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Ancient Trance Festival

  • The acoustics of the jaw harp: Robert Vandré and the fascination of jaw harp physics

    Where is the connection between playing the jaw harp and speaking? Robert Vandré says one learns a lot about the jaw harp when dealing with the physiological and psychological speaking processes. There are similar patterns at work that generate the sound while speaking or playing the jaw harp, e.g. the movement of the tongue or the various resonant spaces in the area of the head. Robert Vandré is a hobby musician and for over 20 years a jaw harp acoustics specialist. Vandré is author of a jaw harp school and an authority for meticulous jaw harp acousticians as he examined and measured the instrument very thoroughly. Currently, there are only a few studies about acoustic parameters of the jaw harp. His website rvandre.de that is online since 2002 is one of the few sources that comprehensively analyse the sound properties of the jaw harp based on substantiated figures. That is why it is a treasure for instrument researchers and acousticians, but at the same time for jaw harp players that are seeking a better understanding about the functionality of the instrument. Helen from DAN MOI met Robert in 2017 at the Ancient Trance Festival in Taucha, near Leipzig.

    Quote: http://rvandre.de/toene.html

    The mouth harp as natural scientific object

    I’ve been always very interested in the acoustic conditions of the mouth harp. I am a natural scientist, ecologist and am working as a soil scientist and a botanist. Music is my hobby. So I have a completely different approach to those instruments, if compared to other jaw harp players. Of course I am alsointerested in the feel and how jaw harp music is influencing the soul, butI alsolook closely at the different factors and want to know how the instruments work on a physical level. I am rather a technician who says: that is rhythm, that melody, that happens via the diaphragm, those are the fingers, that comes from breathing, that is articulation.

    Robert Vandré acoustically examined and measured the jaw harp and evaluated the data. He recorded the tones of a jaw harp and by support of a computer software he measured the frequency range of those tones. The range displays the overtones that resonate in a jaw harp tone (photo frequency). Since the year 2002 Robert Vandré is having a website called rvandre.de, where he documents and provides public access to this research. The graphs show what overtones are present in a sound to what degree, which helps to understand how a sound is physically built. The outcome of the research was astonishing, says Robert Vandré, “I was very surprised how regularly the pattern of the sound the tongue generates is”. Due to his measurements one can comprehend how the jaw harp works: each jaw harp has a basic tone and all other tones of the mouth harp are overtones of the basic tone that can be generated by specific movements of the mouth and throat area.

    "I discovered the jaw harp many years ago at a festival. There were jaw harps from Schwarz, Austria. So I bought one and played a little on it. At first I was thinking of Snoopy from the Peanuts. He is playing the jaw harp, for instance in the bus. So I tried around a bit and came to the point, where I could play melodies that others in my surroundings were able to guess. Then the instrument was lying around for years and I forgot about it until I went to the music fair in Frankfurt. That also was many years ago. There was a booth with Hungarian jaw harps from Szilágyi. I bought one and on the train ride back home it totally got me: It was really cool to play a good jaw harp and to try out things on it. And that really triggered my curiosity: how does a jaw harp work, what is the physical background? I started to try around, to think about it and read things, for example from linguistic scientists who describe how a tone is generated and formed in the vocal tract."

    How choose your jaw harp

    The acoustic curiosity is not limited to a theoretical level. Robert Vandré developed his own technique on how he improves mouth harps that do not sound as well. “I love to play the jaw harps of Josef Jofen who unfortunately does not make any more as he retired. I also like to play on Schlütter’s and Szilágyi’s jaw harps as they both are very good. If one does not sound so well I take pincers and shorten the end of the tongue that one strikes with the fingers. The tone pitch isn’t right anymore, but I don’t care. These are my best jaw harps today.

    To find a good instrument is for beginners already very important. But how does one find a good beginner’s instrument? “If there is the opportunity at a jaw harp booth it is a definitely a good idea to try out a couple of them.”, Robert suggests. “It is important to choose an instrument with a soft tongue, so that the tongue of the instrument does not vibrate with too much energy at the teeth. The jaw harp still should have a good sound.” For Robert the secret of a well-sounding and well-playable jaw harp lies in the length of the bended part of the tongue. As described above, it should be short, so the counteracting vibration is not too strong. Then the instrument can produce a beautiful sound.

    Quote: http://rvandre.de/spieltechnik.html

    To play with body control

    Like most jaw harp players, Robert is an autodidact, but eventually he has passed on his knowledge to others. To give beginners a better start he compiled his knowledge in a course that is also published as a book. Every now and then, Robert Vandré also conducts workshops for jaw harp beginners and advanced players.

