Tag Archive | Georgian chorus

The 30th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention

This past weekend I drove up to the Twin Cities for the 30th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention. I’ve managed to attend this convention a couple of times in grad school–last year with Isabelle, in 2014 when Sparkers came out–thanks to UCLA’s late start to the academic year, but it’s certainly easier to drive up from Iowa than to fly from California. I didn’t know it was the 30th annual singing until I arrived. Turns out the first Minnesota convention took place the year I was born!

The first day, we sang at Olivet Congregational Church in St. Paul, not far from St. Sahag’s, home of my local shape note singing the year I lived in the Summit-University neighborhood. I also vaguely recalled having gone to an English country dance at Olivet UCC that year, and Midge, a fellow singer and dancer and one of the convention’s co-chairs, confirmed that the Playford ball was held there. I led 203 Florida in the morning.

During the breaks, I caught up with Ivy, a fellow linguist now in the Twin Cities. We first met as prospective students at UCLA. I also met an ethnomusicologist who came to the convention from Winnipeg but who lived in Georgia for a year and a half studying the language and the music! Where else do you meet Georgian music singers than at the Sacred Harp convention, I guess. I also “networked” with other Iowa singers; there are a number of us scattered throughout the state. There aren’t any regular singings very close to me, but at least there’s an all-day in the spring to look forward to.

Local singer Claudia had put together a mini-exhibit of six old shape note tunebooks which were on display Saturday morning in the church library. The oldest was a copy of The Easy Instructor from 1816, I believe. There were also two books in German (or bilingual in English and German), printed in Fraktur! One of them was Die Franklin Harmonie. I didn’t know shape note tunebooks in other languages existed; these were apparently used by the Pennsylvania Dutch. As I was looking at the books, another singer noticed my name tag said Grinnell, and she told me she used to hitchhike to Grinnell, passing through Austin, MN, to visit her best friend, who studied at the college.

Shape notes and Fraktur! (Excuse the shadow…)

On Sunday, we sang at The Landing, on the Minnesota River. Last year, I was there with Isabelle. At the end of lunch and at the following break, the ethnomusicologist, Midge and her husband (both Georgian singing aficionados, who’ve visited the country multiple times and who brought Zedashe to the Twin Cities), one other singer, and I attempted to sing a Mravalzhamier we all knew. It was rocky, but it was still lovely to at least try some Georgian polyphony at the convention!

I led 296 Sardinia, in the afternoon. At the end of the day, the co-chairs, as is customary, invited out-of-town singers to invite everyone to major singings in their parts of the country. A singer from Kentucky, who I knew I’d seen before, made such an announcement, and in it he mentioned the opportunity to experience an Old Regular Baptists’ service with lined-out hymnody. Somebody else said that alone was worth the trip. I had never heard of such a thing and wasn’t even sure I’d heard right until I looked it up later. I’m still not totally clear what lined-out hymnody is, but Wikipedia tries to explain. Shape note seems positively mainstream compared to this.

After the convention was over, I wandered around The Landing a little bit, like we had last year. I walked past the schoolhouse and around behind the barn to see if the cows we’d seen last year were in the enclosure, but instead of cows I found three sheep!

Georgian Yodeling and the Cave Temples of Dunhuang

Last Tuesday, my advisor e-mailed the members of our Georgian chorus from Montreal to tell us that a Georgian yodeling workshop was taking place that evening in Los Angeles at the Machine Project. It was very short notice, but my friend Isabelle and I decided to go. At 8:00pm, we found ourselves in a mostly empty storefront with white walls and a wooden floor. Around the edges of the room, there was some sound equipment, a cooler of beer, and a collection of potted cacti. The workshop leader, Linnea, greeted us.

Once about sixty people had shown up, we all stood in a big circle, and Linnea taught us yodeling patterns for an orira, a type of Georgian song made up entirely of nonsense syllables. She also taught us the melody (meure) part. Isabelle had done some yodeling before for one of our choir’s songs (a different orira), but I’d never tried it before. The patterns all consisted of the interval of a fifth, plus the minor third below, with the top note sung in head voice and the two lower ones in chest voice.

