Datvebis Gundi is the Georgian choir I joined when it was founded in January. It was originally called the Kartvelian Chorus, but eventually we renamed ourselves. Datvebis Gundi means “choir of bears” in Georgian, a reference to the Bruin, UCLA’s mascot. Anyway, our choir had its first public performance last week at UCLA’s World Voice Day. World Voice Day is an international, interdisciplinary celebration of the human voice. UCLA participated for the first time this year, and our event was a collaboration between Linguistics, Head and Neck Surgery, Electrical Engineering, and Musicology. There were larynx models to play with, a station to measure one’s vibrato, free impromptu voice lessons, and, of course, Datvebis Gundi’s lunchtime performance! Lots of linguists came down to hear us sing, which was lovely of them (currently, our choir consists entirely of linguists, though we welcome everyone), and a number of passersby stopped to listen.
The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, even printed a story about our Georgian choir the day of our performance (the front page story was about World Voice Day generally). You can read it here, but be advised that it isn’t always 100% accurate. For instance, many Georgian songs in fact have words! And I’ve already gotten a lot of humorous mileage out of the phrase “crudely written letters.” No matter; at least we’re famous now!
One thing the article gets right is that we do learn our songs by ear. Our director gives us lyrics sheets with the Georgian texts transliterated into Roman letters (sometimes with English speakers in mind, sometimes with Slovene speakers in mind!). As she teaches us our parts, we add in whatever rhythm or pitch cues we need to remember the tune, in whatever notation we prefer. I’ve seen fellow choir members writing in actual notes to record rhythms, but I rarely put in rhythm markings. I’m not sure if this is because I don’t have much trouble remembering rhythms once I’ve learned a song or because I’m a lot worse at transcribing rhythm by ear than pitch.
For notating melodies, I use numbers corresponding to the notes of the scale. This involves choosing a tonic (first note of the scale) to be represented as 1, though what the tonic should be is not always clear, given the polyphonic nature of Georgian folk music. In one song, those of us using numbers for pitches discovered that we’d chosen three different tonics, depending on what part we were singing. And not all choir members even find the concept of the tonic to be useful in trying to learn their parts. The other potential pitfall of using numbers lining up with the Western scale is that Georgian songs, at least traditionally, have a different tuning. I suspect our choir mostly adapts these songs to the Western scale (I perceive most of the tunes we know to be minor), but occasionally our director will sing an interval that I can tell doesn’t fit into Western tuning.
Instead of using numbers to record tunes, some choir members draw lines conveying the relative rises and falls in pitch. Last week, I learned that these markings are called neumes! Before the development of modern musical notation, neumes were written above the words of a piece of music to give a general indication of the pitch contours they were to be sung with. Neumes seem to be most closely associated with plainchant. So if you, like me, enjoy gazing at medieval musical manuscripts, just do an image search for “neumes.”
The collaboration of Linguistics + Head and Neck Surgery + Electrical Engineering + Musicology had me envisioning a robot with a well-designed larynx who can sing in Georgian with proper ejectives and explain to all in Bruin Plaza the origins of that lovely music.
That’s very imaginative! But actually there were multiple locations for World Voice Day activities, so as far as I’m aware there were no surgeons or electrical engineers at our performance.