Georgian Polyphony

Over the centuries, the Caucasus Republic of Georgia has been home to an array of vocal and instrumental folk music traditions. To name a few, the country’s ethnically diverse urban centers have a strong history of duduk and zurna playing, and of the art music genre of mugham. Alongside these urban traditions is an ancient tradition of polyphonic folk singing. While there is clear written evidence in the form of neumes that this generally three-part vocal form dates back at least to the 10th century, Greek historical accounts suggest its existence as early as the 5th century B.C.E. Developing independently of European polyphonic traditions, Georgian polyphony is particularly striking for its emergence amidst the monophonic traditions of its neighbors and those of the many empires that have occupied Georgia throughout the ages. Geographically quite small, Georgia is home to a remarkably diverse set of localized musical styles.

Almost all Georgian folk songs are in three voice parts, and in very close harmony (rarely more than an octave between the top and bass parts). There are two-part and solo songs in some of the eastern mountain regions, and examples of four-part polyphony can be found in the western provinces of Guria and Ach’ara. Georgia’s tuning system is unique, based primarily upon the fifth rather than the octave. Therefore, high fourths, neutral thirds, “in-between” sixths and sevenths, and “stretched” octaves are characteristic to Georgian folk song. Georgian harmonies involve a relationship of interdependence among the voice parts that is completely distinct from the rules of harmony in classical Western European polyphony, defying notions of counterpoint, “melody and harmony,” or voice leading. Almost every song will travel through waves of extreme harmonic complexity to end in unison, or with the top part a perfect fifth above the bottom two parts.

Song structure varies from region to region. In the eastern regions of Kartli and K’akheti, two soloists improvise with highly melismatic texts over a droning bass, echoing musical features from neighboring Eastern musical traditions. This contrasts with the more contrapuntal movement in the highly improvisational and rhythmic trio songs of western provinces such as Guria, Samegrelo, Ach’ara, and Imereti. Many songs are accompanied by traditional dances, with many round dances preserved in the western mountainous provinces of Svaneti and Rach’a. Svan songs retain some of the oldest and most startlingly non-Western tuning, and feature a very powerful performance style. While folk song texts from all parts of Georgia address themes of work, family, love, friendship, hardship, and warfare, among other topics, songs from Svaneti also preserve some of Svaneti’s pre-Christian religious traditions.

There are a number of traditional instruments associated with Georgian vocal polyphony, including the western lowland chonguri, the eastern panduri, and the Svan ch’unir. Performance choirs are a relatively new development in Georgian folk music, born of Tsarist Russian influence in the late 19th century. Many choirs since then have been segregated by gender. However, evidence indicates that much Georgian folk song has always been sung by entire families and members of rural communities, regardless of gender. Today, some choirs are choosing to revive the mixed-gender tradition.

Georgia was one of the first nations to adopt Christianity as its state religion (327 C.E.), and the Georgian Orthodox Church has an ancient tradition of three-part polyphonic chant. Certain folk songs also incorporate ritualistic pagan elements and Christian themes, including several of the songs recorded by this project. Visit the sites below for more discussion on Georgian folk and secular song.

Much more on Georgian polyphony can be found at:

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