After we’d learned all the patterns and done some antiphonal singing, in parts, the second half of the evening commenced: collaborating on a group improvisation with loop machines. This was not really my thing, so I dropped out after a while and went to talk to people out on the sidewalk. Somebody told me there was a theater in the basement of the Machine Project, so Isabelle and I went downstairs to check it out, and indeed there was a theater, with a little raised stage, movie theater-style seating, and an old upright piano. Before we left, we told Linnea about our Georgian chorus.

Last Thursday, I took the day off to go see an exhibit at the Getty Center entitled Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road. My father used to travel to Gansu Province, where the caves are, for work, so I’d heard of them before, but I’ve never been to China, nor had I ever read much about the caves. I got to the museum bright and early and got one of the first batch of timed tickets for the replica caves. Yes, they actually built and painted replicas of three of the cave temples, one from the 5th century, one from the 6th century, and one from the 8th century, and you could walk into them to see the statues of Buddhas and the detailed wall paintings and the intricately decorated pyramidal ceilings. The only drawback was that we were only permitted to spend about five minutes in each cave.

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Dim photo from inside one of the replica caves

Next I went into the virtual immersive tour of Cave 45, for which we had to don 3D glasses. That was interesting because it was narrated, so our attention was drawn to various details of the sculptures and paintings. Then I went into the gallery exhibition, which featured manuscripts, sketches, banners, and European-drawn maps of western China. Many of the artifacts came from the Library Cave and are owned by the British Museum or the Bibliothèque nationale de France. My favorite pieces were four manuscripts (all from the 9th or 10th century, I believe) meant to showcase the religious diversity of the materials found in the Library Cave. There was a Chinese Christian text, a Hebrew text, a spell book in Turkic runiform (the oldest extant text in this script), and a manuscript written in Brahmi with Sogdian transliteration (I’d never even heard of Sogdian script!). There was also a beautiful Chinese manuscript in gold ink on indigo paper. I could pore over these kinds of objects forever. I also liked the depictions of musical instruments in one of the cave paintings, including what looked like a sheng!

From there, I went to the current illuminated manuscripts exhibit, Things Unseen: Vision, Belief, and Experience in Illuminated Manuscripts. I love looking at these too! The margins of all these psalters and books of hours are filled with intricate leaf and flower patterns, with plenty of gold. I like the ancient paper and staring at the texts in Latin, English, French, German, and even Ge’ez!

Before leaving the museum, I got another timed ticket for the replica caves and went through them again, this time lingering as long as I could.

Dancing with Zedashe

I talk a lot about my Georgian chorus at UCLA, but the first time I ever sang Georgian music was in 2013, when Zedashe, a vocal and dance ensemble from Georgia, came to Minneapolis. Their many events on their tour stop were organized by a couple I knew through folk dancing and shape note singing in the Twin Cities. I attended the choral workshop. On that occasion, we learned the song Shavlego and the chant Saidumlo Utskho Da Didebuli Vikhilet. I still have the sheet music for both tucked into my Sacred Harp.

Anyway, Zedashe is back in the U.S. for the release of their latest album, Our Earth and Water, and they kicked off their tour with a slew of events in Minneapolis. On Saturday morning, I went to the choral workshop in the gymnasium of the parish house of St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral. This time, I was armed with a year and a half of Georgian singing experience.

The first song we learned was Amiranis Perkhuli, or Amiran’s Round Dance. Amiran was a great hunter, apparently. Unlike most Georgian folk songs, which are in three-part harmony, Amiranis Perkhuli only has two parts, which shows how ancient it is. It also has two choirs, which trade off singing the top part over the bass. One choir sings the same (I think nonsense) words over and over while the other choir sings the verses telling of Amiran’s exploits. And on top of that it has a circle dance which you do as you sing. We learned the steps and everything. You can hear the whole song and see some of the dance in this (at times weirdly staged) video:

After that, we learned the chant Ghirs Ars, which talks about Mary and cherubim and seraphim.

That same evening, I went to one of Zedashe’s three concerts. I’d never seen them perform before, just participated in their workshops, and it was impressive. There was more dancing of a very different kind, flashier, often flirtatious, with almost no touching. The nine members of the ensemble wore traditional clothing (minus the bandoliers of bullets for the men, which was kind of reassuring). And there were instruments! Drum and accordion, but also panduri, a Georgian three-stringed lute, and chiboni, a Georgian bagpipe with a huge bag that’s actually as big as a headless, legless goat.