    What keeps me going with the jaw harp is that the sound reaches the inside and it really gives pleasure. It’s just so nice to play. I also enjoy playing the jaw harp in body control, i.e. controlling my breath as Aron Szilágyi demonstrates in a beautiful manner. Controlled rhythms, controlled pieces, chorales, folk songs, so really playing music on the jaw harp and not only sounds. That is what I am interested in. I’d like to make some proper music with it. As I discovered the jaw harp for myself it was virtually non-present in public space as far as I remember. Merely the sound of the coil spring as a sound effect showed up here and there.

    Apart from that there was the jingle of the German kid’s programme “Sesamstraße”, but there the jaw harp plays only 2 tones in the rhythm. The jaw harp as a melodic instrument did not seem to be present at all. As far as I see it, there is almost no living jaw harp tradition in Germany, apart perhaps towards the Alpine area, around Molln in Austria. There, playing the jaw harp was completely re-invented. Here in Germany, the world music scene has brought the jaw harp back to life, more precisely the people dealing with spirituality, who gain access to the jaw harp via the feeling.

    In 2007 he has seen really good jaw harp players for the first time at the Ancient Trance Festival that back then was hosted in Leipzig, says Robert Vandré. “To watch the good players live was my motivation to keep on dealing with jaw harps.

    Robert Vandré playing "Abendspaziergang":

     

  • Taucha is magnetic – the city near Leipzig attracts jaw harps

    Since 2014 there has been a trophy in Taucha, which symbolically awards the town near Leipzig the title “World Centre of the Jaw Harp”. Taucha lives up to this award of the International Jew´s Harp Society. That’s why in the past years a lot has happened around Taucha, which puts the small instrument in the centre of attention: in November 2017 Diego Pascal Panarello's jaw harp documentary “The Strange Sound of Happiness” celebrated its world premiere near Taucha, at the Leipzig DOK Festival; Spiridon Shishigin, one of the best jaw harp players from Russian Yakutia, has been visiting regularly for several years, because his daughter Maria Shishigin has been living and working in that region for almost four years; since 2007 the jaw harp and world music festival “Ancient Trance” has been taking place in Taucha; and since 2001 the musical instrument business DAN MOI – the world market leader for jaw harps – is operating out of Taucha. One wonders whether Taucha is the source of a secret magnetism that attracts jaw harps.

    View over the marketplace and the church of Taucha. Photo: City of Taucha.

    The first impulse in the most recent German jaw harp history was set by Clemens Voigt. Together with Sven Roxi Otto, Clemens founded the online business for musical instrument DAN MOI, which started selling jaw harps and over the years a lot of other effect instruments, small and large percussion as well as wind instruments. The location of the company was a factory site on the outskirts of Taucha near Leipzig. With DAN MOI, Clemens and Roxi found a market niche as 20 years ago it was still extremely difficult to buy a jaw harp in Europe, whether it was from Vietnam, India or Russia. Clemens experienced this himself: his first jaw harp that a friend gave to him was a Dan Moi. This is a Vietnamese jaw harp that is played with the lips and produces a delicate sound with rich overtones. He was fascinated by this beautiful instrument. Clemens then tried to buy a Dan Moi himself, but that turned out not being as easy. Yet there was not such a large offer of musical instruments on the internet like today and predominantly Austrian frame-type jaw harps were sold. So, Clemens spontaneously travelled to Vietnam to find the jaw harp smiths on site.

    In Vietnam, the quest for jaw harps just began. When it became obvious that jaw harps were still to be discovered in many other countries of the world, further journeys followed, including to Russian Yakutia, a Mecca for jaw harp lovers. Clemens visited the big jaw harp museum in Yakutsk and local jaw harp makers like Chemchoev and Petr Osipov. Osipov forged his very own jaw harp for Clemens, which is still his favourite jaw harp today. The passion for the variety of jaw harps can be found in the DAN MOI range: DAN MOI has over 300 different jaw harps from 30 different countries on offer.

    Clemens Voigt and the Yakutian khomus maker Chemchoev (approximately in the year 2000).

    For more than ten years the Ancient Trance Festival, which celebrates the joy of playing the jaw harp, has been a permanent event in Taucha. DAN MOI founded the jaw harp and world music festival. Today it is in the hands of a non-profit association and a sociocratic organization of people who have all been captivated by the magic of “organic synthesizers”. In summer, fans of acoustic trance music meet in the castle courtyard, in the city centre, and in the Taucha park. The Ancient Trance Festival is the biggest jaw harp festival in Europe with several thousand visitors. Here, jaw harp players from all over the world shake hands.

