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No New Abnormal

Tag: Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares

A Few Detours and a New Sound From a Legendary, Haunting Vocal Ensemble

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, neoliberals made their way into Bulgaria and convinced the new government to put the nation’s most popular export out of business. The renowned choral ensemble who were first known as the Bulgairian National Women’s Choir, then became a global sensation as Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, and are now known in the English-speaking world as the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices, were stripped of their government funding. Without that, these extraordinary, legendarily otherworldly singers were forced to take dayjobs. It’s hard to think of a more apt example of how drastically neoliberal tax policies can slash the very fabric of a nation at the seams.

Happily, the group have kept going over the years. Their latest release,  BooCheeMish – their first in two decades – is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a new direction for them. While the group have recorded with rock artists – Kate Bush, most famously – there’s more rock on this release than ever before. Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance contributes her voice to four of the tracks.

With the first number, Mome Malenko, the group set the stage with their characteristically eerie close harmonies, shivery melismas and modal, microtonal lines. This song has more of an Arabic chromaticism; the balance of hushed lows against the keening highs of the women’s voices is especially rapturous.

The second track, Pora Sotunea has rock keys, bass and a tabla rhythm bolstering an Andalucian-tinged tune. Rano Ranila, with its pulsing bursts of counterpoint, is the rhythmically trickiest trip-hop tune ever recorded. By contrast, Mani Yanni has a sepulchral vastness and broodingly melismatic Asian spike fiddle.

Much as the many percussion elements in Yove don’t get in the way, it would be even more impressive to hear just the women’s voices leaping and trilling, keeping perfect time throughout this polyrhythmic dance. Sluntse has more of that stark fiddle along with precise, jazz-tinged, acoustic guitar: beyond a brief intro, it’s an instrumental.

Unison is a return to distantly Indian-tinged trip-hop, with a vocal solo from who. The majestic, solowly unfolding call-and-response of Zabekaya Agne have more traditionally uneasy shifts between major and minor modes, along with a rather imploring vocal solo and ney flute over a boomy Middle Eastern dirge beat. It’s the album’s most successfully eclectic stylistic mashup.

But Tropanitsa, an attempt to Bulgarianize (Mysterize?) a blithe tropical tune, is a mess. Happily, the ensemble return to enigmatic massed splendor in Ganka, then dance their way elegantly through the catchy Shandal Ya. The album’s final track is Stanka, moody strings replicating vocal harmonies beneath their soloist’s impassioned lead melody.

For continuity’s sake, let’s count this as today’s installment for Halloween month. These magical voices persist in evoking a strange, antique spirit world, notwithstanding the many additional touches which some listeners may find superfluous.

Shelley Thomas Channels an Entire Bulgarian Vocal Choir on Her Stunning New Solo Album

Shelley Thomas‘ debut solo album, Joy – streaming at her music page– is as exhilarating to listen to as it is a towering display of vocal prowess. Thomas is not only one of New York’s great voices; she’s one of the world’s most highly sought-after interpreters of Middle Eastern and Balkan music. What’s most impressive about this album is how she multitracks her voice, essentially becoming a one-woman Bulgarian vocal choir, a self-contained Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares or Black Sea Hotel (of which she is a member). As she explains in the album’s liner notes, Bulgarian music is “a vast and exciting repertoire of wildly diverse regional styles, dialects and ornaments, rich in history, storytelling and feeling.” That’s an understatement. Thomas has such vast range, formidable technique and minutely nuanced command of microtones that she can do it all. The result is rapture that sometimes borders on terror. Olivier Messiaen understood that; so does Thomas.

Beyond the otherworldly, microtonal beauty of the arrangements, sometimes what’s most striking about these seventeen songs is their surrealism. Other times it’s the subtext, as in the album’s distantly plaintive, solo vocal opening track, where a girl goes out into the woods, ostensibly to pick flowers. But what she’s really up to is searching for her missing brother, a freedom figther against the local tyrant, or Ottoman invaders.