Zedashe performed a version of Gaul Gaukhe, a war song I’ve sung with Datvebis Gundi, and a song called Parine. The funny thing about Parine is that I could hear it was essentially the same song as one Datvebis Gundi learned, except we called it Parina. And while we were told Parina was about some festival when one gives alms to the poor, Zedashe’s English title for Parine was A Handsome Boy’s Name! Somewhere, something got lost in translation…

Camp Kiya

I spent the first half of last week at Camp Kiya, a traditional music camp in Tehachapi, CA. My friend Chase, a fellow student in my department, had heard about the camp, decided to go, and invited me to come too.

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All packed and ready to go

We left on a Sunday morning in a rental car with one cello, one fiddle, one hammered dulcimer, a collection of Irish whistles, and camping gear and drove north across scrubby desert, through a forest of windmills in the mountains, and past a Norbertine monastery to Tehachapi Mountain Park. The park itself was not scrubby but wooded, with tall pines and live oaks full of mistletoe. We pitched our tent at a campsite on the other side of the hill from the cabins of the main camp, near some other campers’ RV.

The three and a half days of camp were filled with classes in fiddle, cello, bass, guitar, harp, mandolin, accordion, mountain dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, harmonica, Irish whistle, ukulele, and bodhran, not to mention hula, Irish, and Cape Breton dancing. Styles and genres ranged from blues to classical, old-time to Scandinavian. There were lots of opportunities to pick up a brand new instrument, but I stuck to Intermediate/Advanced Cello and Celtic and Welsh fiddle. In each class, we’d learn a tune or two by ear, plus ornamentation or, in cello class, chords. There were certain tunes that recurred across classes. For instance, both the cellos and the Welsh fiddles learned a tune called Erddigan y Pybydd Coch (Lament of the Red Piper), and the cellos, mountain dulcimers, and accordions all learned the tune Crested Hens (Les Poules Huppées).

Part of what I hoped to do at camp was get better at accompanying on cello, because a folk cellist isn’t really expected to play melody much of the time. Well, I’m still pretty bad at chopping, but I did learn some stuff. I was also pleasantly surprised to find I could hold my own in a fiddle class despite having no formal training. The Scottish Fiddlers of LA tried to recruit me (although they may have been trying to recruit everybody…).

Me at Camp Kiya

Me tuning my cello by our tent

One of the cool things about camp was that it was totally normal to be a multi-instrumentalist. In classical music circles, this is less common; you have your instrument, and that’s it (or maybe you also play the piano). At Camp Kiya, most people played two or more instruments: guitar and harmonica; bouzouki, whistle, and bodhran; harp and accordion; cello and mountain dulcimer. Another cool thing was how intergenerational camp was. There were cellists of all ages in my class. My Celtic fiddle teacher was in his eighties. There were young children doing fiddle and cello from scratch while their parents attended other classes. There aren’t that many settings in which unrelated people of all ages mix like this.

The camp’s name comes from the Nuwa (Kawaiisu) word kiya, meaning ‘laughter’ or ‘play’. Nuwa is the language spoken by the indigenous people of Tehachapi; it belongs to the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family. I learned about Nuwa from Jon Hammond, a camp instructor who owns a ranch in Tehachapi and is one of three fluent speakers of the language. We all heard him introduce his seven-year-old daughter, Kiya, in Nuwa on the first night of camp and also give a blessing in Nuwa at the ceilidh.

The ceilidh was not a dance party but a camper talent show. It was held on Tuesday night at the fire circle. People sang and played and told stories and jokes. Chase and I sang a two-voiced version of Okro Mch’edelo, which, like all Georgian songs, is actually in three-part harmony. After the ceilidh, we joined the Celtic jam session in Cabin 1, wedging ourselves with cello and Irish whistle in a lower bunk in the corner.

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Chase playing hammered dulcimer at our campsite

On Wednesday afternoon, after my cello class and Chase’s hammered dulcimer rehearsal, we sat in a nook on the footbridge between the mess hall and the fire circle and went through Chase’s Datvebis Gundi folder, singing more Georgian songs. As we sang, a fire crew tromped through camp, inspecting a dead pine and who knows what else. When we’d exhausted our Georgian repertoire, we also sang the tenor and alto parts of a few Sacred Harp tunes: Wondrous Love, Idumea, New Britain.

