The music of Baird Hersey’s a cappella vocal group Prana shares many of the ethereally beautiful and exotic qualities of whalesong. Unlike our finned relatives’ vocalizations, however, Prana’s music is instantly accessible, with a profound capacity to quiet and focus the listener.
Founded in 1999, Prana combines the ancient traditions of multiphonic Buddhist chant and Tuvan throat singing, or overtone singing, in which vocalists generate two or more tones simultaneously, traditionally a low drone with delicate flutelike overtones. Prana’s material, however, is newly composed by Hersey, a former guitarist and the founder of the experimental big band The Year of the Ear (TYOTE), which flourished from the mid-’70s into the early ’80s.
“It is quite a distance [from TYOTE to Prana], both in terms of dissonance versus more harmonic sound, and also in terms of time,” says Hersey. As he’s grown older, he adds, his work has shifted from an expressive “to a more communicative mode, even though it may be a very subtle communication.” Central to that shift is “a fairly strenuous yoga practice” Hersey has followed for 18 years, a life-changing experience that inspires his musical efforts.
Introduced to overtone singing techniques in the ’80s by percussionist David Moss, Hersey eventually developed a technique that allows singers to use their normal singing voices rather than the traditional low drone. This approach allows greater harmonic and textural freedom.
By the late ’90s, Hersey found the “direct connection” between the heart and the voice was much more satisfying than having to translate feeling through an instrument. “The singing became my direct focus,” he says, “and the guitar fell away” after 40 years of playing.
While the harmonic content of TYOTE and Prana are dramatically different, the compositions for the two groups share a common vocabulary for arranging sound—such as “the idea of nonpulsative time, the idea of setting up textures by having many voices doing the same thing at their own rate”—which has evolved over Hersey’s career.
Prana’s objectives are both musical and spiritual. “It’s my goal to make something undeniably beautiful,” says Hersey. “It is the idea of making something so beautiful that it can change people’s lives, and falling short of that—which we do 99.9 percent of the time—to create something that allows people to have a moment of peace and stillness. It is a musical experience, but it is also a meditative experience.”