Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares: compelling voices on the bare stage


Sensations of familiar strangeness

LE MYSTERE DES VOIX BULGARES is one of the many names given to the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, founded in 1952 with the idea to record authentic and arranged music for multi-voice choral Bulgarian folk songs. Its fame exceeded the boundaries of the country in 1988 in order to become one of the most amazing success stories in world history (The Guardian has included the ensemble in this year’s list of the 50 key events in history).
The Grammy awarded ensemble has been conducted by Prof. Dora Hristova for many years and combines ethnic folk melodies with sophisticated harmonies and compelling rhythms. The repertoire of the choir is drawn from arrangements created by the Bulgarian most esteemed composers like Philip Koutev, Krassimir Kyurkchiyski, Nikolai Kaufman, Petar Lyondev, Dora Hristova, Kosta Kollev, Kiril Stefanov, etc.
The latest name the choir has acquired is named after the title of their album Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (1975), which was the result of fifteen years of work by Swiss ethnomusicologist and producer Marcel Cellier. It blended traditional six-part a cappella repertoire with contemporary arrangements of ancient folk songs which has been frequently perceived as unique and eerie combination of avant-garde and middle-ages sounds with some alien ‘yelping’ outbursts by its audiences around the globe. It has always amazed and amused me how little is known about my native culture and its traditions as the so described ‘yelping’ by some of my dear friends at the concert in Usher Hall last night is nothing but a trait of the Bulgarian folk singing applied in a refined and slightly startling way by the ensemble.

The choir has followed and developed the compositional style of the eminent Bulgarian composer Philip Koutev who drew techniques from serious music such as drones, clashing close harmonies, complex irregular rhythms of Bulgarian dance with constant changes in tempo, intensity and texture. In other words, the voice becomes a complex creation and incorporates dance, music, ornamentation and dissonance in its body, expressed through trils, glottal ornaments and falsettos, sudden bursts of speech or showers of nonsense syllables. This sound-world somehow strangely resembles the maternal semiotic chora of Julia Kristeva, which explains the pre-Oedipal stage of language, and sends a shrill or two down the audience’s spines.

I must confess that the first part of the concert sounded more familiar than the second; it changed in tone and reached a highly cacophonic but harmonious arrangement of dissonances. The costumes and performance acts were unpredictable and part of the thrill consisted in its rich and intense moments of surprise and familiarity. The colourful costumes which the ensemble wore before the interval represented the main regional folkloric traditions, namely from the areas of Shoskpsko, Dobrudzha, Pirin, Plovdiv, etc. These were replaced with stylish black dresses with long sleeves and sashes in multiple colours during the second part triggering sensations of familiar strangeness not only through voice but image too.

Twenty five years ago, when all started, the independent record company 4AD (which released Le Mystere album), could not fit them in any musical style. The label ‘world music’ came into being and gradually turned into a successful brand. Nowadays, there is a remarkable growth of amateur choirs worldwide (London, LA, Tokyo), sometimes with Bulgarian conductors and members, who study and perform this ‘mysterious’ music with smaller or greater success.

o Music of Bulgaria (1966)
o Le Mystère de Voix Bulgares Vol.I (1975)
o Vol.II (1988)
o A Cathedral Concert (1988)
o Vol.III (1989)
o Lale Li Si (1990)
o Ritual (1994)
o Vol.IV (1998)
o Best Of (2000)


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