Wednesday evening was the campers’ concert. Chase performed Ode to Joy in a hammered dulcimer trio and also played with the fiddle from scratch class. I played a set with the Welsh fiddlers (with my cello class backing up), then switched to cello for our two tunes, a bourrée and the amazing Raivlin Reel. We also backed up the Scandinavian/Nordic fiddlers on the Danish (?) tune Kingo P. Here is a video (by fellow camper Alan) of me with the Welsh fiddlers. The set is Erddigan y Pybydd Coch (Lament of the Red Piper) – Tri a Chwech (Three and Six) – Ymdaith Gwyr Dyfnaint (March of the Men of Devon) – Y Lili (The Lily). I’m not sure you can hear me, which is probably a good thing, but hey, my bow seems to be moving in the right direction most of the time!

Mamli Mukhasa

Recordings of our Georgian chorus’s concert exist! This is Mamli Mukhasa, one of the songs in which I have to sing-gasp!-by myself. It’s about the stalwartness of Georgia, and Moses is mentioned in there towards the end, for some reason. I’m in the dark red shirt, standing next to my advisor/doppelgänger.

This other song is the very first one we learned at the first meeting of singers interested in joining the chorus, so I have a special fondness for it. It’s a rather absurd children’s song in which the speaker asks a goldsmith to make him a gold bird’s shoe (like a horseshoe), and then with the remaining gold to make him another object, and then with the remaining gold, etc.

A Personal History of Singing

If you had told me five or ten years ago that I would one day sing a solo in a choir concert, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Yet I did exactly that last Thursday, at Datvebis Gundi’s first formal concert. As you may recall, Datvebis Gundi, or the UCLA Kartvelian Chorus, is my linguistics department’s unofficial choir.

The run-up to the concert was a little more stressful than I would have liked, not because I was nervous but because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to perform at all. The Sunday before the concert, I suddenly developed a sore throat so dramatic I half-convinced myself I was coming down with epiglottitis (being a linguist, I know where my epiglottis is and why an inflamed one would be bad, and not just for singing). At our dress rehearsal on Tuesday, it was neither advisable nor very possible for me to sing, so I just stood where I was supposed to for every song and followed along in my lyrics sheets while the rest of the choir rehearsed. Luckily, my throat recovered by Thursday, so nobody had to pinch hit for me.

Our concert was part of the Fowler Out Loud series and was held among palms and cycads in the interior courtyard of the Fowler Museum of Culture History at UCLA. We performed nineteen songs, including lullabies, toasting songs, a lament, and three Alilos, which are Christmas songs. Most of the texts were in Georgian, but some were in Svan, Megrelian, or Laz, the other Kartvelian languages. My solos (and by solo I mean a call in a call-and-response song) were in Mamli Mukhasa, a song about an oak tree that symbolizes Georgia, and Ocheshkhvei, a Megrelian work song and the only song we performed from written music. And I pulled those solos off, even though not that long ago I would never have consented to sing any kind of solo in a concert.

Datvebis Gundi

That’s me to the left of center in the dark red shirt.

For most of my life, I didn’t consider myself to be someone who had a good voice. This wasn’t something that bothered me; it was just something I believed about myself. I guess I liked to sing, but I didn’t sing in choirs for years and years the way some people who meet me nowadays assume. My choir participation was more sporadic.

The elementary school I attended for fourth and fifth grade had an excellent extracurricular choir that I joined. (Our elementary school’s regular music program was pretty impressive too: we learned to ring handbells and play gamelan.) I still remember some of the songs I learned in that choir. I also sang in my church’s children’s choir, which went through sixth grade. Singing in a choir was fine because I could blend in with many voices, but I would never have dreamed of, say, trying out for the school talent show with a song, and I knew no one was ever going to pick me to sing a solo.

