Perfect Sound Forever


by bart plantenga
(January 2004)

“There are universal currents of Divine Thought vibrating the ether everywhere and … anyone who can feel those vibrations is inspired, provided he is conscious of the process…”
- Richard Wagner, “On Inspiration”

“I yodeled madly, exultantly, with every possible break and variation, into the shimmering evening... From a distant peak there came a reply, soft and long-drawn-out and swelling gradually… and we listened quietly and happily to it.”
- Herman Hesse, Peter Camenzind

Yodel as Infection

If we look at the history of yodeling - and this has never been done before in any global or comprehensive manner - we can see that it has touched [or better yet, infected] pretty much every genre of music known to record store categorizers and classifiers, the ones that create record sections like Latin hardhouse, Estonian punk rap, Jewish hillbilly, alternative hickhop, and techno-dance yodel. From traditional folk to classical and opera to pop and funk to the decidedly strange vocals of the avant-garde, yodeling has been used to bend and alter both vocals and audio perceptions.

There are any number of strange hybrids that involve yodel-inflected falsetto: classical kitsch (Mary Schneider), operatic excess (Klaus Nomi, most famous as a robotic transgendered soul whose operatics were applied to the Wizard of Oz’s “Ding-Dong the Witch Is Dead”), psyche-cleansing primal scream therapy (Diamanda Galas), or political-AIDS “Howls” (David Wojanorowicz’s ITSOFOMO, NewTone Records, 1992). These examples verify that once you transgress the ethno-purist notion that a yodel must be only one thing, and realize that it can be “any cry resembling this musical mode,” new possibilities fall into your lap. And those who have yodeled, whether they have meant to or not, begin to reveal their true vocal cords be it Tiny Tim (tiptoeing, ambiguously gendered hippie singer), Weird Al Yankovic (parody pop), Yoko Ono (primal screams for peace), or Phil Minton (conceptual British scat singer).

A Yodel is a Jodel

But what is a yodel? Greeting? Warning? Joyous outburst? Pious ululation? Mark Twain’s “Tyrolese warbling”? Esophagal calisthenics? A cowherd’s hootchie-cootchie come-on to the most comely and udder-endowed of his herd? Or the “variation upon the tones of a jackass,” as Sir Walter Scott in 1830 opined? Well, pretty much a bit of all of these things.

Nick Tosches notes the “word yodel is from the German jodeln, which means literally to utter the sound jo.” Most ethnomusicologists agree that yodeling is some ancient rural form of calling. But calls by who and to whom? Mostly herders who needed to communicate with their families and/or sheep and cattle in the mountains. One way to get heard over long distances, they discovered, was to employ dramatic leaps between chest voice and head voice with emphasis placed on the break.

This emphasized break as the voice passes from bass [low chest voice] to high head voice [falsetto] - and vice versa - is what distinguishes the yodel from other types of vocalizations that is forced across that chasm of spasming muscle and cartilage.

The extrapolation of this yodel technique by improvisational vocalists offers them a certain indulgent release from the constraints of [folk] traditions. It can evoke both mirth and spirit, both sonic paganism and extraterrestrial blips and bleats, both melancholy and exultation, testaments to its expressive breadth and depth-of-field. How does yodeling sharpen human experience in the various vocalists’ strategies to astonish?

Dada Yo

Extended art vocals begin arguably with the Dadaists and Futurists who both experimented with sound, noise, and vocables [vocalized nonsense syllables] and served as the predecessors of the sound poets, although the egocentric and impish reaction to hearing one’s echo certainly precedes all conscious art.

Dada was initially born out of some German artists’ disgust with the slippery slope of logic and scientific reason that led to that most dehumanizing war, WWI. As absurdist conscientious objectors, they fled to neutral Switzerland. They vowed to counter deathly logic with a total immersion in illogic, absurdity, wild costumes, odd behavior, and joyous anarchic mayhem and very likely some yodeling.

This happened most famously in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, a hangout for pacifists and Bohemians of the day. Here Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Raoul Hausmann, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, and others regularly held court and took to the stage.

Ball, the inventor of anti-poetry [1916] which he called “poems without words” or “Lautgedichte” (sound poems), and other Cabaret Voltaire habitués believed that their whistling, singing, babble, and making noises would allow them entry into a pre-lingual form of poetry, which would lead to new states of consciousness.

