The Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir
The Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir
One of the big phenomena in traditional music during the late 1980s was the unlikely rise of the Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir. Called “an absolutely spectacular example of musical perfection” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and similarly hailed by critics in the popular and musical press as well as by pop stars from David Byrne to Paul Simon, the group sold and continued to sell an astonishing number of albums while introducing odd, chilling Bulgarian harmonies to the United States and the world.
The 24-woman choir, under the command of director Dora Hristova, joined traditional Bulgarian melodies with sophisticated Western harmonies. Founded as a source of radio entertainment in 1952, its original director was composer Philip Koutev, a man whose primary work was preserving his country’s rapidly decaying folk heritage. Recruiting singers from Bulgaria’s rural areas, Koutev redefined songs originally heard in fields and at sewing bees, weddings, funerals, and village celebrations through arrangements that highlighted
Founded in 1952 by composer Philip Koutev (born c. 1903; died in 1982); led by Dora Hristova (born in 1948); performed on Bulgarian State Radio, 1952—; recorded sporadically, mid-1950s—; released Music of Bulgaria, Elektra/Nonesuch, and toured Europe and the Middle East, mid-1960s; released Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Nonesuch, 1987; toured U.S., 1988.
Awards: Grammy Award, 1990, for Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Volume II.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra/Nonesuch, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
the beautiful timbres and irregular rhythms of the country’s diverse provinces.
Divided by five mountain ranges, each of Bulgaria’s regions has a distinct vocal style. Shope singers emphasize dissonant harmonies; Pirin Macedonians specialize in drones. In Dobrudzha and North Bulgaria, songs feature lilting melodies, while singers in the central Thracian Plain stress slower, unmetered, ornamented tunes.
But in all of these locations, solo voices sing in microtones— those areas of pitch that lie between the keys on a piano. In duet and ensemble singing, Bulgarian intervals sound dissonant to Western ears. Likewise, complex Bulgarian 5/8, 7/16, and 11/16 rhythms differ considerably from the familiar 4/4 and 2/4 of American folk music. The modes (or scales) characteristic of Bulgarian music bear some similarity to those typical of Turkish music, but director Hristova insisted to the Marin Independent Journal ’that the “songs are Bulgarian even when we use those modes.”
Today, as in Koutev’s time, the choir goes to great lengths to find singers. “Only in the smallest villages in the mountains is this kind of folk singing still alive,” Hristova told the Boston Globe, “and that is where we go to find the members of our choir. We look for women who are bright in performance who can produce these qualities of voice.”
Once the singers join the choir, Hristova works with them intensively to develop their skills. “I teach them the music,” Hristova explained in the Globe. “We rehearse three hours every day, and we also sing on the radio every day. Each member of the choir is a soloist and I work to preserve their individuality while training them to sing in an ensemble. Sometimes this is not easy.” Perhaps most difficult for the singers is the combination of Bulgarian and Western singing; the choir begins with the idiosyncratic solo and harmony styles of Bulgaria’s seven regions and backs them up with Western diatonic harmonies. Members of the choir must be proficient in both techniques.
At its founding, the choir’s official function was to perform concerts for radio broadcast. Soon, however, the group’s reputation grew beyond Bulgaria, and it began touring the other nations of the Eastern Bloc. In the mid-1960s, America’s Elektra/Nonesuch Records released Music of Bulgaria, which won the group concert engagements in Europe and the Middle East and a rock star following that included singer-songwriters Graham Nash, Paul Simon, and Linda Rondstadt.
But the choir did not reach a worldwide audience until 1987, when a Swiss fan named Marcel Cellier recorded it and released Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices) on his own label. Soon afterward, the record made its way onto the English pop charts when it was released by the cutting-edge label 4AD.
Hoping to repeat 4AD’s success, Nonesuch licensed Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares for release in the U.S. The record was greeted by Americans with surprising enthusiasm; critical reaction was almost uniformly positive. One caveat was sounded, however, by New York Times contributor Jon Pareles, who feared that “traditional singers, who now learn from records or radio as well as from relatives are also likely to pick up the smoother tone of the professionals.”
In 1988 Nonesuch executive Danny Kahn brought the choir stateside for an American tour. With the support of Paul Simon, world music enthusiast David Byrne, and vocal gymnast Bobby McFerrin, the choir made a splash, appearing mostly in alternative venues and selling more than 200,000 copies of their attractively packaged album, which, incidentally, bore no image of the mostly stout, middle-aged women whose extraordinary voices belie their ordinary appearance.
Since then, the choir has returned regularly to the U.S., in the process developing a loyal audience of academics, folkies, classical-music fans, and pony-tailed hipsters. It has also appeared in an astonishing number of American pop culture forums, including cable TV’s MTV, VH1, HBO, and NBC’s Tonight Show.
“I never dreamed that I would conduct this choir,” Hristova told the Boston Globe, “and that it would sing all over the world. I am a very happy person.” Despite this sentiment, come the dawning of the 1990s, the choir director realized that with the passing of communism in her country, the Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir would have to survive in the highly competitive world of traditional music without institutional support. “There are a lot of problems in Bulgaria nowadays,” she told the Los Angeles Daily News in the spring of 1992. “The economic crisis is terrible for everybody. We dreamed of this kind of freedom and the country will be improved. ... We cannot rely on the old fame and old achievements. We have to improve our skill and our profession and do our best to be the top because the competition and the rivalry in our country will grow even stronger.” As a result of these pressures, the choir officially changed its name to Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.
It was perhaps not completely unexpected, then, when the choir released the “pop” album From Bulgaria With Love the following year. The work of several producers, With Love explored a variety of genres—from New Age to hip-hop to heavy metal. Calling the release “rather uneven” and one song, “Pippero,” “hilariously kitschy,” Musician reviewer Geoffrey Welchman nonetheless philosophized, “While the album is sure to alienate strict ’ethnic music’ purists, it should interest people who believe that ’world music’ should be defined as music where ethnic sounds mix” And summarizing the unique appreciation Westerners have for the sounds of the choir, With Love producer Vladimir Ivanoff—who explained the inspiration for the album in terms of the repeated requests for permission to sample the choir in other recordings—offered in Details, “There are many minor tones in Bulgarian music that we use to express happiness, but you would think it was a sad song. And people outside Bulgaria don’t understand the words. Some pieces sound very mysterious, but in reality the lyrics are something like ’Mary, would you go to get the goose?”’
Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares: Vol. I, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1987.
Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares: Vol. Il, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1988.
Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares: A Cathedral Concert, Verve/Polygram, 1991.
From Bulgaria With Love—The Pop Album, Mesa, 1992.
Melody, Rhythm & Harmony, Mesa, 1993.
Music of Bulgaria, Elektra/Nonesuch.
Boston Globe, April 30, 1990.
Daily News (Los Angeles), April 11, 1992.
Details, April 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, February 19, 1993.
Marin County Independent Journal (CA), March 30, 1990.
Musician, April 1993.
New York Times, October 30, 1988.
Pulse!, September 1993.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1991.
Times (Trenton, NJ), March 6, 1992.
Wall Street Journal, November 11, 1988.