Arts: Dissonant voices, still lives

Stravinsky described the magical sound of Georgian singers as the most virile he had ever heard. Now M'tiebi, a male voice choir, are showing British audiences what he meant. By Michael Church
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The Independent Culture
Make love not war. But if you must make war, then at least make it with music. Two millennia before Scots highlanders were piped into battle, the Greek historian Xenophon noted how the Mosiniki tribe readied themselves for combat. "The warriors stood in rows like a choir, then one of them began and all the others joined in, marching to the rhythm of the song." You couldn't wish for a neater image of Georgia today, which is where the Mosiniki once came from.

Georgia may not - mercifully - be in the same league as Kosovo, but it has always been strife-torn. It celebrated its emancipation from the Soviet empire with a civil war which has left Tbilisi, its capital, impoverished. Yet Tbilisi remains one of the most musical cities on earth.

"I was born twice," said Chaliapin, the great Russian bass. "In Kazan I opened my eyes to life, and in Tbilisi to music." Here Tchaikovsky conducted, Verdi reworked Aida, and a host of virtuosi emerged from the conservatory. Wander round that Conservatory now and you realise both the strength of Tbilisi's musical will and the scale of its problems. The building is decaying and the instruments are beaten up, but the young pianists and violinists are outstanding.

But music in Tbilisi is primarily an amateur affair. Walk into almost any Orthodox church on Sunday morning and you'll hear singing which is warmer and sunnier than its lugubrious Russian equivalent. Outside in the street you may well come across circles of middle-aged gents singing in immaculate three-part harmony. But Tbilisi's chief musical glory lies in forms which are directly descended from those Xenophon found in 401BC.

Last year I watched Edisher Garakanidze, Georgia's leading ethnomusicologist, coach a children's choir he had founded to foster these ancient forms. With ages ranging from four to 15, they conjured up their dark, three- part harmonies with rapt concentration: these were the fruits, he told me, of a trawl they had made through villages where such things were still routinely sung. There was a world of difference, Edisher insisted, between the subtly Westernised music with which professional Georgian folk-groups toured abroad, and the real unsanitised thing.

If I were to revisit Georgia, he would show me. Coming from this diffident but inspiring man, this was an offer I could not refuse.

Four months ago Edisher died with his wife and daughter in a car crash. End of story? No, a new beginning. Edisher's 17-year-old son Gigi has just arrived in Britain with M'tiebi - the male-voice choir which Edisher also founded and ran - for a tour beginning and ending at the Union Chapel in Islington. And only now are those who knew Edisher realising the true extent of his influence.

Ring an American called Frank Kane in Paris, I'm told. Kane tells me of meeting Edisher in 1984, and of being inspired by him to found a Georgian choir in America. That choir is still going strong, but Kane has in the meantime set up a similar one in France. The CD he sends me (Soupra, on the ARB label) sounds remarkably authentic, given that none of his singers are Georgian; his choir, Marani, do regular exchanges with singers in Georgian villages.

Ring a theatre director called Joan Mills in Aberystwyth, they say. It emerges that over the past five years Edisher had made regular tutorial visits to Wales, and that next week's Giving Voice festival will celebrate him with a series of workshops. Mills, moreover, is finishing a book which Edisher left uncompleted: 99 Georgian Songs - a Manual for Beginners. "Wherever he was," says Mills, "he seemed to light up the room."

Dropping in at the studio of the Royal National Theatre, I hear singing - from a group of actors under the baton of musicologist Helen Chadwick - which might have come straight out of Tbilisi. Chadwick first encountered Edisher in Wales, but then went to collect songs with him in Georgia. Echoing a phrase much used by his disciples, she says she "just wanted to be inside that music".

That is a suitably physical metaphor for a profoundly physical experience which has long fascinated Western musicians. On hearing a yodelling descant from the province of Guria, Stravinsky commented: "It is the most virile vocal performance I have ever heard." Georgian polyphony - usually in three parts - is full of dissonant (but lovingly dwelt-on) vocal collisions.

Just as Christian and pagan rituals merged in Georgia, so did sacred and secular forms of music. But in one key respect Georgian polyphony has remained uncontaminated by the West. Georgian polyphony is tuned to a modal scale: it's not based on Western harmonies. Octaves are out; Georgians think in fifths, and the effect on Western ears can be disorienting, as though the singing is flat.

That is why the celebrated Rustavi choir (to be heard on the St Petersburg label) earned Edisher's mild contempt. For those Georgians don't sing "flat": their tuning has been cleaned up, so as to be acceptable to Western ears. And that is why the music of M'tiebi - the word means morning star - is significant. These singers are amateurs - architects, engineers, computer-programmers - and proud of it; the only trained musician among them was Edisher. But to hear them sing their wedding songs, funeral laments, and Christmas carols at the Union Chapel last night, was to enter a world of irresistible magic - as Edisher Garakanidze's growing posthumous following confirms.