The Sculpture of Song
Iwona Blazwick, Spring 2003
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On an overcast but still day in July 1993, a group of travellers who had journeyed from across Europe to reach a remote spot on the British coast of the North Sea disembarked from their cars and coaches. They made their way along a narrow sandy ridge hugging the curve of the Northumberland coastline. Below the ridge lay a wide stretch of sandy beach. And on the beach stood a small group of women looking out to the horizon.
There were eight in the group, some middle-aged, others quite elderly - all identically dressed in the festive traditional costume of some faraway rural culture. Each had a long white scarf tied around her hair and a flower tucked behind the ear. Beneath a heavily brocaded black dress and jerkin, each wore a scarlet-and-white-patterned blouse edged with lace; under their skirts hung the delicate frill of a petticoat. Stout black woollen stockings were embroidered with delicate pastels, and on their feet the women wore flat leather sandals.
They were not just looking towards the sea but singing to it, in complex, dissonant harmonies. The song they sang, foreign to most of the spectators, was therefore abstract, yet strangely moving. The sheer visceral power of their voices, seeming to emanate not from the throat but from the solar plexus, generated a presence as physically and psychically overwhelming as the wide horizon before them. Working within the parameters of only a few notes, each voice released a sound of a chromatic nuance so subtle as to break down aural zones between minor and major keys. Notes were held or repeated to create harmonies that either paralleled or interconnected with one another; each singular voice created what was almost an architectural structure.
As they sang, they moved slowly, linking arms by holding on to each other's ornate gold belts. Their collective movement was rhythmical yet restrained, their feet softly stamping from one side to the other as if to echo the movement of the vast body of water to which they sang. In its implicitly endless structure, the fluid yet circular phrases of their song similarly paralleled the continuum of the sea, the deep geological time of the tides, a time outside history.
At once 'formless' and highly structured, their song continued to evolve and mutate while their slow dance drew them into lines or circles, parting and coming together again. Their performance lasted some twenty minutes, after which time each woman walked off along the beach and out of sight.
The singers are all grandmothers from the mountain town of Bistritsa in Bulgaria. They call themselves The Bistritsa Babi, or grandmothers. Their song forms part of a tradition of folk singing passed down from mother to daughter since the Middle Ages. The lyrics are drawn from everyday events and ancient rural rituals. They are part of a musical tradition that stands - as does Bulgaria itself - between East and West. The women's choral chants evoke the unisons of plainsong and the almost calligraphic call of the Islamic muezzin.