Mark van Tongeren is a sound explorer and performance artist with a
PhD in artistic research from Leiden University. He did ground-breaking
research and vocal experiments in the field of overtone singing, which
he began studying around 1990. He feels equally at home ‘in the field’
to study and practice indigenous vocal techniques, as in experimental
performance art, using voice, small instruments and/or electronics.
He received his M.A. in ethnomusicology from the University of
Amsterdam and has taught world music at the Royal Conservatory in The
Hague. His PhD from the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts
at Leiden University explores the boundaries of science and art and is
entitled Thresholds of the Audible: about the Polyphony of the Body.
During his PhD studies he founded a vocal laboratory (Paraphony) to
develop little known aspects of multi-voiced harmonic singing. He
created a series of compositions for two or more voices, called 0…
(‘Nulpunten’ or ‘Zero-points’), which make audible hundreds of possible
connections or permutations within the natural harmonic series, so that
it ‘encounters itself.’ The results were presented in 2010 and 2013 by
Mark van Tongeren and Rollin Rachelle, aka the Superstringtrio, in the
performances entitled 0… and Incognito Ergo Sum in Amsterdam and Poland. Composer Paul Oomen also conducted the three-hour Overtone Singing Marathon held at the occasion of van Tongeren’s PhD defense in 2013.
Incognito Ergo Sum with Rollin Rachele
He began his performance carreer with the artists – contructors of Silo Theatre
of Amsterdam (De Parade, Oerol), where he did sound-design, and created
live and recorded soundtracks (1992 until 1998). In 1999 he presented
new vocal works in The Trumpets of Jericho, alongside the Trivento organ of the project’s initiator Horst Rickels,
and singing ‘with’ and ‘through’ Tjeerd Oostendorp’s 7-meter long tuba.
In 2001 he was artist-in residence at the School of Music of Victoria
University in Wellington, New Zealand for Jack Body’s
Secret Sounds project, producing the CD-Rom Secret Sounds and several
performances. with Phil Dadson (NZ), Leo Tadagawa (JP) and Bennicio
Sokong (PH). At the Silk Road Festival in Washington, D.C. he performed
as a throat singer with the festival’s initiator – cellist Yo-Yo Ma –
over one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites (2002).
throat singing with cellist Yo-Yo Ma at the Smithsonian Folklife/Silk Road Festival
From 1995 onward van Tongeren has made solo appearances as a singer
in the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Finland, Germany, New Zealand,
Belgium, China, the USA and most recently in Taiwan (Taipei, Chiayi). In
1995 he received a special prize at the International Throat Singing
Festival in Tuva, Siberia (the same festival documented for the famous
Gengghis Blues documentary).
He is featured on CD-ROM’s and DVDs, including Secret Sounds (an audio-visual guide to overtone singing and Jew’s harps with Jack Body; Ode Records); Raum Klang Stimme / Space Sound Voice (documentary about overtone singing by Minghao Xu; Traumzeit Verlag). His CDs include Paraphony-Extended Harmonic Techniques, a solo exploration of the resonances of the voice and space (Ode Records), Etos (with Oorbeek, Nice Noise Foundation) and Sphere by his ensemble Parafonia (Fusica). Horst Rickels’ piece Lift-Off, written for Parafonia, is also featured in Jiska Rickels’ award winning documentary Four Elements. Van Tongeren is featured prominently on Deer Woman,
composed by Taiwanese film music composer Cincin Lee with Van Tongeren
as a soloist. This CD was nominated for Taiwan’s Golden Melody Awards
An unusual collaboration was his involvement in the realisation of
the world première of a work by the renowned Russian composer Dimitri
Shoshtakovich (1906-1975), 28 years after his death. He assisted
conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald at restoring the lost score of the film Odna
(“Alone”), by directors Kozintsev and Trauberg (1931). Van Tongeren
transcribed an original piece of Altay throat singing that was used for
the film and took part in several screenings of Odna with live
music, including the 2003 world première in The Netherlands. In 2008
Naxos published Fitz-Gerald’s CD recording in Germany with van
In 2002 Fusica published the book Overtone Singing – Physics and Metaphysics of Harmonics in East and West
(Fusica/Eburon), the fruit of over 10 years of scholarly and artistic
research on this vocal technique. It is the first book-CD to document
comprehensively the traditional and modern forms of this unusual vocal
art. It exemplifies Van Tongeren’s interest to fuse intuitive and
creative processes of singing and art with theoretical issues and
Van Tongeren began extending his array of small, toy and ethnic instruments, as well as a Korg Kaoss Pad, while playing with Oorbeek,
an Amsterdam-based collective of artists exploring the boundaries of
sound and visual art. Oorbeek is one of his most enduring
collaborations. Though very un-typical for Oorbeek, their televised
adaptation of John Cage’s 4’33” was selected in 2017 as one of the pearls of 70 years Holland Festival.
