EOL 2: Russian panpipe playing (Velitchkina)
Movement patterns 3

Vocal sound production

  The para players produce vocal sounds simultaneously and in counterpoint with the sounds of the pipes. The players refer to it by the onomatopoetic verb fiukat', because the effect is heard as two vocables, fiu and ka. The exact pronunciation of both vocables varies. The first one can be pronounced as hiu, fif, fiuf, and fef, the second as ka, kaf, or faf.

The production of the vocal sounds is confusing for someone unfamiliar with this tradition. This is the most "invisible," fast and elusive gesture that players make. In addition, while the village women are keen to teach how to blow into the pipes and produce the patterns for different tunes, they cannot teach the production of vocal sounds in the same way. The vocal sounds are so deeply integrated into the whole mechanism of players' movements that, unlike other constituents, they cannot be easily dissected from this whole and taught separately. The performers also insist on the individuality of this skill, saying that "fiukat' is done by each [player] as [she] wants or knows how."

On first listening it may seem that the vocal sounds form an independent layer of music which is not coordinated with the playing of the pipes or with the musical structure of a period, or that the vocal sounds are placed completely at random and according to the individual taste of a player. Yet, players often have clear ideas about how it should be done, although they never explicitly verbalize this themselves. We can derive the rules for placing vocal sounds from the analysis of a 'case study' performance.

General discussion

The vowels used in panpipe playing do not bear any resemblance to the vowels of everyday speech. Their most structurally important distinction is, however, phonetic. Phonetically speaking, the vowel in the first syllable belongs to the so-called high or middle positions (of the tongue), while the vowel in the second syllable uses the low position. For the production of a low position vowel after a high one (for example, [a] after [i]), the tongue together with lower jaw moves down, and the mouth opens slightly. In panpipe playing, this subtle movement of the mouth coordinates with the outer change of pipes, i.e., with the movement of the head of the performer from a high pitched pipe to a low pitched one. The pitch of the vocal sound also follows this change; whatever the initial pitch level is, the first syllable is always higher than the second.

Another important factor in coordination between the vocal and instrumental parts in the performance on para sets stems from the phonetic subdivision of all speech sounds into two major classes: vowels and consonants. Thus, both syllables fiuf and kaf in linguistic terms can be expressed as one formula "consonant - vowel - consonant" (CV(C)), the last consonant being optional. In general the consonant is "played," that is, the air flows into the pipe, while the vowel is "sung" with the air going above the pipe ("pipe is silent"). The basic syllabic formula can thus be transferred into the musical formula "played - sung - played" (PSP). The type of vowel (high or low tongue position), in turn, is related to the pitch of the vocal sound.

Continuation of the case study

The data on the frequency of occurrence of vocal sounds per position in the Timonia performance on 1.20.91 shows high regularity in the placement of vocal sounds for both para (five-pipe) set players. Figure 10 demonstrates graphically the probability of occurrence of vocal sounds on the positions of the Timonia period.

Figure 10

Figure 10. Probability of occurrence of vocal sounds for positions of a period.

We can see from this graph that most of the positions of the Timonia period are either vocalized or not, with very high probability, that is, the placement of vocal sounds by each player cannot be called random. On the other hand, the rhythm of vocal sounds does not seem to correlate to the 'deep structure' of the tune as shown by the rule 1. Rather, each player has her own favorite quasi-verbal formula which defines the general rhythm of her vocal sound production. This formula is established only gradually in the process of performance. For the first player it can be represented by the sequence of syllables "fiuf, fiu-fa, fiu-fa, fiuf", while the second player produces the sequence "fef, fef, fef-ka". For each player the syllable with the vowel [a] (low position of the tongue) is lower in pitch than the others, and it can only appear in connection with another vocal sound at the preceding position. In contrast, the syllables with high-pitch/high- position vowels are placed independently and interpolated with one or more pipe sounds.

Despite the obvious difference between the players' styles, there are a certain number of common features in their strategies. For example, both players avoid vocal sounds on the border lines of musical syntactic units (period and half period, positions 1, 6 and 12). This leaves the vocal sounds for the inner positions of a structure, which allows for maximum variation and flexibility in the sounds played on the pipes (see above). In these moments the attention of a player may be safely shifted to vocal sounds, which are more elusive in their pitch and timing than the "rigid" pipe sounds. The latter, in turn, gain their significance in cadential, structurally important points where the stability is marked. We can use the image of a nut -- with a hard shell and a soft kernel -- to express the relationship between vocal and instrumental parts typical for a para player's performance.

Returning to the graph in figure 10, we can see that positions 5 and 8 are vocalized in both players' parts. The other middle positions are filled differently for each player. For player 1, the vocalization is almost invariably done beyond positions 5 and 8, also on positions 2, 4, 7 and 11. For player 2 the predominant placement of vocal sounds on positions 3, 5, 8 and 9 is particular for this performance. The reason for this is that the second performer listens to the first one and immediately responds to the vocal sound initiated by her. Respectively, this task affects the choice of the pipes for the second player. Once introduced, vocal sounds tend to "freeze" her line played on the pipes, because her attention is now concentrated on the vocal responses to the first player.

There are several different strategies for the choice of pitch for the vocal sound in relation to the surrounding pipe pitches. The vocal sound can be inserted in between two different pipes, both in ascending and descending succession. In this case the pitch of the vocal sound can be the same as the preceding pipe sound, the same as the following pipe sound, or different from both. If the vocal sound is inserted between the same pipe sound, it can be either the same as the pipe pitch, or different from it. The para players in the recording in question vary their use of these possibilities. Table 3 summarizes their strategies.

Table 3

Table 3. Relations of vocal pitch to the pitch of the surrounding pipe sounds.

Correlation between the vocal sound and the pipe pitch is more typical for the second player than for the first one. Also for the second player, in an ascending order of pipes, the correlation of vocal pitch more often occurs with the following pipe. In a descending sequence of pipes it is reversed; typically, the vocal pitch follows the pitch of the first pipe. The second player does not use vocal sounds of a different pitch while moving between two pipes. On the contrary, it is prominent for the first player, who uses it in more than half the cases. Her playing gives an impression that vocal and instrumental lines are more independent from each other and at the same time strictly together in terms of co-ordination. This quality distinguishes the best panpipe players in this tradition. However, even if the vocal sound is different in pitch from both surrounding pipe sounds, it still fits into the deep structure of the tune described by rule 1.

For both players, the total number of cases where the vocal sound appears between the repetition of the same pipe is not large, compared with the placement of it between different pipes. Thus, we can conclude that the vocal sounds are typically correlated with the head movements, i.e. the players do not switch their attention alternatively between the two different (instrumental and vocal) modes of sound production, but rather perform them simultaneously, each with its own rhythm and inner logic.

In conclusion, we can summarize the vocal technique in this performance with the following rules:

  1. The vocal sounds are organized in sequences which are correlated to the size of a tune's period in such a way that the vocal sounds are avoided at its most structurally significant points.
  2. Each sequence is an alternation of syllables with high and low position vowels.
  3. The syllables with low-position vowels cannot start the sequence or appear independently (i.e. without a directly preceding syllable).
  4. The syllables with high-position vowels must be separated from one another by at least one position occupied by a pipe sound.
  5. All vocal sounds are preferably inserted in correlation with the players' head movements between the pipes.

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