24 September 2011
Little did he know, but when Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy passed on an obscure, mid-’70s Swiss recording of a peculiarly otherworldly eastern European folk choir to Ivo Watts-Russell, head honcho at his band’s record label, 4AD, he was setting in motion one of the 1980’s odder musical success stories. Watts was so enthralled by the exotic Balkan drone chorales that he swiftly set about licensing and re-releasing the record. Thus, in 1986, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares was unleashed upon an audience for whom unintelligible lyrics (The Cocteau Twins) and vaguely Eastern portent (Dead Can Dance) were meat and drink. The album would go on to sell several hundred thousand copies, helping cement 4AD’s reputation for the recondite and Gothic and effectively launching an enduringly enigmatic ‘world music’ phenomena.
Certainly, tonight’s packed, animated Barbican concert hall suggests that the appeal of this curiously elemental music has not been denuded by time. Even if the Iron Curtain – whose apparent immutability once leant an extra layer of Eastern Bloc ‘mystère’ to the choir’s secular, magic-realism- tinged hymns about courting peasants, dream-like village dances and impossibly heroic partisans – was rent asunder more than two decades ago, theirs is still a sound which seems to emanate form some clandestine, unknowable place.
Appearing in their dazzling, embroidered national costumes, the contemporary choir’s two-dozen, mixed-age female vocalists adopt a simple, semi-circular formation on the bare, starkly-lit stage, with veteran conductor Dora Hristova at the hub. They launch into an opening wedding song, ‘Zazheni Se Gyuro’ (Gyuru Getting Married), the massed, unaccompanied, tremolo-free voices pitched in close, semi-dissonant harmony, gliding in opaque waves toward moments of consonance, then shifting back toward unresolved suspension; the whole thing seemingly poised continuously between rhapsody and lament. It must have been quite a wedding.
Thus, the evening unfurls, the ensemble sporadically dividing into smaller groups to deliver more modest, but no less affecting vocal arrangements of various traditional Bulgarian and other Balkan folk songs, again (according to Kim Burton’s lavish programme notes) mostly concerned with dancing and marriage prospects. Indeed, while the numinous, plainsong-like quality of much of the performance inevitably suggests religiosity, much of what the ensemble deliver is resolutely secular and decidedly playful in nature. The protagonists in Tamen Oblak (A Dark Cloud is Coming), exquisitely rendered by soloist Dafinka Damyanova, are two young girls gossiping about their boyfriends while inexplicably floating on the titular cumulonimbus, while the suitably vertiginous Galabi Goukat is all about a girl who coos at passing pigeons and asks them to look down and report on distant members of her family.
As sweetly disarming as these lyrical concerns are, it’s still the eerie, otherworldly sonic qualities of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares that leaves a profound impression. Even a quarter of a century after 4AD first ushered their music toward mainstream ears, the ecstatic melancholy of these soaring Eastern vocalists remains uniquely otherworldly.