A History of Singing

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Bowl making was literally a cottage industry with crude smelting and careful metalworking taking place in the home of the artisan. Skills were passed from generation to generation until the modern age where those ancient chains were broken.

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Common singing bowls, an important possession for very practical reasons, were likely the regular product of artisans. Very special singing bowls were sometimes made to order. For some of the most special bowls, a highly skilled artisan might be provided with very unique materials. Many Tibetan singing bowls were made in Nepal as were a number of other manufactured items over the last millennium. Some singing bowls such as those with lingams, were obviously made for ceremonial use.

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Sometimes they bear inscriptions indicating they were gifts to monasteries. The incredible musical qualities of some singing bowls would lead one to believe these were intentionally tuned for specific resonance. The fact that it is possible to make functional brass bowls with less expensive metals is evidence many premium quality singing bowls were made with sound in mind.

However, the real history of the bowls and intentions of the makers are lost in time. The Tibetans had the gold and the Nepalis the skills.

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Many Tibetan singing bowls and other ritual objects were made in Nepal, often of material that originated in Tibet, and then sent over the Himalayas. There is disagreement about whether large numbers singing bowls were ever made in Tibetan monasteries. We know that metallurgy of the type used in the bowls has existed in this area for thousands of years.

The tremendous pressure that created the Himalayas also created unique alloys of metals, which are close to the surface. Antique copper and antique brass objects are relatively common in this part of the world. Really old singing bowls tend to be very thick and heavy, in many cases impractically so. I recently heard a plausible explanation for this. In a society where the only kind of currency was coins and the value of that currency was based on its weight and metallic composition singing bowls were able to be used like money.

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Each village would have a metal handler who would happily exchange the currency of the land for the intrinsic value in the weight of the bowls. Heavy bowls were often given as wedding gifts and the better off would periodically exchange their worn bowls for new ones.

I have done some research into the instances of brass and copper bowl use documented in Nepal and Tibet by English language sources published sources prior to The most common uses I found were for storage of water and grains and for use as bowls and cups. There were a number of references to brass bowls being a common dowry item or wedding gift which would attest to their practical utility. Bowls were used in conjunction with charcoal and tobacco.

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  8. I came across to one reference where a bowl was used for divination via reading a broken egg. There are relatively few references to bowls and sounds. The idea is that unique alloys were specifically chosen for some of the singing bowls.

    One of the beauties of antique singing bowls is the individuality of their composition. Her discussion of pitch and tuning systems is particularly good: She explains the impact of lower Baroque pitch on the singer and stresses the importance of knowing the pitch of the performance and then practicing it at the correct pitch in particular, not practicing with a piano for a performance at Baroque pitch.

    These things cannot be said enough. I cheered when Elliott recommended that singers should begin their search for scores in the library, where there are editions unavailable online. But in her discussion of online resources, I was duly chastised by her declaration that even if one uses IMSLP only a few times, one should subscribe and support the work. Elliott is excellent in discussing how to read Baroque scores, closely comparing various published versions including facsimile, early publication, 19th-century edition, and complete works edition of a single piece.

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    And she provides a very comprehensive set of online links to academic programs, performing organizations, competitions, festivals, and early-music organizations. I could quibble here and there, and the musical examples are not reproduced as crisply as one would like, but Elliott has provided an excellent introduction for singers beginning to engage with this music, and she even offers new perspectives to those well-versed in the repertoire.

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