The musical album Beyond Karma is a rare mix of sacred sounds from different cultures. The Gyuto Monks of Tibet (the group that ushered in the West’s appreciation and fascination with traditional chant through a series of best-selling albums starting in the late-1960s) are joined by Australia’s finest sacred music duo, Kim Cunio and Heather Lee, on this recording of traditional and newly-composed music from Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The album on New Earth Records (NewEarthRecords dot com) was arranged and produced by Dr. Kim Cunio, a renowned musician, musicologist and composer of sacred music, and Australia’s leading interpreter of traditional sacred musical traditions. Heather Lee is a multi-lingual soprano singer. Theirs is a professional and a personal partnership, and their marriage is a celebration of religious diversity including Jewish, Christian and Hindu traditions. With their adopted Indian son Babu (who sings on one piece from this album), they are a model of interfaith marriage. Cunio and Lee are prolific in their explorations of sacred music. For example, they worked together on an historic, audacious and scholarly musical project in 2000 based on the Dead Sea Scrolls when they transcribed the 2000-year-old music of the Baghdadi Jews and merged it with the text of the Scrolls. In addition to the team’s expertise in singing, Cunio plays many traditional instruments, and has had a number of ancient instruments specially reconstructed for specific projects.
The Gyuto Monks of Tibet are pure tantric masters whose strict daily practice stands at the very pinnacle of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but they are no strangers when it comes to recording. Their sound has been recorded by musicologists (Huston Smith in 1967; David Lewiston in 1974 and 1977; among others), pop stars (Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead in 1989) and kirtan masters to name but a few. Considered one of the world’s music treasures, the Gyuto Monks are especially known for their sonorous, grandiloquent sound, immensely low range and the sheer power of their harmonic chant. Chanting between a low A and C, almost an octave below the regular male range, the clusters of their notes and harmonics are one of the greatest living vocal techniques. The monks’ lives are lived in prayer. Their sound is not just music, but tantric practice, and this does not change whether they are in a temple, on a stage or in a recording studio. The Gyuto Tantric University is one of the great monastic institutions, founded in 1475 by Jetsun Kunga Dhondup who is believed to have started the monks tradition of overtone singing, also described as chordal chanting. Some Westerners heard their recordings from the Sixties and Seventies, but the Gyuto Monks rose to widespread prominence and worldwide acclaim with their 1986 album Tibetan Tantric Choir, a series of concerts with the Grateful Dead in the USA in 1995, their 1997 appearance in the film and on the soundtrack of Seven Years in Tibet, and their previous recording on New Earth Records, Pure Sounds, which was nominated for a 2011 Grammy award in the Traditional World Music category.
Cunio is a regular lecturer at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in Brisbane. He has composed and produced numerous music projects for CD, radio and television. An accomplished researching composer, he was awarded an ABC Golden Manuscript Award in 2004 in recognition of his work with traditional and Islamic music. Commissions have included music for the Art in Islam exhibition and Indian sacred music for the Garden & Cosmos exhibition, both at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; Songs to RA, music for the Egyptian Antiquities exhibition from the Louvre; The Temple Project, setting ancient Psalms and Biblical texts to Baghdadian Jewish chant on replica instruments; and Buddha Realms, a compilation showing the diversity of Buddhist music. CDs have included Music of the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Sacred Fire: The Music of Hildegard of Bingen, The Temple Project: The Thread of Life (a reuniting of Arabic and Jewish musicians), and Sweet Dreams (lullabies from around the world). Lee is an award-winning singer and soloist who has focused on both sacred traditional music and western classical music in her career. She has performed in many of the leading venues and companies of Australia including the Victorian State Opera, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Opera House, and the Cameron Macintosh CATS tour of Australia and New Zealand.
While the focal point of the Beyond Karma album is the wide-range of vocals, both sung and chanted, the recording also features a combination of Eastern and Western instruments, including piano, harmonium, tanpura, santour, violin, viola, cello, joza, wooden flute, oud, didjeridoo and percussion.
“What I love is finding ways to make the endangered music of the world live again without affecting its lineage or integrity,” states Cunio. “And in between that I will write music in many settings with anything from fully scored Western instruments, to traditional instruments that are rarely notated, or with samples and synthesis. Beyond Karma has a bit of all of that.”
Cunio says, “In April 2014, Heather and I spent an incredible week with the Gyuto Monks, chanting, singing, playing together and giving a concert. In this album we have recreated the feeling of that concert, combining Tibetan chant with other traditions, as well as writing accompaniments and responses to the music of our dear friends.”
“Beyond Karma is a meeting of two ensembles who take sacred music to places it does not normally go,” explains Heather Lee. “Singing high with the Gyuto Monks is an experience like no other for me. I am anchored in a well of sound and our combined range of more than five octaves is an aural feast.”
The combining of Lee’s voice with the monks begins on the title tune which combines two traditions of sacred chant sung at the same time — the Morning Meditation practice of the Gyuto Monks with the exquisite Ashkenazi Jewish prayer “Y’hu L’Ratzon.” Australian aboriginal music meets Tibetan culture on the second piece, the solo “Karma Burning” chant backed with a didgeridoo played by Ash Dargan. The setting shifts again on track three, “O Pastor Animarum,” written in Germany in the 1050s by Hildegard of Bingen, and featuring the singing of Lee. On “Tantric Grace,” Cunio accompanies the monks on piano and strings, and the piece unfolds slowly to allow great introspection. In this, as in all the texts of the Gyuto Monks, the actual words and their meanings are secret.
“Unity of Life,” explains Cunio, “is a live recording and the epitome of this project as the ‘Homage’ and ‘Invocation’ chants of the Gyuto Monks are heard throughout the recitation of the ‘Sh’mah Yisrael,’ a prayer of Baghdadi Judaism.” “Unity of Life” has a full ensemble: The Gyuto Monks, Kim Cunio singing and playing harmonium and tanpura, Heather Lee singing, Anne Hildyard singing and playing flute, Llew Kiek on oud and Tunji Beier on percussion. The piece “Mahakala” is central to the life of a Gyuto Monk and is chanted alone, here by Lobsang Tsetan (also playing the traditional Nga Chen drum) and accompanied by Ash Dargan on the didgeridoo. “Lament for a Lost Home” is a new composition by Kim Cunio using a poem by contemporary Iraqi poet Bader Shakir Al-Sayyab and featuring Iraqi string master Nawres Al-Freh (joza and violin), plus Lee singing in her operatic voice while the monks chant at their deepest in a cycle of six beats, and capturing a shared symbolism between both Tibet and Iraq as lost homelands for the thousands of refugees forced to flee. “As The Sun Sets” is a solo piano piece by Cunio inspired by his time with the monks. “The Suffering of the World” is based on the favorite prayer of the Dalai Lama and is sung by the nine-year-old Samarai (Babu) Cunio.
“Working with the Gyuto Monks reminds me that it is possible in this life of ours to embody the qualities we value. If the Gyuto Monks can preserve such dedication and practice, we can be motivated to do more, both for ourselves and for others,” states Cunio. “I feel this album heralds the beginning of a wonderful musical journey together as well as a support to the grandest of spiritual ambitions.”