I was hearing sounds that I couldn’t identify, but this didn’t entirely surprise me.
I was standing in the garden at Läckö Castle, on Lake Värnen near Lidköping, in West Sweden. I’d just gotten off from the red eye flight from the United States and I was in that jet-lagged, grainy-eyed, brain-riddled-with-bird-shot place where even ordinary things don’t make sense. It was a struggle to get my bearings, standing under a porcelain blue sky in the shadow of largest medieval castle in the Sweden. I was at a reception, in fact, so I attempted to make sensible conversation while I balanced a glass of white wine and a bowl of soup just made from long green beans plucked from the vines crawling up the garden wall.
And then came the sound. It was a disembodied female voice, coming from somewhere just out of sight. It was something between singing and shouting, urgent, slightly mournful, wordless, melodic and quite loud. After a while, I was introduced to the source of the sounds, a woman in jeans and a windbreaker named Moa Brynell, with a wide open face, and blue eyes and a halo of wisps of platinum hair.
She explained that she was calling to the cows — performing herding songs called kulning. It’s a form of Scandinavian folk music, used not only to summon the herd from the pasture, but also to scare off predators. (Men sing kulning sometimes, but it’s mostly a women’s type of song.) Moa offered to give me an impromptu lesson. She said it was useful to know how to use your voice as a tool — to scare off wolves, or any other creature on two or four legs that might threaten.
We walked up to the castle’s stone-paved castle courtyard, and I could see why Moa had selected this for our lesson – terrific acoustics. She explained that we must relax our throats, that screaming, as opposed to singing constricts the throat and tires the voice quickly. We took a wide stance and started.
She had us hit a tone that was somewhere in the mid-to-upper part of my range, which i held until I was almost but not quite out of breath.
“You don’t feel it in your throat?” Moa asked me. And when I said no — I was trying to start the sound in my stomach – she was pleased.
We repeated this a few times — I laughingat the end of each of my calls from the sheer pleasure of releasing so much sound after such a long journey — and we went on, until one of the enormous castle doors pushed open, revealing a young woman who looked much amused by the sound and the spectacle. The last tour of the day was going through the castle, and she asked us to stop for a few minutes – and our beginner’s cow calling wasn’t a welcome soundtrack.
We walked back to the garden. Moa explained that she used to use a version of these calls to find her children when they were shopping, in a mall. She demonstrated a very melodic call that lasted about three minutes. “When they hear that, they know to come right away,” she said. I asked whether her children answered with a similar call, and she said no, they came quickly and quietly, as they were embarrassed.
Moa is quite known as a Swedish folksinger with several CDs, one of which she gave me, as well as an invitation to attend one of her kulning workshops – she was offering one the next weekend at Govinda, a vegetarian restaurant in Gothenburg. I’d already committed to be elsewhere, but the next time I’m back in Scandinavia, I certainly intend to take up my kulning studies again.