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The Georgian Songs

In this age of world music and global beat, it's no surprise that the music of Georgia speaks powerfully to anyone who has heard it. Musicologist Ted Levin recalls his introduction to the form: "My first impression was that it sounded at once Eastern and Western, ancient and contemporary, sacred and worldly. Georgian music still sounds that way to me, and I believe now that its protean quality reflects the geography and cultural history of Georgia."

Traditional Georgian music is sung by male choirs, and has its roots not only in liturgical music but possibly in an ancient "science of voice study," dating from the 12th century and possibly much older. It is polyphonic, with two or more independent music parts sung together, and characterized by special voice techniques and near-harmonies. The songs and music pass from one generation to the next, and thus songs can be hundreds of years old, if not older. Yet singing is still part of the texture of daily life: at the feasts of the Georgian table, it's not uncommon for the men present to break into spontaneous song during a lag in conversation.

"Georgian polyphonic singing betrays its origins on the periphery of Europe," Levin observes. "While its textures and vocal timbres sound European, much of the music defies the conventions of harmony, counterpoint, and voice-leading that were common to polyphony in Europe's central regions as early as the end of the fifteenth century. At the same time, these unconventional sounds seem to be harbingers of musical modernism." That modernism was not lost on Igor Stravinsky, who called Georgian polyphonic folk singing "a wonderful treasure" in his last years.

The result has been an aural chronicle of Georgia's history, and one of the most important elements in Georgian spiritual culture. Standard bearers of this tradition have long been the Rustavi Choir, created in 1968 but drawing upon generations of musical expertise. Founded by Anzor Erkomaishvili, a singer and folklorist, the Rustavi Choir broke out of the trap of regional styles by performing music from all of Georgia. The most recent album by the Rustavi Choir, "Georgian Voices," is available online from Amazon.com.

The Rustavi Choir has spawned a host of similar groups. One of these, Ensemble Tbilisi, was formed in 1989 and is actively touring Europe under its director Robert Gogolashvili. To listen to Ensemble Tbilisi is to tap into a musical tradition more ancient than modern, to transcend the moment in a way that is timelessness itself.


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