Thursday, July 10, 2008

Georgian Voices

One night when I was a cop working graveyards, I was cruising around about 3 am, listening to the local college radio station, when out of my speakers came the most astounding music. The song literally made me stop the patrol car and sit there with the hair on the back of my neck standing up. Sung acapella by a male group, the tune was complex, with two lead singers twining amazing lines of melody in a language I didn’t understand, while a full background chorus kept amazing power flowing through the piece. After a while, I realized that the background guys were employing polyphonic beating tones, weaving slight pitch discrepancies into their lines that create amazing power and literally leave your ears ringing. The song was breathtaking, almost religious, incredibly powerful, and seemed to blend elements of both eastern and western music seamlessly.

When the song ended, I learned that this was The Rustavi Choir, from Georgia, (Aka The Republic of Georgia, not the southern state), singing ‘Chakrulo,’ from the disk Georgian Voices. The music was and is amazing. A young Ted Levin, now a Dartmouth Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, was then a young ne’er do well traveler, (By his own admission), cruising in 1974 across Europe, bound for Tbilisi and searching for amazing music. He found the Rustavi Choir there and that lead to the recording of Georgian Voices in 1989.

Almost 20 years later, I still listen to the disc regularly, and especially that song, Chakrulo. These Georgian songs are very old, pre-dating Christianity. The Georgian singing style employs a scale similar to western music, in that it has seven tones, eight if you include the octave. That, however, is where the similarities divide.

As do most traditional tunings, the Georgian system runs with a just perfect fifth. OK, is your head spinning already? Then let’s break it down – Just intonation means that an interval tuned justly has notes that are related by ratios of whole numbers, aka, they’re in the same harmonic series. The Perfect Fifth part of that phrase refers to the interval between a note and the seven semi-tones above it. A perfect fifth is such because of its relatively simple relationship to other musical intervals, and the fact that they are considered consonant, aka, harmonious and stable in musicspeak. Now before you shake that head and say ‘so what?’, let me just point out that musically, a perfect fifth occurs in the root of all western chords, major and minor, and pretty much all of their extensions as well –A very busy thing, musically, that perfect fifth. You might also recognize the sound as a base harmony within Gregorian chant.

OK, back to the differences in the Georgian scale: In between the fifth and the unison in the Georgian system, there are three evenly spaced notes; a major second, (Compressed versus our usual western suspect), a neutral third, and a perfect fourth. While the major second is certainly heard in our scales, (Diatonic and pentatonic for example – And I’m tired of making hyperlinks, by the way, so look ‘em up yourself!), the neutral third is quite rare to our ears. And finally, the perfect fourth is ‘stretched’ compared to our scales.

Thoroughly confused and don’t know nothing about this? Yes, you do! Hum the start of The Bridal Chorus from Lohengren – Hmm hmmm hmm hmmm – That’s a perfect fourth, pal – Oh, and bass guitars and all but one string on plain ol’ guitars are tuned in perfect fourths, too…

Back to the Georgian scale! On the other side of that fifth, between it and the octave, there are two more evenly spaced notes, which yields a major sixth and a minor seventh. What this does is make the interval of thirds the most consonant, (Again, think stable), thing next to the fifth; unusual to us because it was happening in Georgia way before it was in the western music world.

Ya got all that? Good…

Chakrulo is a Table Song, a long-standing element in the tradition of Georgian ritual music that stems from the Kakheti region, in eastern Georgia. Unlike their neighbors in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Kakheti don’t seem inclined to split from the mother country, which is probably good for everyone involved, frankly.

Now, I’ve saved coolest for last: Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Chakrulo sung by the Rustavi Choir is considered a distinctly patriotic version of the song form, and in fact, is included on the sound samples of the famous Golden Records, housed aboard Voyager 1 and 2 and sent spaceward in 1977. Today, somewhere beyond the deep space at the very edge of our solar system, Chakrulo is waiting to be heard; I can’t think of a more appropriate place for it, frankly.

1 comment:

David C. said...

Very interesting stuff. I'm going to have to listen to this. As I recall, Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," another astounding piece of music, is on one or both of the Voyager records. It's good to get some varied music in your head. I added a CD of a Bulgarian women's choir to my collection when I read that Jeff Beck got some ideas from their harmony.