Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares @ The Pabst Theater

By - May 20th, 2008 02:52 pm
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By Ellen Burmeister
Photo by CJ Foeckler

Ecstatic, chilling, astonishing and profoundly moving: at a time in which most vocal music is digitized and synthesized to the nth degree, the sound of the Bulgarian Women’s Television Choir (known since the 1980s as “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares” — the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices — from their renowned, influential recordings) is a refreshing blast of reality in an increasingly homogenized global culture.

Emerging from one of the lesser-known corners of Eastern Europe, this choir of about 20 women is a living example of the effects history can have on art. While many of the arrangements they performed at their May 16 appearance at the Pabst Theater are the creation of modern Bulgarian composers, the music they perform reflects the influence of past empires and invaders: Ottoman Turks, Byzantines, and even far older traditions from the ancient Greek world.

Even their tone is something very different. While trained singers in the West concentrate on rounded, open tones powered from the diaphragm, the Bulgarian style comes from the throat and head. This is music meant to be performed outdoors, and its hyper-focused timbre ranges from sustained straight notes that seem to go on forever to vocal acrobatics that evoke Middle Eastern music.

Starting the program arrayed across the stage in stunning regional costumes, the choir filled the pitch-perfect space of the Pabst with one amazing arrangement after another – all a capella and all memorized. These were not simple repetitive tunes, either: they broke into two, four, even six parts. The harmonies were even more astounding, “breaking the rules” with seconds, sevenths, and forays into quarter tones, gliding in and out of dissonance and resolution with ease. Add in the demands of mind-boggling rhythms and tricky diction, and the result was an entirely new exposition of the possibilities of “the choral art.”

In the second half of the show, the group switched to more contemporary black concert dress. The effect was interesting; it helped to showcase the music itself, and seemed to put it in a more “modern” context (the opening number, “Mehmetyo [Girl’s Name]” included close harmonies and rhythmic undertones that evoked minimalist composer John Adams).

Director Dora Hristova handled these formidable forces with ease, but this multi-generational group also exhibited the kind of ensemble sensitivity that only comes from years of practice and rehearsal. Boldly confident in their entrances, seemingly intuitive in their group interpretations, and charming in their interaction, they also easily broke off into trios, quartets, and other small groupings, some with male vocalists.

This is music that definitely challenges our ideas of what choral music is all about, with its unexpected yips and cries, snippets of dialogue, and full-throated, wavering chords. Ancient and post-modern at the same time, the sound of the Bulgarian Women’s Television Choir reminds us that the human voice on its own is still the most powerful, versatile instrument ever created. VS

To listen to clips of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, visit the choir online.

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