Huelsenbeck invented his own “Negro words” and learned several authentic African and South Seas chants from the landlord of the Cabaret Voltaire (an old Dutch seaman). Huelsenbeck would also recite these chants and call them sound poems, a further example of the primitivistic tendency.

They also performed African vocal pieces and Tzara produced some sound poems, called “Poemes Negres” where he claimed an affinity with non-Western cultures. The Dada sound poem homages to romanticized primitivism, while not exactly yodeling or scat singing, did share vocal elements that transcend language to become something visceral, something attuned to more primal aspects of human nature.

Their 1921 little magazine “Dada Au Grand Air / Der Sängerkrieg in Tirol” ("The battle of the Singers in Tirol") was described as “An Appeal From the Path of the Last Glacier” with “Written Alpine greetings with well-poisoning courtesy of yodeling.”

Extending the “Yo” of Yodeling

By the 1950’s, composers Luciano Berio and his wife, singer Cathy Berberian, were including coughing, laughing, crying, yodeling, and whispering in their sonic repertoire. But this may have been preceded by or coincided with Spike Jones’s zany reuse of almost any and every sound imaginable including gargling his way through popular arias.

The 1960’s saw the rise of the incredible jazz-scat yodeler, Leon Thomas (“Creator Has a Master Plan”). Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders described Thomas’s yodeling as “the moaning of spirits known and unknown.” Indeed, if any throat ever served as the stage for spirits - be they indigenous or alien - it was Thomas’s with his extended anthropo-logical “verbal energy.” Thomas once noted, “It surprises me, it does everything of its own volition. I call it Soularfone. The pygmies call it Umbo Weti… This voice is not me, my voice is ancient. This person you see before you is controlled by ego but my voice is egoless.”

Thomas grew up in East St. Louis, studied music at Tennessee State University, and moved to New York in 1958. Thomas’s early career can be characterized as straight blues-jazz vocals, working with Mary Lou Williams and touring with Art Blakey. In January 1961, Thomas joined Count Basie and sang at the inaugural balls of both President Kennedy and President Johnson. However, he soon turned to more avant-garde stylings. His most famous work is with Pharoah Sanders on Karma (1969) and Jewels of Thought (1970). In 1969, on “Creator Has a Master Plan,” he sang a scat-yodel with wild fluctuations between glottal and mellifluous vocables that instantly affected me. This was a man in search of soul.

Thomas was pretty much patching into the incredible yodeling patterns of the Central African Pygmies, whose vocal traditions he had studied. Thomas believed they’d given him the gift of particularly elastic throat articulation, or “soularphone” as he called it, which enabled him to sing, blending jazz scat, blues styles, and his interpretation of ancestral yodeling.

Tim Buckley, the beyond-folk-singer, who leaped to fame in the 1960’s as a kind of unstable version of the James Taylor Cat Stevens-style singer-songwriter, had an astonishing voice range of four octaves. As a young teen, he joined the country band, Princess Ramona & The Cherokee Riders. This yodeling Princess Ramona remains active as a yodeling evangelical preacher. Buckley’s Coltrane-esque leanings and flights of fantasy soon led him to a recording career at Elektra and he rose rapidly from singer-songwriter to sensation to incomprehensible genius, producing less and less marketable discs that led one rock magazine to declare: “BUCKLEY YODELING BAFFLES AUDIENCE.”

His Starsailor was marked by the fact that two of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention had turned Buckley on to Berberian’s vocals, inspiring this amazingly inaccessible record, 16 overdubbed tracks of alien vocal soundings that careened freely and breathtakingly from chest voice, through three octaves into head voice and then plunging back down again. Yodeling as a communication with other worlds, then.

But perhaps the most hauntingly resonant yodel, the furthest stretch of “yo” I’ve ever heard is, strangely enough, a long, conceptual, stream-of-consciousness piece by Brooklyn-based avant-crooner, Shelley Hirsch. Her “Haiku Lingo” [Haiku Lingo with David Weinstein, ReR, 1989] gloriously evokes the feel of the Alps while simultaneously conjuring up New York’s palpable neurotic ambience.

Hirsch composer, improviser, and performer, grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, an old Jewish neighborhood that is now a crumbling ghetto, one of the most unlikely spots to find someone developing a yodeling compulsion.

