When this blogger started listening to "world music" in 1990, this was one of the first recordings that was purchased, mainly because the 1986-87 (first on the British label 4AD and then on the American Nonesuch Explorer label) re-release of the 1975 Disques Cellier release by Marcel Cellier became something of a surprise world-wide phenomenon.
Obviously, the quality of an experience can't be repeated and, the more distant in time, the less can be recalled. But, listening to the opening polyphonic harmonic vocal gymnastics employed by the two dozen singers of the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir, still provokes something of that spine-tingling feeling of just over a quarter century ago.
These are traditional folk songs, from weddings, harvests, dancing, and work, as well as from legend and myth in a part of the world little known to most of us in America, but which has ancient roots and connectivity between east and west that clearly have formed the unique qualities of this remarkable vocal music.
But, there is a distinctively modern "artistic" sheen put on the old folk origins, both in arrangment by Phillip Koutev and Krasimir Kyurkchiyski, and on the recording quality. Purity is often a word used to describe this work and it is true from multiple standpoints: the quality of each singer's voice, in the roots of the material, and in the fine sound recording quality.
To this listener, everything about this album is fantastic and it seems almost unfair to pick out highlights. There are the ensemble passages, solos, and small group harmonizing--all of which have their particular aspects to recommend them. One of the more notable elements, though, is the use of dissonant harmonies in diaphonic singing, described in the notes as "two voices (solo or choral) [which] track each other in parallel intervals.
Koutev and Kuykchiyski took the traditional pieces and reworked them in a modern way utilizing changes in mode and harmonic intervals, but always with an eye to preservation of the magic and power of the source materials, while recalibrating the works for modern presentation.
There are also occasional uses of instruments, such as the gayda, similar to a bagpipe, the kaval, a flute, and the gadulka, or violin, as well as some percussion. These are often introduced as breaks in the vocal pieces or as stand-alones, in addition to accompaniment to the choir.
The writer of the liners, composer Ingram Marshall, points out that the use of a-harmonic materials by Eastern European classical composers like Bartók, Ligeti, Stravinsky, and Penderecki is often derived by folk music found in their native countries, like Hungary or Poland. Marshall concluded his essay by asking "why more Western composers do not work with indigenous singers and instrumentalists as a springboard to creativity." Of course, there are some who have used Eastern music for this purpose, including Lou Harrison and the inspiration he took from Balinese gamelan music.
In any case, Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares is still a stunning listening experience and there are several follow-ups from the ensemble, renamed after the fall of Communism, a few of which will be highlighted here in the future. Finally, one of the most memorable concert-going experiences for this listener was seeing the ensemble perform at UCLA's Royce Hall sometime in the early to mid Nineties--where the recordings could only hint at the power and expressiveness to be found in a high-quality concert hall.