A heavy brass bowl, as smooth to touch as it is to look at, sits on the middle of the floor in a Columbia recording studio. Peer inside and you’ll find it empty.
But let Neal Miller make one concentrated sweep with a carved, wooden stick along the rim and the bowl is suddenly full — of sound.
The bowl resonates like a human voice or a bell that, even when you think the sound will surely cease, continues vibrating and ringing. You can almost see the trembling sound waves pulsate off the walls; the lower tones hum and the higher tones sound other-worldly.
This “singing bowl” is one of the many that the Deli Llama Orchestra uses to make music in a way similar to rubbing a wet finger on the rim of a crystal glass; wooden sticks, ranging in thickness, take the place of the finger.
The Deli Llama Orchestra, a group of Columbia-area musicians who have met since the mid-1970s, started out as the Lunch Bunch. But a name change came after Miller introduced the Tibetan bowls.
Miller, who started playing the piano when he was 4 years old and now plays the violin, first cottoned to the idea of playing singing bowls through a dream, he said. In the dream, he heard music and, when he tried to find it, turned a corner to see two men in orange robes rubbing the rims of bowls.
“I asked a friend what he knew about men in orange robes with bowls,” Miller said, “and he told me about the Tibetan monks.”
He later found bowls resembling those from one of his dreams, and the owner of these bowls gave him one made by the second Dalai Lama, who lived from 1475 to 1541. The bowl owner said he had received it from Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, who had asked him to pass the bowl on to someone with potential; Miller seemed to be that person.
When the Dalai Lama visited St. Louis in 1993, he recognized Miller’s bowl at a peace conference as the bowl previously in his possession.
“He comes over to me,” Miller recalled, his excitement building, “kisses my hand and says, ‘I am so glad you got the bowl I sent you.’”
The orchestra starting playing the bowls, which Miller called the “icing on the cake” for the group, in 1992. Because they always met at lunch, they decided to call themselves the Deli Llama Orchestra, Miller said.
When they play, the resonating or “singing” of these bowls creates haunting tones depending on the size of the bowl, the pressure applied with the stick or the thickness of the rim. Multiple “bowlers” can create cutting edge music, said Bob Runyon, a guitarist who also plays the bowls and the electric bow.
“It requires more focus than the music we are used to,” Runyon said. “This is more reflective. The bowls have a vibrating presence that affects the body and mind. A bowl is one thing. A room full of bowls is another thing. You have to experience it.”
This technique of producing sounds ranging in pitch and tone is the Deli Llama’s specialty, but it is not a new idea. Stacks of these bowls used to line Buddhist temples, available for visitors to meditate with, and they were often played for their healing powers, Miller said. Most of the bowls the group uses are Tibetan, although many of Miller’s are from other countries, and some of them are as old as 1,000 years, he said.
“Think of them as a Buddhist hymnal,” Miller said. “They contain all the songs, all the mantras.”
Although most bowls seem to produce three tones, Miller can sometimes find 15 tones within one bowl, he said. The orchestra often adds instruments such as a sitar, bells, handmade drums, flutes and many others, and has now made 16 recordings at Pete Szkolka’s Studio.
Trying to capture the highs and lows of the vibrating rhythms produced from singing bowls, medicinal bowls and the other instruments is an art in itself, Szkolka said. However, compared to their first recording session more than 12 years ago, Szkolka experimented with a new studio and new equipment and has since learned to capture at least “99 percent of the real sound” of the usual seven or eight bowlers, 10 drums and other instruments, Miller said.
“I’m usually on the other side of the glass trying to capture all the sounds,” Szkolka said. “They are delicate sounds but then you have drums and bells with high sounds, so it’s hard to capture the cacophony of it all and to try to make sure it is accurately recorded.”
What struck the group about playing the bowls were the overtones created with concentrated rubbing, Miller said. He called these overtones soap bubbles because when two tones are played, a third note is created without any attempt, and they “pass it around and see who can touch it before it pops,” he said.
“With one bowl, you learn to play two notes, and that is when the soap bubbles start popping out,” Miller continued. “You get a new tone. When you are able to play the chord, time isn’t a factor anymore. You are concentrating, and all of a sudden the secret garden appears and you are in the middle of it. It is that space that everyone has, and we are always trying to get there. It’s that sacred space that is within all of us.”
Constantly in search of new overtones, the group, which varies in size, has open jam sessions during the equinoxes and solstices of each year, and each session brings ideas for new sounds, Runyon said.
“We are wide open to all kinds of experimentation,” he said. “Neal likes to push limits and has come up with wonderful stuff. It’s about what can these instruments do.”
Tony Lotven, a bowler, saxophonist and flutist, adds his own talents to the group’s experimentation with sounds and instruments.
“It’s become a way to improvise,” Lotven said. “You can just add a flute. It’s totally free play. No limits, no guidelines. You can stretch your mind and creativity. There is a meditative, peaceful quality to it, too.”
This meditation is something Miller highly regards in Columbia, a city he feels “is very nurturing to people who want to dance with the muse.” Playing his bowls and listening to the group’s work every day allows him to take this meditation outside of the brass containers and wooden sticks, he said.
“To me, these bowls are priceless,” Miller said. “... You will hear those same sounds and be aware of them in the wind blowing through the trees. They even have a beat and meter. ...Music can heal people. It can take you around the world and throughout the universe. It is essential to life on this planet.”