He played with Collision Palace, an Amsterdam-based improv collective led by Nathan Fuhr (NYC), in John Zorn’s game piece Cobra.
In New Zealand he collaborated with former Scratch Orchestra member
Phil Dadson and Japanese singer/performer/bandleader Makigami Koichi in Off the Wall: Vocal Acrobats.
He provided electronic/vocal soundtracks for several animation
video’s by Oorbeek’s Serge Onnen, displayed in New York and in MOCA
Taipei, and took part in several of Onnen’s live shadowperformances with
Oorbeek or as a duo on in Beijing.
In Taipei Onnen and van Tongeren presented new works for
video/shadow/sound at the Taipei Artist Village (together with
composer/guzheng player Tung Chao-Ming) and Lacking Sound Festival. Also
in 2014, he began collaborating with the dancers of Biao/Horse, in a
project produced for the Chang Kai Shek National Theatre in Taipei
collaborating with pianist Lee Shih-Yang and cellist Chen Yu-Rong. More
dance collaborations followed, with Biao’s Yeh Ming-Hwa (2015, 2016,
2017) and with Taipei Dance Circle.
As a teacher, Van Tongeren gave a one-minute crash course of overtone
singing for His Royal Highness the Aga Khan and secretary of state
Colin Powell at the opening ceremony of the Silk Road / Smithsonian
Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. (2002). (usually learning to sing
overtones takes longer, though). He has taught overtone singing
workshops and courses for exploring/integrating the dynamics of voice,
mind and body at various universities (Victoria School of Music,
Wellington NZ; TNUA, Taipei TW) and privately. He teaches semester-long
courses at National Cheng-Chi University’s creative department
(X-Academy) in Taipei. Since 2012 he offers weekly Voice Yoga classes at
Canjune and since 2014 a year-long Resonance course in Taipei.
An enduring passion and artistic influence are local musical
traditions from around the world. Since the 1990s Van Tongeren has
studied music, singing and ritual in Siberia and Russia (Tuva, Altay,
Khakassiya, Kalmukiya), Mongolia, India (Tibetan monks in Dharamsala),
Sardinia and Corsica (polyphonic singing) and Taiwan. His move to Taiwan
prompted a further study of its indigenous music and dance,
particularly through the traditions of the Bunun and Saisiyat tribes. In
Israel, Dutch composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven organised yearly events to
empower Palestinian artist in East-Jeruzalem. In 2010, Twaalfhoven
invited composer Paul Oomen, who guided a unique meeting between Firaz
Gazzaz, a well-known Palestinian muezzin (reciter of the koran), and van
Since 2010 Van Tongeren lives in Taiwan with his wife June and his children Attar and Illy.
The most prolific researcher in the field of overtone singing is a
man with many faces. His name is Tran Quang Hai and you can call him
(and all options are correct): Vietnamese or French; a professional
musician or a professional musicologist; an instrumentalist or a singer;
an improviser or a composer; a traditional, a popular or an
experimental musician (all three will do); an expert in Vietnamese
traditional musics and an astute chronicler of its year-to-year
development in the past decades.* Tran Quang Hai has a new book out
celebrating his 50 years of music research in many different areas. We
recently met in Paris, where he shared some interesting facts about the
Vietnamese Jew’s harp (dan moi) I did not know before. On the
trip back to Amsterdam I read most of the articles in his book that I
had not seen before, so more on that too. Before talking about our
meeting, his book and the origin of the word dan moi (Jew’s harp), some historical background. Since Hai is Tran Quang Hai’s first name I will refer to him as Hai.
I learned of Hai’s work on overtone singing in the early 1990s. When I
got to know him personally, I was astounded and (I will admit) a bit
intimidated by his unbridled energy. He loves to share what he does, and
he is in fact overflowing with enthusiasm: for overtone singing, for
Vietnamese music, for playing the Jew’s harp and spoons, for
ethnomusicology, for his constant travels as a performer and teacher.
After my visits I was usually exhilirated (about all the new things I
had learned or shared with him) and at the same time exhausted (feeling
my life was a mess with no progress at all).
In fact, going to Paris has been almost synonymous with visiting Hai and his lovely wife Bach Yen (whose singing carreer goes way way back).
And these visits became almost synonymous with absolutely great
Vietnamese food. Bach Yen often spent hours and hours to buy fine
ingredients like all kinds of fresh leaves, vegetables, seafood and meat
and prepare them the Vietnamese way. We would have excellent diners,
drank nice wine, as the couple made an annual ‘pilgrimage’ to different
regions in France to stock up on boxes of quality wine to share with
friends at home.
