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September 15, 2012

Georgian Folksong Visits Ann Arbor

By Stephen Eddins

It’s obvious from just a glance at this season’s calendar that the UMS has a priority of bringing non-Western performers to Ann Arbor. The list this year includes, among others, Chinese opera, Japanese drumming, a Mexican mariachi band, a South Indian classical dance company, and legendary singer-songwriters from Benin and Brazil. The consistency of this kind of scheduling from year to year is testimony to the fact that Ann Arbor audiences love this programming.

The prominence of so much international variety got me wondering how long American classical concert-going audiences had been fascinated with unfamiliar, or at least non-classical, performers. I knew it went back at least as far as the late 1930s when the Trapp Family Singers, playing recorders and violas da gamba and wearing traditional rural Austrian costumes, were treated as an exotic commodity. (Ironically, they initially performed almost exclusively classical repertoire, but on the advice of marketers, adopted the kind of folk repertoire for which they became best known. A rosy-cheeked family wearing dirndls and lederhosen just looked like they ought to be singing native folk songs instead of Renaissance madrigals and Baroque motets.)

It turns out that in the case of the UMS, a commitment to international performers from beyond the world of Western concert music reaches even further into the past, and to more authentically foreign cultures. The Russian Cossack Chorus, an all-male ensemble, appeared in its 48th season (1926-1927). The Chorus sang one selection each by Tchaikovsky and Borodin and a few classical pieces by forgotten Russian composers, but the program consisted mostly of folk song. The performance must have been a hit, because between 1932 and 1951, the Don Cossack Chorus (the most successful of a number of expatriate Cossack choirs established in Eastern Europe in the wake of the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War) appeared on UMS programs in nine seasons. The late 1940s and early 1950s brought performances by choirs from Iceland and Finland that incorporated authentic folk material, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the programming started developing the variety that has become characteristic for UMS.

In 1961, Bayanihan, a Philippine Dance company, expanded the concert series’ focus both geographically and with the inclusion of dance. From that point on, international programming grew with amazing speed. The 1972-1973 season, for instance, included a total of 55 performances, and ten of those were by non-Western musicians or dancers. It’s a trend that has continued, and today UMS programming routinely extends the range of cultures, nationalities, and performance styles represented on its schedule.

The appearance of Ensemble Basiani, an a cappella men’s choir from the Republic of Georgia, provides a nice symmetry with the UMS’s first non-Western performance by the Russian Cossack Choir, 85 years ago. Ensemble Basiani, however, promises to offer a window into a musical culture far more remote and complex than that of the Cossack choirs.

The musical traditions of Georgia are hardly known in the West, but the uniqueness of the music won it a designation from UNESCO in 2001 as a masterpiece of the “Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” It is so distinctive that a Georgian folksong was included among the examples of the Earth’s cultural diversity in the 1977 Voyager probe. When Igor Stravinsky was asked late in life what he considered to be the most exciting modern music, his answer was (in addition to a piece by Schoenberg), “Georgian polyphonic folk song… this active musical performance tradition with its roots in the ancient past is something remarkable that offers more to performance than all of the achievements of modern music.”

With endorsements like those, how could anyone pass up an opportunity to hear Ensemble Basiani? But what exactly should you expect to hear? It’s always true that writing about music is no substitute for hearing the music itself, but some analogies are helpful for getting oriented to Basiani’s sound.

Although there are significant differences between the groups, Ensemble Basiani’s styles of vocal production are in some ways similar to those of the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir, whose album Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares was a runaway international hit in both World Music and Classical Music markets about 25 years ago. The voices have a fiercely penetrating purity and there is considerable use of what would be called “extended vocal techniques” in contemporary music, such as yodeling, chanting, droning, bending of tone, and a wide range of vocal timbres that includes a piercing nasal quality. Most of the music itself, both liturgical and folk, is polyphonic, meaning that there are several melodic lines going on at once. This is in dramatic contrast to most Western folksongs, which consist of a clearly defined melody with a simple accompaniment. Georgian polyphony is usually in three parts, but the ways the parts are distributed among the voices can create the impression of an even more richly complex texture.

From Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir performance:

Georgian music has little relation to Western concepts of tonality, and can shift modes unpredictably, with breath-taking results. The Western idea that dissonance must resolve into consonance is foreign to Georgian music, but the dissonance is sung so naturally and effortlessly that as the listener’s ears get acclimated, it’s possible to hear it as intensely expressive. The essential impression a listener is likely to take away is that this is music of primordial power that comes from a very distant past and a unique, remote culture.

From an Ensemble Basiani performance:

At its only previous US performance, at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival in 2010, Basiani received tremendously positive reviews. The UMS performance at 7:30 pm on Thursday, October 4 at St. Francis of Assisi Church is its Michigan premiere.


Stephen Eddins is a local composer and music journalist. He specializes in writing music for theatre – opera, incidental music, and dance – as well vocal and choral music. He has written for All Music Guide, The Opera Quarterly, and The Ann Arbor Observer.