    In summer 2014, the congress of the International Jaw Harp Society (IJHS) took place at the Ancient Trance Festival. On that occasion more than 30 international jaw harp experts met in Taucha. They gave lectures, played concerts, engaged in discussions with their fellows and conducted workshops. Together with the conference the challenge cup “World Centre of the Jaw Harp” was awarded to DAN MOI and thus to Taucha. The next venue to host this congress will take over the trophy from the Taucha crew.

    The challenge cup “World Centre of the Jaw Harp” of the International Jew´s Harp Society was given to Taucha near Leipzig (Germany) in 2014 .

    The Ancient Trance Festival, which will next take place in August 2019, remains a magnet and meeting place for jaw harp specialists. Strolling around the festival area, you will not only meet Clemens Voigt and Sven Roxi Otto, but also jaw harp virtuosos such as Áron Szilágyi and Neptune Chapotin. Meanwhile, outside the festival time it may happen that one of the most important jaw harp players of the world can be seen strolling through the streets of Taucha or Leipzig. Spiridon Shishigin is more often seen for concerts and workshops in Germany recently, because – may be thanks to the secret magnetism of Taucha – for almost four years Spiridon's daughter Maria has been living and working with her family near Taucha. She is an excellent jaw harp player herself and a peace ambassador.

    For the world premiere of Diego Pascal Panarello's film “The Strange Sound of Happiness” in November 2017, Spiridon and Maria Shishigin welcomed the guests in festive, Yakutian dress and played jaw harp tunes on the Khomus. The fact that the world premiere of a new documentary film about the jaw harp took place just a few kilometres from Taucha is one of the most recent, highly pleasing signs of the appeal that emanates from the trophy “World Centre of the Jaw Harp” and perhaps even from Taucha itself.

  • “My good friend, for the last 56 years.” Spiridon Shishigin visited Leipzig

    A Yakutian jaw harp dangles from the neck of Spiridon Shishigin on a thin braided cord. It is embedded in a little wooden box. The jaw harp catches the eye as it is embellished with a big “65”. “This Khomus”, says Spiridon, after he finishes playing the first tune on another jaw harp, “I got as a present from my friends on my 65th birthday. That was last year. Now, I’m 66 years old. I’ve been playing since I’m 5. The Khomus is a good friend of mine for 56 years now.” He speaks cautiously, with a lowered voice. He smiles, then takes the precious jaw harp into both of his hands, lifts it to the mouth, pauses, pants, lets it sink to his breast for a moment, as though he’d like to emphasize his words by these movements, and then finally he puts the instrument that marks his anniversary to his lips.

    On 15 February Spiridon visited the project shop “Sinn und Sein” (Sense and Being) in Leipzig. About 30 fans and guests from the whole region gathered to see the world-famous jaw harp virtuoso from Yakutia in concert. Here – where the minds behind the Ancient Trance Festival conduct their planning meetings as well – is a hint of Indian Chai in the air on this winter evening. Coloured lights provide the backdrop for the warm sound from the eternal ice and long winters. "I’m from Siberia and play 'the tundra' for you on my jaw harp," Spiridon says and makes use of one esteemed element in the Yakutian art of the jaw harp, which connects sound and vibration with nature and landscape: improvisation.

    "I play the tundra for you, but I need to confess I’ve never been there, actually. A trip to the tundra takes so much longer than travelling to Berlin. When taking a plane I arrive in Berlin after 9 hours. If I intend to travel to the tundra I need to fly and then go by car for hours. That’s why I’ve never been there." The steady wind of the tundra blew through Leipzig – evoked by the Khomus, the Yakutian jaw harp. A “cuckoo” cried out of Shishigin’s throat and announced spring soon to arrive. Melodies appeared and started sketching an austere and never-ending landscape of the steppe in Northern Russia.

    Spiridon Shishigin performs at Sinn und Sein in Leipzig

    Spiridon Shishigin performs at Sinn und Sein in Leipzig

    Shishigin’s stage appearance happened thanks to his friendship with Clemens Voigt from DAN MOI. The both of them have known each other for 13 years and on that evening played a jaw harp duet for the auditory, too. Everyone in and around Leipzig who missed the opportunity to see Spiridon Shishigin live on stage – stay tuned: The master has good reason to visit the city more often in the near future. Recently his daughter’s family moved to Delitzsch, a town close to Leipzig.

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