After I graduated from the church children’s choir, I didn’t sing in another choir until ninth grade, when I joined the youth choir of the American Church in Paris. I actually showed up at the first rehearsal because I wanted to play in the youth handbell choir, but the youth choir and the youth handbell choir were one and the same, and as I soon found out they did a lot more singing than ringing. But I stayed in it because it was wonderful. The girls (it was almost all girls) came from all over the world. Almost everyone spoke English and French, but a few only one or the other, and many people spoke more languages besides. I remember that we started off the year with two songs from the immensely popular movie Les Choristes: Vois Sur Ton Chemin and In Memoriam. At the end of my family’s semester in Paris, I brought my choir music back to the U.S. with me. Eventually, Vois Sur Ton Chemin became the first piece I did an instrumental arrangement of for my friends to play. (According to some of them, it’s the only piece we ever managed to make sound good.)

It was around the time we lived in France that I discovered I could sing alto parts out of the hymnal even as most of the congregation around me sang the melody in unison. My success at picking out the part varied according to the hymn, but I kept practicing because it made singing more interesting. I think this is how I became reasonably good at sightreading.

I was only in the American Church choir for four months, and upon my return I didn’t sing regularly in another choir until, well, I joined the Georgian chorus a little over a year ago. That’s a nine-year hiatus. Of course, I didn’t spend those nine years not singing. Because in college, I discovered Sacred Harp. (Oh, no! you’re thinking. Not another post about shape note singing! Surely you knew where this was headed!)

One of the things that appealed to me about Sacred Harp singing, besides the harmonies and the intense texts, was the idea that you didn’t need a “good” voice to sing it. The style of singing is distinctive; I’ve heard it called “open-throated”. It’s supposed to be loud. (Actually, Georgian singing, at least the way I’ve been doing it, is kind of similar.) Moreover, it’s a participatory tradition: ordinarily shape note music is not performed because the point is to sing for ourselves. Anyone can, and is in fact encouraged to, join in. Many singers I met as I was starting out did not have what I thought of as “good” voices, though their voices were certainly powerful.

Sacred Harp is without a doubt what gave me confidence in my ability to sing. I learned just how good a sightreader I was and probably improved a lot too. I may not be the loudest alto at any given singing, but people tell me they like to sit beside me because I sing all the right notes. Gradually, I came to think of myself as a good singer. Not necessarily one with a beautiful voice, whatever that means, but in shape note singing that mostly doesn’t matter. If it weren’t for Sacred Harp, I’m not sure I’d be in Datvebis Gundi today. (Maybe I still would be, because really, who can resist Georgian music?) I’m sure I would have balked at being assigned solos for the concert. But instead, I thought, Sure, I can do that.

A Georgian Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year was last Thursday, and we ushered in the Year of the Sheep (or Goat, depending on your preference). I spent the early evening at our Georgian chorus’s arch sing, which was a sort of public rehearsal to generate interest in our upcoming concert. We sang under a vault in the arcade of Royce Hall, one of UCLA’s venerable Romanesque buildings. I don’t know how many passersby we attracted, but it was fun to sing in an arch, even if the unfamiliar acoustics sometimes wreaked havoc on our ensemble.

Afterward, my roommate and fellow Georgian chorister and I went home and cooked a large batch of fried rice with peas, egg, and Chinese sausage. Then we unearthed some haw flakes her parents had brought her from Singapore a rather long time ago and called them dessert. I have nostalgic feelings toward haw flakes because I associate them with my great-grandmother feeding them to me.

Speaking of Chinese culture, I recently finished The Three-Body Problem by Chinese author Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. (Look at me, reading adult science fiction!) It was excellent. On the whole, it is not a funny book, but there were two passages I found very amusing. The second (up first, because it’s less funny) appears when Newton and Von Neumann are about to witness the first test of the human computer they helped Emperor Qin Shi Huang create (it makes sense in the book):

The guard knelt and handed the sword to the emperor. Qin Shi Huang lifted the sword to the sky, and shouted, “Computer Formation!” (214)

The first, possibly spoilery, is from declassified documents about China’s attempts to contact extraterrestrials:

Message to Extraterrestrial Civilizations

First Draft [Complete Text]

Attention, you who have received this message! This message was sent out by a country that represents revolutionary justice on Earth! Before this, you may have already received other messages sent from the same direction. Those messages were sent by an imperialist superpower on this planet. …We hope you will not listen to their lies. Stand with justice, stand with the revolution!

[Instructions from Central Leadership] This is utter crap! It’s enough to put up big-character posters everywhere on the ground, but we should not send them into space. (171)