But avant-garde vocalists are expected to take whatever has been already far-flung and fling it further. Extended vocalization is the voice stretched beyond any recognizable fauna, culture, nation, style, or presumption. The most viscerally satisfying experience in an avant-garde context usually occurs when a strange vocalization begin to suddenly sound very familiar, passing through all the cultural filters to tickle us in a new internal organ in a new way. Extended vocal techniques have traditionally meant humans stepping out of their humanity to become the birds, wolves, monkeys of their native environments, or vocals that are not traditionally considered music like growling mbisa vocals, the glottal mayhem of Indian singers, the yodels that imitate the cuckoo… or communiqués with Extra-terrestrials.

Hirsch notes how she loved the early yodel records she heard from Folkways and how she took this wide-open vocal, the echoes or “reflections” and brought it to the “more contained environment” of urban existence.

Because, while World Music or Ambient or New Age musicians must pay respect to history and tradition, the avant-garde and the heretics must by definition position themselves outside this orthodoxy. That these performers do not fit in is exactly where they want to fit, must fit. Their essential measure is the individual as sovereign body, a nation of one, and their national anthems are composed in vocable, an Esperanto beyond the cages of logic, what Curt Sachs referred to as an “emancipation from meaningful words.” This does not necessarily mean disrespect, arrogance, or un-PC thievery of indigenous musics, it just means that they believe in a higher calling and that calling might be called the joyous curiosity of the human-at-play as a respite from the prevailing doom and gloom of most people’s reality.

Dub-Plated Yodels

The advent of digital sampling, the simple reuse of sound via an “electronic digital recording system, which takes samples or ‘vertical slices’ of sound and converts them into on/off information” as Chris Cutler describes it, was a form of sonic play already presaged with the visual sampling strategies of the Cubists, Constructivists, Futurists, and Dadaists. Today’s audio alchemists (Eno, Adrian Sherwood, Mad Professor, Norscq, Zazou, Marclay, DJ Spooky, DJ fill-in-the-blank) are ethnomusicological bricolage artists, capable of cutting across styles, genres, continents, cultures with great alacrity and an artistic sense of reinvention through reuse. Much of this material was forecast by Can’s Cannibalism, Holger Czukay’s solo work, and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts [1981].

Among the many groups that draw on traditional (mostly Pygmy) yodeling in their sampling, Deep Forest [Deep Forest, (Sony/Epic/Celine, 1992)] tread precariously closest to waffling between righteous reuse and colonial plundering. Deep Forest’s strategy of sampled Pygmy yodel loops dropped into a new-agey ambient porridge of quasi electro-Euro beats and emotion-twinging synthetic strings and panflutes created some controversy in the early ‘90’s.

The soulful trip-hop-dubsters, Up, Bustle & Out, on the other hand, effectively retool Pygmy yodeling and water-drumming, allowing the yodel to hover somewhere in a remix between appreciation and appropriation, part indigenous documentary, part cultural dialogue, part fetishistic exoticism. The yodels are lifted, revitalized with effects and reverb, recontextualized in ambient settings to further fuse tradition with technology.

Looking on the bright side, these kinds of World music reuses paradoxically encourage, as Deborah Pacini Hernandez claims, a “deeper exploration of national musics.” As people observe other traditions, they are reminded of their own often-overlooked traditions and peculiarities.

To my ears, the most heartrending recycled yodeling samples on Dub Syndicate’s “No Dog Barks.” It threads pygmy yodeling through the song as a melody, lending them a sonic aura as plaintive as any lonesome whistle yodel. It also offers Jamaican/Western/London musicians a broader palette with which to paint their sonic portraits. “Bedwood of Perplex,” by Doug Wimbish - Adrian Sherwood collaborator, bassist with Tackhead, and other On-U-related projects including Dub Syndicate - contains some effectively enchanting reuse of Pygmy yodels. Sherwood’s first solo effort Never Trust a Hippy [Real World, 2003] includes a remix of “No Dog Barks” as well as several wonderful reuses of yodels by African yodeler, S.E. Rogie, sometimes called the “Jimmy Rodgers of of Sierra Leone.” These kinds of reuse create a thoroughly psychotropic trip-hop-dub ambience where the Pygmy voices seem to float free of all bodily ballast throughout the composition, a state, no doubt, recognized by many indigenous populations as the thirst for transcending the mundane everyday.

