09 Mar 2019

Kulning: Swedish Cow Calling

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Atlas Obscura:

Less than a century ago, Sweden’s remote forests and mountain pastures swelled with women’s voices each summer. As dusk approached, the haunting calls of kulning echoed through the trees in short, cascading, lyricless phrases. Though often quite melodic, these weren’t simply musical expressions. They were messages intended for a responsive audience: wayfaring cattle. Kulning was a surefire way to hurry the herds home at the end of the day.

According to Susanne Rosenberg, professor and head of the folk music department at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and kulning expert, the vocal technique likely dates back to at least the medieval era. In the spring, farmers sent their livestock to a small fäbod, or remote, temporary settlement in the mountains, so cows and goats could graze freely. Women, young and old, accompanied the herds, living in relative isolation from late May until early October. Far from the village, they tended to the animals, knitted, crafted whisks and brooms, milked the cows, and made cheese—often working sixteen hour days. Life on the fäbod was arduous work, but it was freeing, too. “It was only women, and they had all this free space to make a lot of noise,” says Jinton. “They had their own paradise.”

The herds grazed during the daytime, wandering far from the cottages, and thus needed to be called in each night. Women developed kulning to amplify the power of their voices across the mountainous landscape, resulting in an eerie cry loud enough to lure livestock from their grazing grounds.
One should always take caution when hanging out with someone kulning, as it can’t be done quietly. Rosenberg, who’s researched the volume of kulning, says it can reach up to 125 decibels—which, she warns, is dangerously loud for someone standing next to the source. Comparable to the pitch and volume of a dramatic soprano singing forte, kulning can be heard by an errant cow over five kilometers away. This explains how the song might reach a distant herd, but what prompts animals to trot over remains a bit of a mystery. “That we have to ask the cows!” says Rosenberg. “But it’s really no stranger than calling a dog.”

Much like trained pets, cows feel loyalty to the humans who care for them. According to Rosenberg, it only takes one solid affinity between a cow and a woman to bring the whole herd home. “There’s always at least one cow that is the smart cow, in a herd,” she says. “She’s like the leader cow.” Once this particularly enlightened cow hears the call, Rosenberg suspects, she heads toward the source, encouraging the rest of the herd to follow suit.

To do this at such great volume requires learning the proper technique, which, it turns out, is a far cry from that of classical or popular singing. “It’s more like calling,” says Rosenberg. “Like if you see somebody on the other end of the street, it’s the way you would use your voice naturally to try to get their attention.” Kulning was taught orally. Young women learned from the old, imitating the songs of their elders and slowly adding individual flair and vocal ornamentation. Rosenberg, who now teaches kulning in a classroom setting, says the key to the call is improvisation. “You have to have variation, because you never know how long you’re going to be calling for.” In other words, you have to keep singing until the cows come home.

Cows, however, weren’t the only ones on the receiving end of kulning. The call could ward off predators in the woods, and served as a form of communication between women who were otherwise isolated from one another. If a cow went missing, for instance, a woman on one farm might cry out using a particular melody to pass the message to those within earshot. Once the cow had been located, her far-off neighbor would convey the news back to her in song.

RTWT

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