Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares played the Barbican in September ahead of a UK tour starting on October the 19th. Following that performance, the choir’s artistic director and conductor, Dora Hristova, spoke with Jason Caffrey about the choir, its repertoire, its ancient heritage and the unique style of its singers.
JC: Listening to the choir it’s striking how old some of the sounds are – how far back are we listening?
DH: Ah! This manner of producing sound is very old, this is the natural way of producing sound, the most natural. The sound is in the glottis, in the larynx, and it resonates in the chest, so this is just the opposite of the classical technique, bel canto, so it existed in very old times.
In the Medieval centuries, I think all the European peoples were singing like this. I know the literature, the scores – the polyphony from the Middle Ages was in the range of one octave only and singing one octave is the natural range, with the natural way of producing sound.
Later on the range widened to become two octaves, for instance, while here it remained only one octave. They sing all the folklore songs in a restricted range.
Bulgaria is divided into seven folklore regions all with different music styles, different songs and ornamentation. You heard many songs – each song is different – in the ornamentation, the mode, the rhythm.
Those songs which are from the western Shopi region are particularly diaphonic (two-voice) singing, the songs have only four tunes – no more – and dissonances are the favoured intervals for the singers. Always the voices go to the dissonance, to the seventh, for instance, which is a very difficult interval for classicsal singers, but Shopi singers like the dissonance.
At the same time the major and minor thirds are very difficult intervals for them to intonate, which is the opposite to the classical technique.
JC: The open, bare harmonies – the octaves, fourths, and fifths – give the music a very austere feeling, but it’s also joyful and celebratory. It’s an unusual combination…
DH: This is because of the technique. The expression of the face, the position, produces the timbre with a smile – so no matter if the song is for sorrow or for joy always it is sung with a smile. It’s the position of the lips.
JC: The songs themselves – they sound like they are village songs?
DH: They are village songs, yes, village songs of very old origin. They are village songs, but the harmonisation, the adaption for the many-voice ensemble is a contemporary sound. The composers are young and they use a very contemporary means of composition and arrangement.
- Dora Hristova
JC: Bulgaria sits in the Balkans – turn east and you look across Arabia and Asia, look west and you turn towards Western Europe – and you can hear these different strands in the music.
DH: Of course! From the old times Balkan lands have been very attractive and they all came and they all influenced the music of Thracia and the Greek world – the Arabs, the crusaders – everybody left part of their culture so we have the most modes in our music. Major and minor from western Europe; we have the old Greek modes; the Indian and Arabic modes and the ornamentations from India too. From the east we have pentatonics – everything you can find in this music so we are lucky that we have this – this is a real treasure!
And this is why when this choir – starting from the traditional two-voice, diaphonic singing – was formed with these voices, the original voices, it was a real revolution in the thinking of the musicians and composers in Bulgaria.
In the beginning they thought this was something that didn’t need any attention, – it was just village culture – but later when this music became developed in skill among the singers – because they were without any education, they came from villages and they started from the beginning to learn music, to read the notes and to sing together in a larger ensemble – it took a long time, years.
And the Bulgarian composers, of course, composed songs for these ensembles and their skill developed and they at last composed real masterpieces – you heard the last piece, Dilmano Dilbero – it’s a set of variations, but the original song consisted of only three bars, no more.
JC: These ancient songs have evolved into contemporary arrangements – but what makes the music still relevant today in the age of twitter feeds and international air travel?
DH: I think it’s the feeling – we preserve the feeling of the human being. The notes, the melodies, the rhythms, are only the means of expressing the feeling, and I think the feeling that has come across all these centuries is the human feeling. When singing the songs on the stage, these women, they simply live on the stage and they believe in all that happens in the songs – they are long stories, some of the songs have 120 words – this is a whole story! And I think the feeling makes it universal and makes it so alive on the stage. This is the reason that without understanding the meaning of the words – the language – the audience accepts the music and the feeling goes right to the heart – it’s a bridge.
JC: You’ve been working with this choir for a long time and you’ve studied this music for a long time – why this music for you? Why not something else – why did you not become a pianist or a jazz singer? What was it that drew you to this?
DH: I was trained in the conservatoire in Bulgaria – I learned western music, western harmony, that had nothing in common with the folk song tradition. I accidentally went to hear this choir one time and I fell in love with the voices and the music they sang. Some of my professors couldn’t accept, couldn’t explain, why I left academia and worked with this choir. Years ago the music was very primitive but many of the singers had perfect pitch.
The singers now are perfect with speech, with timbre – everything. But only in their own vocal singing – other things they cannot sing. We tried Mozart in our repertoire, contemporary French music, American composers, but it wasn’t the same choir, we lost the feeling.
JC: You’ve brought these ancient song and sounds into the current time – so where is it going? What’s the direction of travel for this music?
DH: I think the most important thing is to preserve the sound – not to change. It’s very difficult because those young people who come to the choir have education from university and they have been influenced by that environment, by modern civilisation, and they have lost the feeling. They have lost the feeling and they sing and they have skill but the feeling they have lost. This is the bad side of contemporary music education. They have lost the feelings of the family and the community from centuries ago in our people.
Many choirs have branched off from the original choir over the years and they have changed their sound and repertoire. We have tried to preserve our skill and sound and repertoire – it’s very important! These songs are the individual repertoire of the singers. We take their songs and give them to a composer to arrange them for the choir, and this is how we maintain our standard. I myself will be very proud if we keep it for years like this because otherwise we will lose this treasure which we have with us.
Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares plays ten UK dates between October 19th and November 2nd 2011. Tickets and details at www.serious.org.uk/mystere