Saturday, January 7, 2012

Village Music of Bulgaria

In 1990, a decision to explore an expanded variety of music led YHB to such avenues as jazz, classical and world music.  Each had its many virtues, not the least of which was the opportunity to experience music that broadened the definition of what music was, be it through improvisation, the diversity of instrumentation, a varying approach to scales, rhythms, and time.  Each had its many pleasures in discovery, but there was something fundamentally new and exciting for this listener in discovering music from other parts of the world outside the so-called "western tradition."  Although certainly elements of jazz and classical, typically denoted the "avant-garde", could push, often forcefully, at that tradition, they were still of it.

With the music of other countries and societies, there awaited the journey to different sounds and concepts.  These will be explored often here.   It started, actually, with music released on the incomparable imprint "Nonesuch Explorer," a series devoted to world music that was introduced in the 1960s by Elektra Records's off-shoot, Nonesuch Records.  In 1990, there was a true cultish phenomenon surrounding one of the Explorer series titles: the exotically named Les Mystére des Voix Bulgares (The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices.)  Somehow, the planets aligned or whatever, but there was a groundswell of support from enough of the mainstream for this recording of polyphonal female choral music from Bulgaria, which featured unusual time signatures or meters, backing drones as well as instrumental support, and a clear influence of both Western and Eastern (the Ottoman Turks ruled Bulgaria, for example, for some five centuries) music.

The project was a decade and a half labor of love from French ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier, who released his recording of the music on his small self-produced label in the mid-1970s.  About a decade later, however, British producer Ivo Watts-Russell, impresario of the famed independent label 4AD (of whom more later with the Cocteau Twins), heard the album courtesy of Peter Murphy, the theatrical lead vocalist of the so-called Goth group, Bauhaus, and obtained licensing rights for it.  While the 4AD label released the album in the U.K., it was Nonesuch that brought out the record in the U.S.

The choir has been known as the Bulgarian State [Radio and] Television Female Vocal Choir, though now officially changed to Les Mystére des Voix Bulgares to capitalize on their late 1980s/early 1990s fame, formed in 1952 when Bulgaria was fully controlled by a Soviet-allied Communist government.  After the release of the first Les Mystére album, others followed, including a second volume that won a Grammy in 1990 for "Best Traditional Folk Recording."  Strong sales, critical acclaim, and the right marketing and promotional approach led to world tours.  This listener saw the choir perform at Royce Hall at UCLA in the early Nineties and it was a definite concert highlight.

The polyphony or diaphonic singing refers to harmonies by two, or sometimes three, parts of the choir simultaneously, though the harmonies appear dissonant and include jubilant cries, shouts and yelps, stunning glissandos, and, sometimes energetic support from several acoustic string, woodwind and percussion instruments, though the singing is often a capella.

Actually, the term "folk music" is misleading when it comes specifically to the Les Mystére organization, which came in the early 1950s with a decided orchestrated and arranged element imposed on the folk origins from rural Bulgaria.  Still, the effects were breathtaking on record (for the most part--much debate issued with the From Bulgaria with Love  recording and its pop-disco renderings, much less its cover with a long-barreled revolver pointed at one of the costumed choir members, in what appeared to be a reference to James Bond [?!]) and in concert.

So, this listing highlights a CD pairing of two 1960s LP releases by Nonesuch that gives, perhaps, a more "natural" rendering of Bulgarian folk music.  These albums are A Harvest, a Shepherd, a Bride: Village Music of Bulgaria and In the Shadow of the Mountain: Bulgarian Folk Music, with these denoted on the CD case spine as Village Music of Bulgaria. This 1988 release is a gem--not as modern and splashy as Les Mystére and less overly choral and more focused on solos, duos and trios as well as instrumental pieces, but still having all of the entrancing elements of Bulgarian folk music and singing. 

There are twenty-five titles (12 on the former and 13 the latter) in Bulgarian, so a track listing will be omitted here.  Needless to say, anyone looking for a little adventure in either choral music or folk instrumental playing can hardly go wrong with this magnificent music.

No comments:

Post a Comment