Female polyphonic singing tradition in Bulgaria and its impact on the world

Q. A question I'd like to ask has to do with women. I see a thread, a connection, between your fieldwork with women singers in Bulgaria, the role of women singers in Bulgaria broadly, and Tzvetanka's presence here at UCLA. Is there anything that you want to say about that?

A. That's really interesting. At some point in the field of ethnomusicology, women ethnomusicologists began to notice that in our reports from the field, there weren't very many women in them. Even women had gone off and studied music that was essentially male traditions. You can imagine, say, in a Muslim culture, for example, almost all the musicians would be men, and women had gone off to study them, and reported on them and it became this kind of critique from the point of view of feminism: "Where are the women in our studies?"  We started to get essays in our collections on women in music, gender in music, and so on. I guess I could put my study of Bulgarian women's singing in that tradition, although I have to say, that was not where my mind was; there was no political reason behind a man studying a woman's tradition. For me it was a musical tradition that was just really interesting and that it happened to be made by women was not a political feature of it. It was just the fact of it. So that's on the one hand. Then simultaneously with that, of course, was the fact that in the world outside of Bulgaria, the kind of music that was making a big impact on people when they heard it was actually not the instrumental music of the Varimezov family, which I think is brilliant and wonderful. It was the singing, the arranged polyphonic choral singing of women who had come from villages: had come to the city, and had been trained to read music and sing solfege (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do), and with their peasant vocal production, to sing three- and four-part harmony, composed by composers. That kind of music had made a huge impression outside of Bulgaria, starting in the 60s. In the 60s Nonesuch [recording company] released an album of these kind of songs and people of my generation, including me, heard the music and were just totally taken with it.

Q. Do you remember the name of those recordings?

Cover of the 1987 Nonsuch CD by Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares ("The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices").  

A.  They were called "Music of Bulgaria." I can't remember the title of it.  I remember in college we sang, a few of us—men and women—got together and sang these songs. Just like there were folk dancers, some of those folk dancers who were women began to form choruses and sing this music, starting in the 60s. And then there was a huge efflorescence of interest, again in the late 1980s, when this Swiss record producer released a set of three recordings called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares ("The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices"). And young women heard that and went nuts. They just loved that sound. My theory of that is that it is linked in these young women's values; the sound of this powerful singing is a metaphor for them of powerful women.  And this is the way a powerful woman might sound, rather than like an American folk singer who has this mousy little voice, but these Bulgarian women just BAM! singing incredibly loudly and incredibly focused. They took that as a symbol of powerful women, and then if you have a women's choir, conducted by women, you have a social organization that's entirely female, that has no dependence, really, on men. It feels good, I think, for women to be in that kind of context together. I think that accounts for some of the popularity of Bulgarian singing. And then Tzvetanka is this brilliant pedagogue who many groups all over the world invited to teach them. And so at the end of the movie, for example, she does a concert on her 50th birthday in Bulgaria in which choirs from Denmark and France and the United States and Greece, come to Sofia [capital of Bulgaria] to sing with her because she's been teaching them now for almost twenty years. She's been traveling around the world, including to Japan, to teach women to sing in this style.


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