International Council for Traditions of Music and Dance

A Non-Governmental Organization in Formal Consultative Relations with UNESCO

Report: the 7th International Symposium on Traditional Polyphony, Tbilisi, 22-26 September 2014

On 22-26 September 2014 the Tbilisi State Conservatoire hosted the 7th International Symposium on Traditional Polyphony. Despite the fact that the Tbilisi Symposia are quite popular among ethnomusicologists from different countries, wider circles know little about them. Thus in this report I will discuss the history of its foundation and its distinctive peculiarities. 

The International Symposium on Traditional Polyphony was founded by the Tbilisi State Conservatoire and the International Centre for Georgian Folk Song, and it is patronized by the President of Georgia and provided with financial support by the Georgian Ministry of Culture and Monuments Protection. The Symposium is organized by the International Research Centre for Traditional Polyphony of Tbilisi State conservatoire (IRCTP). 

Brief prehistory

The Tbilisi symposia continue the tradition of international conferences on polyphony initiated at the Conservatoire in the 1980s. In 1986, at the second conference, many Western ethnomusicologists visited Georgia for the first time, such as Jerko Bezić, Oskár Elschek, Ernst Emsheimer, Nikolai Kaufman, Barbara Krader, Margarita Mazo, Radmila Petrović, Dunja Rihtman, Erich Stockmann, Tomokawa Kazuki, and Susanne Ziegler. This was when Georgian polyphony had managed to breach the Iron Curtain, when the Rustavi ensemble successfully performed at the world’s best concert venues, and when one of the best examples of chakrulo polyphony was included, along other treasures of mankind, aboard the spaceships Voyager-1 and 2. 

Although Siegfried Nadel’s Georgian Song was published in German in 1933, the knowledge on Georgian traditional polyphony was very scanty outside our country. We can presume that this was one of the reasons which sparked big interest from the international scholarly society. I was Vice Rector of Science at the Conservatoire at the time, and remember well the deep impression that the very complex polyphonic examples,  masterly performed by folk singers from various Georgian provinces (i.e., not academic ensembles), made on our international guests. 

Due to severe economic hardships following Georgia’s declaration of independence in 1991, the tradition of holding such conferences ceased, to be revived only at the end of the decade.

In 2001, UNESCO’s proclamation of Georgian Polyphonic Singing as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity initiated a new chapter in this story. Georgian traditional polyphony was placed in the centre of the world’s attention, and traditional conferences were reborn as Symposia. 

Since 2002 the International Symposia on Traditional Polyphony have been held every two years. It can be said that they inspired similar scientific forums in Europe (Albania, Austria, Italy, Portugal), and that subsequently research of traditional polyphony became one of “hot” topics in European ethnomusicology. 

The symposium is a wonderful rostrum for all interested in general and specific issues of traditional music: theoretical, musical-aesthetic and social aspects, the genesis of polyphony, methodology of its recording and acoustic methods for study, problems of regional styles and musical language, sacred and secular polyphony, interrelation of polyphony and instrumental music, historical recordings of traditional music, etc. 

Georgian scholars, like our Russian colleagues, have had less knowledge of the Western methods of ethnomusicological research, but the younger generation of Georgian scholars is particularly well-aware of the necessity of integration into Western science. 

More than 200 scholars have participated in seven symposia since 2002, including researchers from more than 20 countries, such as Simha Arom, Caroline Bithell, Steven Brown, Dieter Christensen, Franz Födermayr, Peter Gold, Gerlinde Haid, