conservancy Trail.

The southern end of the park seems to have only a single fire-road – the Ridge Trail, which runs about 2 miles of rolling hills before dead ending.

Many mornings as I run along the Ridge Trail, I come upon an elderly Asian couple. Sometimes they have a dog with them, but usually not. The old man is always carrying a piece of folded paper that he refers to as he scans the valley below from the trail. He’s looking for something. I’m not sure what.

They are most interested in the corners. They seem to examine each sharp turn in the trail, referring back to the sheet of paper, and if the corner satisfies whatever criteria the piece of paper contains, one or sometimes both of the eldery Asian couple will stand in the bend, facing out over the canyon, and sing.

It’s not the sort of singing you and I are used to hearing. I don’t hear anything I recognize as being words. The sounds themselves are often unfamiliar – odd and often haunting sounds that are not generated from the same place as the sounds of language. There are strange shifts in pitch, and harmonics.

It sounds to me like Throat Singing, or Overtone Singing, a type of singing thought to originate in Mongolia, which involves manipulating resonances and creating overtones, resulting in the creation of more than one pitch at the same time.

I’ve wondered if the point of seeking out these particular corners was to create echoes or otherwise let the sounds soar over the valleys. As it turns out, there might be some truth to this.

It’s a beautiful, eerie sound, and I always feel like I am interrupting something sacred when I pass by.

Here are a few more links to some incredible Mongolian Throat Singing pieces: Plains of the Elite and Tuvan Throat Singing.

There’s not much of a tradition of overtone singing in North America, although some early bluesman like Blind Willie Johnson often produced wordless blues moans that suggested the tonal timbres of overtone singing.

One ofBlind Willie Johnson’s most incredible pieces is “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, recorded in 1927, with a bottleneck guitar melody that is the basis of Ry Cooder’s stunning Paris, Texas soundtrack. The wordless hums and moans are thought to represent the crucifixion of Christ, and the song was included on the 1977 Voyager to represent the sound of human loneliness.

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