News Column

Harmonic convergence: Timothy Hill's otherworldly vocal prowess

May 31, 2013


May 31--Timothy Hill's version of the 1930 Blind Willie Johnson song "Soul of a Man" is easy and soulful -- and "normal" until three minutes in. At that point, Hill temporarily transforms into a singer of abstract sound, which occupies two realms simultaneously: his low voice and a high, spooky "bell tone" that may remind you of a science-fiction movie.

It's called harmonic singing, and it is achieved by altering the resonating cavities in the mouth, sinuses, and throat. Hill has been doing it for decades. Probably the best-known disc that has featured these special vocals is 1983's Hearing Solar Winds, with Hill performing as a member of David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir.

"I'm a singer-songwriter. That was my musical start," said Hill, who performs at Gig Performance Space on Friday, May 31. "But then I got very curious about the world of music, and I joined David Hykes' group. I've been doing harmonic singing now for more than half of my life. That's this very abstract field of music. The choir's music has very little text.

"It's like re-entering a ritual every time we sing together. My own music is still rooted in the American singer-songwriter tradition. For a long time those worlds were separate for me, and then I became interested in trying to bridge them and have this sort of abstract place I can go to. For me that's where the life of the music is, so very often I'll start with a normal song, then at some point get into a different realm.

"Harmonic singing has become more known, particularly through Tibetan monks, but even though people have heard it, they don't necessarily know what it is. Like, what was that whistling sound? One of the connotations it has for me is a little bit like the way Dylan uses the harmonica."

He has performed on eight recordings by David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir. He also studied Indian classical music with Pandit Vijay Kichlu and Sheila Dhar. He has worked with singers Katell Keineg and Cathal McConnell and Klezmer clarinetist Giora Feidman and has participated in performances under the direction of composers John Cage and Butch Morris.

Hill has done a lot of teaching over the years. Since 2006 he has been a visiting lecturer at Bard College in New York's Hudson Valley. "They started a graduate program directed by Dawn Upshaw. I'm brought in as a kind of consultant on harmonic singing and other vocal traditions. The way I'm teaching it is not as an exotic technique but as a foundation of how to approach the voice."

And Hill is an authority. In addition to his chops in that eerily beautiful harmonic singing, he possesses a fine voice, a satisfying blend of sweet and husky. His most recent CD, The Other Side, features a few of his own compositions as well as covers of tunes by Blind Willie Johnson and George and Ira Gershwin; the traditional songs "I Looked Down the Line," "The Water Is Wide," and "The Lone Pilgrim"; and a wonderful recitation of "Jheeni Jheeni Bini Chadariya" by the mystic poet Kabir.

Hill has a history of involvement in the music of another mystic, the Georgian philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff. "As I understand it, this is music he either composed or remembered from his experiences and then composed it in collaboration with the conservatory-educated composer Thomas de Hartmann. It was a really interesting meeting of Eastern and Western sensibilities, and that's been a powerful influence on me."

Hill's biography includes work with jazzmen Jeff Haynes, Doug Weiss, Keith Jarrett, and Bill Frisell. "I played piano in a band with Bill many years ago. I put him in my bio to give people an idea about my musical values. He's a very influential guitarist, but he's also a very unusual guitarist. He hears things differently and he plays what he hears. I met Keith the year after I started working with David Hykes. It was a Jarrett workshop in Vermont, and I sang for him and he was interested in that. He came to hear the Harmonic Choir, and we remained friends."

Hill was a musical guest at the recent annual meeting of the Innocence Project, an organization devoted to exonerating people wrongfully con- victed of crimes. He performed the Dylan song "I Shall Be Released" and said it was "a pretty incredible experience because there were about 18 honorees, all of whom had served jail time for crimes they didn't commit." Another of the singer's long-term commitments is the Weave Vocal Research Group, now in its 16th year. It's made up of three current or former members of the Harmonic Choir plus one singer from South India.

Hill performs with the Hykes choir again on June 14 in Sweden. But first he comes to New Mexico. May 31 marks his first-ever appearance in Santa Fe. The next day, he hits the Albuquerque Folk Festival. "I've been doing the festival for a number of years," he said. "Usually I do a set of songs and a singing workshop, introducing people to harmonic singing. The festival is fairly eclectic, but most of the people are into more old-timey stuff than what I do, so I try to cater to that. But Gig is a whole evening I have to myself, and they have a really nice grand piano. Usually I accompany myself on guitar, but if there's a nice piano I play that."

If you're not familiar with Hill, you may want to visit and listen to samples of his music, including "Soul of a Man" from The Other Side. He made that album in 2012. He is at work on others, although he admitted that "it's hard to know what any of this means now. Everybody says it's all going to digital downloads, but I'm still thinking of these things as CD projects."

Hill contributed to the 2013 disc Pete Seeger: The Storm King, a collection of stories and poems by Seeger set to new music created by more than 70 musicians. And 2013 will see the release of David Rothenberg's book/CD Bug Music, which features a segment of Hill singing with crickets.

In this vein, he performed with Rothenberg and accordionist Pauline Oliveros on May 22 in New York City. "David is a jazz clarinetist and a philosophy professor and an author. [Bug] Music is part of a trilogy of books. The first was about birds, and the second about whales. Each has come with a companion CD of him and other musicians playing with the animals, recorded or live.

"In preparation for this book, he went somewhere where there were thousands of cicadas, and he played his saxophone covered with cicadas. The music is a little out there. He invited me last summer to go out at dusk and sing in the fields with katydids, and I tried to be musical with them."


--Timothy Hill

8 p.m. Friday, May 31

Gig Performance Space, 1808 Second St.

$15 at the door;

--Albuquerque Folk Festival

Timothy Hill workshop 10:30 a.m., concert 2:30 p.m. (Mt. Taylor Stage),

Saturday, June 1

Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum,

9201 Balloon Museum Drive N.E.

Festival tickets $20, $15 in advance, discounts available,

workshop no additional charge; see


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