Georgian Polyphony

A USSR Stamp of Traditional Georgian Instruments

It’s about time I said something about Georgia, seeing as it is the country in the Caucasus where we will be spending most of our time.

Musically, Georgia is famous for its Polyphonic singing, a tradition that is considered the first of its kind in the Christian world.

I had a conversation with Michael Tenzer, the head of the Ethnomusicology department at University of British Columbia, in which he told me he had recently attended a conference in Tbilisi hosted by the “International Research Center for Traditional Polyphony of Tbilisi State Conservatory“.  Their site is extensive and hosts biographies of famous Georgian performers and interactive map of the geography of polyphony. I am hoping to attend a conference in September held by the same organization.

He also sent me  the masters thesis of Andrea Kuzmich, a student at York University in Toronto. The thesis, “Issues of Variability and Questions of Non-Chance in the Traditional Polyphonic Songs of Tbilisi Ensembles,” focuses on the retention of these songs and their continuity over a century of performance. This retention is not insignificant. Musical change is in some ways the most common attribute of musical traditions of the world. Kuzmich sites another ethnomusicologist’s paper on Bulgarian state ensembles in which the author ” contextualizes changes in music making within a multi-dimensional matrix of historical, ethnographic, musical, political, social, and cultural detail.” Georgian polyphony’s resistance to these factors, or the consistency withstanding, is a remarkable thing. I plan on posting much more about her thesis (its extremely thorough and addresses multiple aspects of Georgian history and politics along with the evidence behind her theory of non-change).

Here is an early 20th century phonograph recording. Listen for parallel 5ths, odd key changes, strong dissonances, and augmented octaves.

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