October 05th, 2017
Ensemble “Rustavi” ’s success to the UK was beyond any expectations. This fact was also echoed in the local press.
By Robert Edgar
If ever there was an event designed to celebrate 25 years of formal diplomatic relations between the UK and Georgia, then this was it: a collaboration presented by the Embassy of Georgia to the United Kingdom in tandem with the British Library, the most comprehensive stockpile of information in the country. It launched the British Library’s Season of Sound series beginning with a series of talks on Georgian culture, musicology, and the history of recorded music in the region, culminating in a performance by the Rustavi Choir.
We were welcomed by Ambassador to the UK, HE Tamar Beruchashvili, who gave an overview of the day’s proceedings, and managed to elicit an actual cheer from the audience with the announcement of khachapuri and Georgian wine to be served in the interval between the lectures and the concert before we heard from the library’s Sound Curator Will Prentice. Prentice told the little-known story of the British Gramophone company and its short-lived yet prolific work collecting and recording the folk music of the Caucasus in the early 20th Century. It is thanks to the company that there is such a well-preserved archive of recordings, even more remarkable considering the delicate and precarious nature of recording onto wax cylinders. Gramophone opened their first Tbilisi (then Tiflis) office in 1901 and continued expanding across the region until 1915 when WWI necessitated its closure.
There followed a brief talk by Baia Zhuzhunadze on the work of the Georgian Chanting Society, supporting the proliferation of Georgian music, dance and culture; a talk by the former chair of the British Georgian Society Jason Osborn, who gave an overview of Georgian polyphonic singing and announced the next Life Through Film Festival to be held in London on 26 April 2018; Prof. Anzor Erkomaishvili (founder of the Rustavi Ensemble) complemented Prentice’s history of phonographic recording and explained the influence of Georgian Polyphony on composers like Stravinsky; and Prof. Revaz Kiknadze set himself the apparently impossible task of giving a history of Georgian music in 15 minutes.
I cannot think of a better justification for the music’s inscription on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity than the subsequent performance: after a brief introduction by Georgian-British singer Katie Melua, we were treated to superb live examples of the music we’d been discussing all afternoon. It is unlike almost anything immediately familiar to the Western ear and doesn’t invite immediate comparison with the Renaissance polyphony of Palestrina (for example), but nor does it have the unpolished, rough quality of much folk music. The music often takes a strophic form common to folk but the harmonic language is incredibly sophisticated.
The choir’s vocal and rhythmic control was impressive as the tenors demonstrated their ability nimbly to flit around the top of their range in close thirds over long drones from the basses. Seemingly disparate motivic cells appeared cyclically in a way that meshed together to create a cohesive whole. With no recognisable system of dissonance and resolution, tension and release was achieved by the seemingly contrasting melodic lines naturally coming together before branching out. Often the lack of a clear rhythmic pulse gave the music an ethereal quality that leant itself particularly well to the delicate occasionally melancholic religious and harvest songs, especially considering the parallel intervals and deep resonance of the harmony. In inexpert hands, the whole thing would run the risk of either falling apart or becoming too regimented, but this just worked.
Their authentic performance comprised music from all areas and traditions in Georgia. If the intention was a sharing of culture, then one would be hard pressed to think of a more fitting space than the entrance hall of the British Library in London in front of the tower housing King George III’s personal book collection.
The event’s partners and sponsors were: The British Library, the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia, Georgian ‘Chanting Foundation’, Ensemble “Rustavi”, Winery ‘Shilda’, Georgian Wine Club in London and the British-Georgian Society.