What do we really know about Tibet and Mongolia? After a presentation by Lawrence alumni Peter Marsh and Brian Pertl on music from these places, some Lawrence students know a lot more.Sunday, Oct. 21, Marsh and Pertl came to Harper Hall to talk about the music of each of these countries. Marsh and Pertl have made livings on their knowledge of music from these countries, Marsh specializing in Mongolian music and Pertl specializing in Tibetan music.
Marsh and Pertl both started out double-majoring in English and music, but have since established their specialties in Mongolia and Tibet. Marsh is now an ethnomusicologist with interdisciplinary training, teaching here at Lawrence as a Lecturer in Music, and Pertl is the manager of the Media Acquisitions Group at Microsoft (but still travels to perform and lecture).
Both Marsh and Pertl credit the Lawrence overseas programs with influencing their career choices. They encouraged everyone at Lawrence to go abroad and expose themselves to a different culture.
“Exposure to any culture is very important in expanding your mind,” said Pertl. Even if your interest is different from anyone else’s, Marsh advised students to “follow [their] passions” in order to get on the right path to making a career they really love.
The lecture featured discussions of many native instruments. One featured Tibetan instrument was the thighbone trumpet, which is actually made from a human thighbone.
The reason Tibetans use a human bone for this instrument is that it helps them conquer the fear of death — those who are afraid of heights should go to the top of a mountain to get over their fear, and those afraid of death use a dead person’s bone to make music.
Another important instrument in Tibet is the shell trumpet. The shell trumpet is a visually beautiful instrument, not only because it is a shell, but also because of its intricate metalwork.
Tibetans do not make their instruments beautiful for no reason. Each time these instruments are played, a musical offering is being made. A true musical offering is meant to please and help people to reach enlightenment; if the instrument is visually beautiful, it will help them on their way.
Each instrument is meant to play specific songs. They are usually played in pairs, though usually not in unison. Pertl said, “To us, that is called ‘out of tune’, but to them it is seen as beautiful.”
Unlike most music in the U.S., a loud and violent sound is most appealing in Tibetan rituals. In order to be permitted to play the traditional three notes during a ritual, musicians must practice for three to four hours a day for six years.
An interesting fact about Tibetan music regarded injuries from playing these instruments. The most common injury that occurs while playing? In some cases, the musician plays so loud his lip splits down the middle.
Although instruments are important in Tibetan music, chanting is at its core. Voice is the most appealing sound for a musical offering. When sending a vocal musical offering, Tibetans employ multiphonic chanting, in which there are only slight changes in pitch and tone.
One Mongolian instrument that was discussed was the “horse head fiddle,” which, contrary to its name, is not really made from a horse’s head. It has two strings that are made of horsehairs, and at the top of the instrument a horse’s head is carved.
The reason for the horsehair and the image of a horse’s head is to show praise for the animal and all it does to provide for humans. The Mongolians are well-tuned to their environment and sing for the spirit of the lands and animals where they lived. Going abroad is a great way to learn about new cultures, but in the meantime, learning about their musical tastes and traditions is an interesting and informative start. After all, as Pertl noted, “It is a different world of listening” — so listen carefully.