In 1978, Mellers effervescently predicted “that the future evolution of electronic music will steer this product of highly sophisticated technology towards a manifestation of precisely those ‘mystical’ and numinous ranges of experience which science was to have obliterated.” An irony not lost in the shuffle as the works of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgare and Hildegaard von Bingen have in their timelessness been reconstructed by technology to be the very essence of numinous. It’s at this glottal stop, located at this particular crossroad of technology and transcendence, that certain yodelers are able to render a way of life as immediate and palpable. Our notion of a yodel’s echo caught in the middle of the valley as an example of prerecorded sound lends itself well to these hyper-post-modern tactics of appropriation, dissembling, self-reference, and détourned function. As it departs from it arrives at; as it renounces it reclaims. By departing from ethnomusical empiricism and genre-puritanism, the reconstituted yodel may hermeneutically reclaim deep feelings of awareness by destabilizing socially determined contexts of what music should do and where it must go.

This has already been loosely termed “Fourth World” music by Jon Hassell and Brian Eno. It includes musicians involved in extended electronica, inventive reuse of dub and speculative samples that do not necessarily neglect intelligence, to remain tangentially related to the socio-political idealism surrounding the notion of no borders, and by extension, no nationalism, no wars. It’s certainly the idealistic effluvia one encounters with musicians like Austria’s Hubert von Goisern or Switzerland’s Christine Lauterburg: studio as virtual mountain valley where that synaptical instant, that segue between a yodel’s high and low where outer integrates with inner and past fuses to future occurs.

Dub (versioning or doubling) is the strategy of reconfiguring Jamaican reggae songs by stripping them of their vocals and then customizing them with delay, echo, and interspliced samples that transform the song into something like an aural psychotropic entry into altered consciousness.

Dub expands the space to hoe “the uneasy silence” between sounds. Maconie states that “most sounds are intermittent and ephemeral, and because of the aural concept of reality, is framed to account for the continuing existence of things that may not always be signaling their presence.” To add further speculation to the mix, Joscelyn Godwin claims that the “expansion into bigger and bigger spaces slows down temporal events, to the degree that a single vibration, or rotation, of our planet takes a whole day, and that of a galaxy, millions of years.” An echo of the original, which in time, became the echo of an echo until the echoes of the echoes began to mingle, harmonize, and morph into something completely new and expansive, “dematerializing and eroding the integrity of singers and song.” And it is here, at this juncture of technology and deep abiding notions of connection, of inner and outer, that yodeling may function its connective or mantral function.

Yodeling in the Beyond

Some associate the yodel with prayer; positioning the ululations somewhere between pragmatic navigation and spiritual steerage. Leonard Bernstein once calculated a general formula for music that might apply to yodeling: “... one part aural excitement, one part visual excitement, four parts identification feelings with the beyond, two parts adoration of almighty forces ...” The yodel can be defined in this manner and is clearly related to rites, rituals, and expressions of both exultation and lamentation. The yodel both evokes and invokes altered states of consciousness. Yodelers sometimes use the yodel to go places or to tell us how it was where they were.

This is clear when one looks at the yodeling of the Saami of Scandinavia, the Pygmies of Central Africa, the Appenzellers of Switzerland, jazz vocalist Leon Thomas. As Tex-Czech yodeler Randy Erwin observed, “I feel the vibrations of my voice, from the bottoms of my feet to the top of my head.”

From head to feet, heart to mind, mouth to ear, there are universal connections between song, chant, transcendence of the grey realities of our skin-confined lives, psycho-active substances, audio rhythms, the word as in The Word [Bible], as that first vibration, that spirit conveyor that sets everything else into being. It implies a desire to subsume ego in a greater something - nature, purpose, belief. That this spiritual craving is manifested in distinct local and culturally specific ways that often conflict with national and global forces does not invalidate the fact that there are many similarities across these many cultures and landscapes. The yodel is found on every continent - except Antarctica.

The yodel, not unlike other vocals, is wrapped up in a tangle of emotions: awe, joy, angst. That this occurs at a confluence of nature and mankind, the boundary between inner and outer, between voice-breath and expanded consciousness is not at issue. The precise location of inspiration or activation may vary but it does often return to somewhere between voice box and brain box. The voice as breath with sound attached to it [be it mantra, scat, or amazing lyrics] can have a noticeable mind-altering effect. The voice-breath can metaphysically transport us from one state to another. It also has physical effects - the welling up in the chest, butterflies in the stomach. Some Indian yogis curl their tongues back to tickle their own epiglottises, partially asphyxiating themselves and voluntarily slowing their heartbeats, facilitating their entry another realm.