After moving to Taiwan, my encounters with Tran Quang Hai were
scarce, and visits to both of them even more. In 2019, it has been
around ten years since we last met in Paris. So I was delighted to see
them again some weeks ago. Tran Quang Hai retired a decade ago from the
ethnomusicology department at the Musée de L’Homme in Paris, but has
remained an active performer and workshop leader for all these years.
Bach Yen is a famous singer of popular songs and entertainment music, as
well as a singer of many different genres of traditional music.
Together they have given hundreds of concerts in Europe and elsewhere,
and they continue to do so. Here is a photo of their appearance in Genoa, Italy, a week or so after I met them.
Late August, when I walked down the platform of Gare de Lyon, Hai and
Bach Yen were waiting for me. Once again I was overwhelmed to be in
their buzzing, energetic presence. The first thing they did, was to get
out their cameras and make many photos together. Then we strolled to
their car, and their warm hands and arms embraced my arms. I sometimes
think of myself as someone who easily touches people, but this time I
thought I am quite distant compared to them. It was really (excusez le
mot) touching to stroll down the platform chatting and to be
‘wrapped’ by their tender hands and arms on both sides. Hai told me once
about using his hands to heal people and showed me some methods. But it
seems the couple just radiates warmth and energy naturally, even
without using a special method.
For our Vietnamese food, this time we drove to a place called Pho Bida, pronounced Fo Beeyaa. Pho is the famous Vietnamese noodle soup, but what about Bida?
It turns out to be derived from ‘billiard’, as the former location of
this restaurant housed a popular billiard room as well. The place is not
very spacious but we were early and could chose any seat. By the time
we left lots of people waited outside. The food was great and loved by
Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike: highly recommended! (Pho Bida Vietnam, 36 rue Nationale, 75013 Paris)
Tran Quang Hai’s New Book
When we sat down, Hai gave me his new book, a thick volume with many
of his articles and listst of all his achievements, titles, appearances,
etc. organized in a single volume. Some articles I have known for a
long time. So I particularly enjoyed reading those things I did not know
First, an article about Vietnamese music and its historical
background, very helpful for understanding the relationship to Chinese
music and culture. It also covers many of the recent developments in
Vietnamese music, making it in effect a kind of encyclopaedic entry into
Vietnam and all its music. With this work Hai most clearly follows in
the footsteps of his late father Tran Van Khe, also a well-known
musician and musicologist.
“Tran Quang Hai. 50 Years of Research in Vietnamese Traditional Music and Overtone Singing.”
Second, an article that accompanied a double CD issued in France in
1997, dedicated to the absolutely fascinating world of mountain tribe
musics in Vietnam. There is a dazzling array of types of instruments and
ways of playing, and these liner notes give a good overview of this
If you are interested in overtone singing and still love printed
matter, as I do myself, then this is a good way to get your (physical)
hands on several key articles on this technique by Dr. Tran Quang Hai
and understand the background of his research. (Note for academic
readers: for research purposes it is better to consult online pdfs of
the articles in their original format). Available here.
Tran Quang Hai and the Dan Moi
During our lunch I also learned where the common name of the
Vietnamese brass Jew’s harp comes from. It is usually referred to as dan moi, which is a Vietnamese word (compare for example dan tranh/đàn tranh, the plucked zither, or the unique one-string zither dan bau/đàn bầu).
However, the thin, finely crafted Jew’s harp, probably smaller than any
other type of Jew’s harp, originates from the mountain tribes who live
close to Yunnan in South China. The Hmong’s native language and culture
has little to do with that of the dominant Viet or Kinh ethnic group,
who are historically tied to China. When travelling in the mountains in
North Vietnam (around Sapa), I encountered the Hmong people who play
this instrument and managed to get one made locally by their craftsmen.
They referred to it as gya, phonetically speaking, though in writing it is referred to as djam. A
personal note from Tran Quang Hai shortly after publishing this post:
the Hmong name of the Jew’s harp is ncas (pronounced ncha).
The djam I bought in Sapa from girls who played the instrument along the mountain road. (photo by the author).
So I asked Hai how the name dan moi came about. He
explained: there is no Jew’s harp in the music of the ethnic Vietnamese.
So when he learned about the traditions of the mountain people around
50 years ago, he had to make up a new name himself in order to
accommodate the minorities’ instrument in the system and language of
Vietnam. To use ‘dan’ (meaning ‘instrument’) was an obvious beginning
point. Hai decided to add ‘moi’ for lips, to designate it is played
between the lips. Most brass or metal Jew’s harps are held against the
teeth, with the lamella vibrating between the teeth; the dan moi
is held between the lips and vibrates there. In this sense it is more
like a type of wooden or bamboo Jew’s harp, particularly the ones
vibrated by a string attached to one side.
