By Keith Clarke
The Singer, February/March 1995
Through her courses and workshops, Jill Purce has been liberating the human voice as she explores the healing and transforming power of singing. Keith Clarke reports.
In the recent trial following the Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy, the court heard how one of the stranded youngsters sang to keep up morale as they waited to be rescued. The use of the voice to support, to invigorate, even to heal, is a source of endless fascination to Jill Purce. With a concert pianist mother and a doctor father, her interest in sound developed early and she has made the study of its healing and transformative power her life's work. Now she helps singers with vocal problems and holds workshops which aim to liberate the voice and release untapped sources of energy.
Ironically, in a world which seems ever more noisy, she thinks we are becoming a silent society. Ordinary people have stopped singing, she says. We are now even beginning to stop talking. 'Western culture is in a completely unique situation - there's never been another time or a place where society has not sung as we do not sing.' She paints a picture of contemporary life where people get up, go to work, use a computer all day, go home, watch TV, and do not talk to anyone all day. 'That is happening more and more. I think it is deeply insidious, with pathological results.'
The main reason people have always sung is to praise god, says Jill Purce. (Her conversation is littered with fascinating bits of evidence: a recent analysis of the number of times praying, meditating and praising through song were mentioned in the Bible had praising coming out at something like 83%, she says). With the rise of humanism and the scientific establishment, praising god became increasingly sidelined.
Then there were people singing together as they did physical work - in some cultures they believed it was actually the voice that did the work. Then as people became musically literate, singing became increasingly something that the majority of people would listen to rather than do. Finally there was TV, which Jill Purce says has made us passive as a society. 'We don't create any more. It's fed to us.' All of which has led to situation where we have virtually gone silent as a society. 'That has happened at a time when every scientific discipline, whether it's maths, zoology,physics, chemistry, biology, is describing its particular parcel of the physical universe in terms of resonance. And as human beings the only way we can resonate consciously is through the voice. So just as we're being told everywhere we look that the universe is a resonant one, we do not participate in it.'
One of the things Jill Purce has discovered through her work is that people are longing to sing. 'That is demonstrated most by the meteoric rise of karaoke in our society, she says. 'Given the opportunity, everyone is up there doing it and loving it. But karaoke is not the answer. Karaoke means "empty orchestra". It's a blind alley, because with state-of-the-art machines, if you are singing an Elvis number, your voice is taken away and transmogrified into Elvis's voice. That is the ultimate insult - your voice is not acceptable. Karaoke is great fun and people really love it but I do feel that's not the answer.' People come to Jill Purce for a variety of reasons - they want to find out more about the voice on a deeper level, they have specific vocal problems, or they just want to sing. Many of the would-be singers are people who as children were told by music teachers to stand at the back and mouth it. Later in life they decide to throw off this early conditioning and rediscover their voices.
But the techniques go much deeper than simply drumming up the courage to sing a song. 'The healing properties of the voice are extremely profound,' she says. 'The only way we can get access to the inside of cells and molecules and organs and limbs without being cut open is by making sound. Making a humming sound, you vibrate the body in a very extreme way. When you vibrate the body you affect everything inside it, you can give yourself a positive massage or you can mess things up. If you don't use your voice, it's like an instrument lying on a shelf going more and more out of tune. Singing is not only one of the most powerful forms of meditation - working with the emotions and with the psyche and psychology - it is also a profound means for healing and one which everyone has access to, but in general doesn't understand or use.'
But for most of the professional singers who turn up at Jill Purce's door, it is a specific vocal complaint that needs sorting out - often something that conventional singing teaching has not been able to deal with. 'Singing is as much a psychological thing as a real thing,' she says. She remembers a tenor with a problem at the top of his range who felt that it was because of an emotional block. The problem was solved by getting him to act out something that had happened when he was a child, which he thought was the cause of the problems. 'The voice is like the psyche, and if the psyche is in any way damaged, the voice is damaged. But you can mend the psyche by mending the voice - and it's a lot easier to do it that way!'
Talk of the inner life can seem rather threatening for some people, but Jill Purce has had very little adverse reaction from conventional voice teachers who know her reputation and often send people to her for help. 'What I do is extremely good for the classical singing voice. The work is mainly based on chant. We do basic breathing, mainly chant, and also simple songs.'
Central to the work is Mongolian overtone chanting, which is especially useful for people who are inhibited about singing, since it is based on one note. 'Even the most extreme ones loosen up after a bit and feel they can make a note - if it's a growl it doesn't matter.