That yodeling sometimes gets you there or expresses the joy and awe of having just returned is not some totally outlandish “New-Agey” claim. The yodel in nature can be enjoyable or enthralling - the echo produced by yodeling vocables that are reflected back to the singer are more effective than words with logic clinging to them. Om, Selah, and the Dadaist “rinse of nonsense,” are related strategies. As Ed Sanders [author of Tales of Beatnik Glory and yodeling member of the legendary Groucho-Marxist band, the Fugs] observed: “Yodeling speaks of a need to speak to great distances, from mountain to mountain it is a satisfying way to get Gaia to echo back to the yodeler.”

The Appenzell betruf has magical elements and its practitioners were often called sorcerers because they tried to have an effect on their surroundings - the chasing away of evil spirits using yodel/chants. They’re often altered or enhanced by singing/speaking them through a porte-voix, man-made megaphones. This is because man’s “singing... is expected to be superhuman; indeed, supernatural.” notes Curt Sachs, “He ventriloquizes... cries and yodels, yells and squawks...” Music serves as connective and healing tissue.

Sound travels in waves or clusters of agitated air molecules like proverbial ripples on water, resonating outward from a splash, each ripple pushing its neighboring ripple a bit further outward (but just as importantly, inward). Cup hands around mouth as you yodel and this “inner music” emerges and commingles with nature, occupies space, and emanates way beyond your bodily limitations so that the awesome “out there” is brought in and the in is drawn out. With amplification the sounds will linger even longer, get trapped in valleys, bouncing off hillsides and ravines, and eventually reverberate back upon themselves to sing harmony with one another.

The yodeler becomes diminished and yet simultaneously enlarged in this landscape as s/he “plays” echo on the environment. In fact, in many ancient cultures, sound verified, even signified, existence. Yodel echo gave Hesse/Peter Camenzind a perspective of “the immense distances bearing down on me. So that was how fabulously wide the world was.” Sound as a measure of awe and distance understood by the soul without an intervening religious body or dabbling priest.

When sound defines a space, that’s ambience. When it defines existence, we call it belief. A belief in the rapt yodel reverberating beyond expectation as the yodeler directs its energy to discovering oneself is where one can become momentarily absorbed in the process of perception, that instant of hallucinatory and transformational recognition at the interaction of one’s senses with one’s environment. A sense of awe - “the hills are alive” - that they’re alive with one’s own voice, a voice that’s part of a larger mosaic.

But what about the idea that yodeling actually makes some people see or feel the Alps? There is a name for this: Synaesthesia. Synaesthesia occurs when one is “exposed to a stimulation in one sense area but receives and experiences that stimulus in association with another sense area.” Richard Wagner was rhapsodically beside himself when he observed something similar:

“...I wandered through the lofty solitude of an upland vale in Uri. In broad daylight from a hanging pasture-land came shouting the shrill jodel of a cowherd, sent forth across the broadening valley; from the other side anon there answered it, athwart the monstrous silence, a like exultant herd-call: the echo of the towering mountain walls here mingled in; the brooding valley leapt into the merry lists of sound. … so understands the yearning youth… the whistling wind, the howling hurricane, till over him there comes the dreamlike state in which the ear reveals to him the inmost essence of all his eye had held suspended in the cheat of scattered show, and tells him that his inmost being is one therewith, that only in this wise can the Essence of things without be learnt in truth.”

Reworked & extrapolated excerpt from YO DE LAY EE OOO: THE SECRET HISTORY OF YODELING AROUND THE WORLD, Routledge, 2003

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About the author:
bart plantenga was born in Amsterdam and raised in the U.S. He is a cultural journalist and fiction writer and has been a radio DJ for 17 years in Paris at Radio Libertaire, NY at WFMU, and currently in Amsterdam at Radio 100 & Radio Patapoe. He has written extensively on radio, music, and neglected culture. His first short story collection, WIGGLING WISHBONE: Stories of Pata-Sexual Speculation [Autonomedia], was published in 1995. His grafik-novella SPERMATAGONIA: The Isle of Man [Autonomedia] will also appear in 2003. His novel The BEER MYSTIC has frequently been called the best novel never published.

Also see bart p's 2nd yodeling article at PSF

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