A Hmong girl playing the djam for me in 2003 (photo by the author).
The dan moi went on to become a very popular instrument around the
world once non-Vietnamese musicians discovered them, at the turn of the
millenium. Many people asked me for it when I brought them back in 2003.
I remember giving one to Tuvan throat singer Sainkho around 2004. She
immediately fell for its bright sound and expressive qualities, and
asked for more several times after (and so did other people). At the
same time, a German company saw the potential of this cheap instrument
to reach a huge audience and set up (web)shop, calling it www.danmoi.com. It has a become a one-stop shop to buy all kinds of Jew’s harps. So dan moi, Hai’s new name for the djham, a minority instrument, and for Jew’s harps in general, now has become sort of a symbol of 21st
century global Jew’s harp culture. And it seems to be growing year by
year: here in Taiwan I have seen many new Jew’s harp enthusiasts taking
the stages recently, often sporting a collection of world Jew’s harps,
including, of course, the dan moi.
Here is a video where you see the movement of the dan moi lamella in slow motion, played by Hai’s student Dang Khai Nguyen.
(the blog itself amounts to a ‘wikipedia’ of sorts for
throat/overtone singing, where you will find a huge amount o copies of
scientific and popular articles, videos, and indeed copies of wikipedia
entries, as well as some original posts about Hai’s workshops and
Go here to find more entries in English and in Vietnamese:
Finally, back to some Asian flavour, but East-Asian instead of the
South-East Asian of Hai’s origins. Here is a hilarious video from the
time Hai was flown into Japan to demonstrate overtone/throat singing in a
hypertheatrical popular entertainment program.
* OK, for this one I have no way to tell if it is true, but Hai does
mention in his new book (page 32) that he wrote “more than 500 articles
in Vietnamese for 30 Vietnamese magazines in America, Europe, Asia and
Mark van Tongeren is a sound explorer and ethnomusicologist who has worked independantly for theatre, radio, clubs, universities and conservatories as a performer, music teacher, dj and researcher.
He feels equally at home ‘in the field’ to study and practice indigenous vocal techniques, as in cutting-edge experimentation in sound and vision, using his voice and a wide array of instruments small and large.
He divides his time equally between the performing arts and music research. He specializes in the performing arts of Turco-Mongol peoples and extended uses of the voice. He is well-known as an author, singer, teacher and speaker in the ancient Turco-Mongolian art of throat singing (or khöömei) and its contemporary, western variant called overtone singing.
He founded his own enterprise Fusica in 1998. In 1999 he co-founded the North Asia Institute Tengri, which is dedicated to the study, dissemination and exchange of the cultural traditions of this little-known part of Asia.
Mark gives workshops, concerts and private lessons in overtone- and throatsinging and other extended vocal techniques upon request.
Sinan Arat (ney, voice) and Mark van Tongeren (voice, overtone singing, Jew’s harp, sruti box, bendir) meet for the very time and look for overlaps in their repertoires. Registration of a live concert in the Oosterkerk, Amsterdam, Sunday 15/VII/2018. Produced by Fusica / http://www.fusica.nl Playlist: 00:00 Ekmelia/Yörel (Mark van Tongeren) 03:21 Segah Taksim (Modal Improvisation on ney) (Sinan Arat) 05:42 Bass Brass (Jew’s harp) (Mark van Tongeren) 08:59 Segah Hymn Bana seni gerek seni (Music: Anonymous Lyrics: Yunus Emre (1238 – 1320) (Sinan Arat) 13:19 Voice of Bendir (Mark van Tongeren) 18:00 Cascadescan (Mark van Tongeren) 21:45 Human Condition (vocal improvisation) (Sinan Arat & Mark van Tongeren) 25:25 You Am (voice and sruti box) Mark van Tongeren) 34:00 Muhayyer Kurdi Taksim ( Modal Improvisation) 38:50 Muhayyer Hymn Uyan ey gozlerim (music: Ali Ufki Bey) (Sinan Arat) 41:09 Variations on the Yakut Khomus (Siberian Jew’s harp) (Mark van Tongeren) 46:35 Unknown Territories (Overtone singing and ney) (Sinan Arat & Mark van Tongeren) 53:35 Ah nice bir Uyursun Uyanmaz Misin (music: anonymous; lyrics: Yunus Emre) (Sinan Arat & Mark van Tongeren 55:50 Huseyni Hymn “Severim Ben Seni” (music: Anonymous; lyrics: Yunus Emre) (Sinan Arat & Mark van Tongeren) Video and audio recording and editing: Casper Steketee Thanks to Nanny Roed Lauridsen and The Oosterkerk, Amsterdam and to Fons Elders, part of the ouroboros phenomenon, for title suggestions. Produced by Fusica http://www.fusica.nl