'It is based on a very extreme form of resonance. You take a single note and sequentially amplify the component parts of that note. All notes contain a series of other notes, unless they come from sine wave generators or tuning forks. You hear the note, but the information that enables you to identify the source of the sound, which enables you to say it's your mother or your sister or your fridge or your car, or flute or violin, is the harmonics. They give the note its quality. We use harmonics to identify speech and the source of sound. That is usually as far as we take it. What I'm doing is showing people how those notes are contained in the voice and then show how to work with the cavities of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and so forth in such a way that you can selectively amplify the harmonics and make them louder than the fundamental note itself, so that what you hear is the lower, slightly drone-like fundamental and above it the flute-like sounds, which sound very magical because they are absolutely pure, because they themselves have no harmonics.
'It is a fascinating sound, and also non-localised. Because the overtones are the result of resonance they float off into space and spiral around in the middle of the room and it's rather hard to identify the source. People often describe it as the music of the spheres, or angelic choirs. It's a bit like taking white light and putting it through a prism so that you see the colours of the rainbow. We are working with resonance in a way you never would with ordinary singing.
Resonance is one of the hardest things for singing teachers to communicate, really. Singing teachers have all these very vague expressions which they have usually learnt from their teachers, who learnt it from theirs. They have a lot of weird metaphors, often very mechanical ones in terms of resonance: put it in your right temple or left knee! They struggle with the process of resonance, whereas with overtone chanting you are working with resonance absolutely precisely, so you can say, "Enhance the sixth harmonic" and you do it, because it's a real science. It's an enormous adjunct for singers to be able to do that.'
A catalyst for her work with resonance was a relationship - personal and professional - with Karlheinz Stockhausen. In the early seventies they travelled all round north America with his Stimmung, which makes extensive use of overtones. 'He had an understanding of sound that I'd never met in anyone,' she says.
Her work won the approval of the operatic establishment in 1993 when English National Opera rang to ask if she would run a seminar called 'The Healing Power of Opera.' 'I said, "Are you sure you've got the right person? I think I'm running a recovery programme from opera"!' Linked to Jonathan Harvey's Inquest of Love, the seminar ended with Jill Purce leading the audience in a meditation before curtain-up on the first night. A technical problem meant the event had to be switched from the Coliseum's vast auditorium, but Jill Purce says her ultimate aim is to have the audience, orchestra and cast all chanting together.
For her, there is a very real need to put the magic back into performance. 'When you listen to old recordings, the technique is not necessarily there but the magic, the power is there. Now, the technique is immaculate, but the magic has gone. This goes right through every aspect of music, and particularly vocal music, even in the classical operatic tradition. I think the new team at ENO are aware of this. 'One of the things that has happened through recording is a kind of ossification. You get people trying to sing like Maria Callas rather than finding their own voice and their own magic. It means it isn't really growing, there is no creativity, no power and magic coming through it. In the highest echelons of the music world, people are aware of this. They come to me because they are disenchanted, so to speak, with the music world. It seems to be a dead end, not going anywhere, no real magic.
The chanting and search for the inner self can give an impression of tremendously earnest endeavour, but as anyone who has worked with Jill Purce knows, she has a very well developed sense of fun. And despite her thoughts on the state of music ('Professional musicians tend not to like music very much,' she says provocatively) it plays an important part in her own life, as you would expect with someone of her background. 'I lived in a house with three concert grands, and the house was always full of musicians. My mother studied with Cortot and was a very good teacher. She was worshipped by many of her students. She started the music department at Keele University.'
The classical upbringing still sometimes asserts itself in Jill Purce's choice of music for her personal singing pleasure (currently it is Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben) but it is the wider manifestations of singing that preoccupy her. 'One of the things that happens when we sing is that we release our emotion in a healthy way. If we don't sing, we do it in antisocial and unhealthy ways. One of the societal pathologies that has come as a result of this non-singing is unhealthy ways of expressing emotions, like beating people up.
Which leads to a fascinating discussion of football chanting as a surviving war cry, negative uses of the voice, and the loss of community singing in coaches now that people sit in their cars and listen to tapes. But it is back to the tenth century for a real glimpse of the value once put on singing. 'Hildegard of Bingen had to be punished on one occasion. It was decreed that she could say the offices but not sing them - that was the highest punishment that could be given.'