There are waiting lists, and then there are waiting lists. But 18 years? Imagine a group so selective that since 1990 only one new member has been added, and you’ll get some idea of the iconic Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, a carefully selected group of female folk singers that returns this spring for their eighth North American tour, from May 8 to June 1, 2008. Even the most recognized rock bands are hard-pressed to stay together as a group for that long. Now that’s longevity.
Conductor Dora Hristova knows something about longevity, as she’s been directing the group since 1988. Throughout that time, she says, the group has become like a family. They rehearse together, live together in Sofia, and tour together, celebrating birthdays and namedays on the road. While that could test the resilience of even the closest of families, Professor Hristova says “we never miss the opportunity to be together. Our lives become the life of the choir.”
The tight-knit relationship of the women feeds the group’s signature sound, one that seeks out distinctive regional differences while at the same time creating a masterfully crafted unity from diversity. This kind of choral work is rare in Bulgaria, and distinguishes Le Mystère from the wealth of folkloric ensembles populate the country, and the rest of the Balkan and Central/Eastern European landscape. It’s one reason why the choral arrangements made specifically for this choir are not typically shared with others. While some may see this as a holdover from a prior secretive Cold War era, it’s more along the lines of a master chef protectively guarding his most cherished “secret” recipe in the name of self-preservation.
Audiences the world over have come to fall in love with their characteristic sound. This “bouquet of flowers,” as the choir is frequently described, has a sonic and timbral range that captures the spectrum of historical singing traditions in Bulgaria. From the throaty, piercing singing of the Western regions to the rich ornamentation of central regions, audiences are treated to an aural lesson in cultural geography. Little-known history also shines through, for example, in the complex asymmetrical rhythms that Hristova suggests are linked to the ancient Greek poetry that was probably once recited on the land.
The choir also provides a visual treat for audiences. Just as a gardener can pick out the origin of a flower based on its appearance, Hristova is careful to dress the women in costumes that reflect the region from which a song came. She says that one “cannot think of traditional song without the costume, without the traditional styles. One cannot think of folk song without the symbols.” Such visual clues may help audiences subtly better understand the local environment that helped shape the music. The rich greens and golds of the northeastern Dobrudzha region portray its history as an agricultural area. The lustrous reds of the hilly Thracia region signify the blood that was spilt defending the country against the Ottoman Turks.
Metaphor rings throughout Bulgarian music. Bulgarian folk dancers sometimes wear bells on their clothes, a touch of ancient ritual tradition that influences the group’s revelry in dissonance. “When two singers sing in the traditionally dissonant intervals of 2nds, 4ths, or 7ths, their voices sound like two bells, invoking these dancers, who jump and move with the bells on their belts,” explains Hristova. Attentive audience members will be able to see that part of the program is sung in richly symbolic traditional clothes, while another part is with black dresses containing embroidery and modern designs. “Because the authentic songs are connected and linked with traditional costumes,” says Hristova, “modern songs are likewise connected with black, modern dress.”
Surprisingly, it is the traditional embrace of dissonance, asymmetrical rhythms, and microtones that lends Bulgarian folk music to the most progressive, modern extremes of Western classical expression. The stacked choral richness of voices singing in strident intervals is only one degree away from the tone clusters of avant-garde composers like Penderechki, Boulez, and the Bulgarian composer Ivan Spassov. This can be heard on the track "Mehmetyo" (a love song titled with a girl’s name). The nuanced changes in ornamentation or timing each time a song is sung in the folk style easily transfers to the aleatoric techniques of compositional pioneers, which leave some of the composition to the performers themselves, as heard in “Bela Sum, Bela Yunache” (another love song) or “Sama Li Si Den Zhanala” (a harvest song).
The experimentation with bold new choral arrangements for Le Mystère is one way Hristova refreshes the choir’s repertoire when touring. “As time goes by, and we come for the second or third time, I add more songs with a more contemporary technique.” It indicates that Le Mystère does indeed have an educated following, one that goes crazy for their sound. Some of their songs have even become hits of American audiences, such as the song “Ergen Deda” (“The Old Bachelor”), or “Dilmano Dilbero” (“Beautiful Diolmana;” the name of a beautiful girl), which Hristova always places at the end consistently summoning tremendous audience reaction.
The root of their work, however, remains the simple folk lyrics of their songs, which audiences everywhere can relate to and whose symbols again provide clues to the cultural environment where the music was born. They sing everyday songs of marriage, love, birth, mourning, and other life occurrences, like the tale of an older man courting a scandalously much younger woman in “Ergen Deda”, or “Planino” (“Mountain”), another one of their most popular pieces that praises another important figure in the Bulgarian folk world, the mountain, which is seen as a great protector from outside oppressors and which helped shape the open-throated, piercing quality of Bulgaria’s mountainous cultural regions.
If Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares is a bouquet of flowers, they are hearty flowers loaded with meaning and emotion. The mystery may never be unraveled, but with the feast of sensory experiences offered to them, audiences will always have a good time trying.