Most of the other tracks are packed with the close harmonies typically associated with the Bulgarian vocal tradition. Thomas juxtaposes a hypnotically enveloping field holler of sorts with a bride-price diptych full of the echo effects typically associated with mountain music. She channels the wistfulness of a girl beseeching her mother not to marry her off before she’s been able to enjoy a bit more of her carefree childhood, and the bounciness of a tune that belies its macabre lyric about a construction worker who falls victim to a murderous prank. Thomas delivers the album’s celebratory title track as a brisk but stately pavane of sorts.

The rest of the album is just as colorful. Brides are sought after again and again; grooms are rejected (usually because they’re too impoverished) and accepted once in awhile. An abusive boyfriend runs up against karmic payback; another hothead meets his match with a girl who wants to tie him up, yikes! Thomas’ lush, hushed reinvention of Mesechinko Ljo is simply exquisite, one part Arvo Part, one part African-American gospel. The next-to-last track is even more epic. Many of the remaining songs are very short, clocking in at barely two minutes; in each case, the emotion in Thomas’ vocals, sometimes tender, sometimes wounded, often uneasy, transcends linguistic limitations. You don’t need to speak Bulgarian to be entranced by this music: it’s one of the half-dozen best albums of 2016. Thomas’ fascinating liner notes include both the original Bulgarian lyrics and English translations as well as historical and musicological background.

An Astonishingly Eclectic, Global Album and an Auspicious Laurie Anderson Collaboration at BAM from the Kronos Quartet

The original indie classical ensemble, the Kronos Quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang – are teaming up with Laurie Anderson for what promises to be one of the year’s best, and potentially one of the decade’s most auspicious runs at BAM next week. They’lll be performing their collaboration, Landfall, which explores Anderson’s experiences during Hurricane Sandy here in New York a couple of years ago. The concerts run from Sept 23 to Sept 27 at 7:30 PM. $20 balcony seats are still available as of today. You’ve been given the heads-up – this could be major.

The Kronos Quartet’s latest album, A Thousand Thoughts – streaming at Spotify – is also pretty major. It’s basically a survey of string music from around the globe, accent on intense and substantial. It’s also an unusually successful take on a format that’s often overrated and underwhelming: pairing a famous group with a bunch of equally famous special guests. But the Quartet has always been a mutable unit, as these fifteen tracks – recorded across the years, with every Kronos Quartet lineup – prove over and over again. They literally can play anything, yet always manage to put their own individualistic, out-of-the-box stamp on it. Celtic traditional music reinvented as ambient soundscape? Check. The Blind Willie Johnson delta blues tune Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground remade as Vietnamese art-song, with eerily quavering dan bao from Van-Anh Vanessa Vo? Doublecheck.

Maybe what’s most enjoyable here is that virtually all of these performance are acoustic. To be completely fair, when the Kronos Quartet have employed electronics, those effects aren’t usually gratuitous: the group tends to use them for extra atmospheric bulk and heft when a piece calls for it. But these performances are intimate, with an immediacy and vivid chemistry among the ensemble and with the guests. The Quartet teams up with Syrian star Omar Souleyman for a Bollywood-ish jam with biting accents and swirling microtones over a steady, hypnotic beat. Vo returns to join her countryman Kim Sinh for another alternately spiky and swooping Vietnamese number. A suspensefully crescendoing, rather epic Ethiopian theme by Ethiopiques sax legend Gétatchèw Mèkurya is one of the album’s highlights.

A far more stark, haunting highlight is Sim Sholom, by klezmer legend Alter Yechiel Karniol. A long, dynamically rich, slowly unwinding take of a Turkish classical theme by early 20th century composer Tanburi Cemil Bey might be the best track of them all. Or it could be the spare, haunting Greek gangster blues tune Smyrneiko Minore. Or for that matter, a rare. achingly beautiful excerpt from Astor Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations featuring the great bandoneonist/composer himself.

There’s also a shapeshiftingly lush Terry Riley piece featuring the vocals of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares; a Homayun Sakhi Afghani rubab tune that straddles the line between Middle Eastern and Indian music; a scampering collaboration with Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man on a rousing traditional song; and a little gentle Bollywood and Irish folk at the end. It’s an apt summation of this group’s hall of fame career, one that simply refuses to stop.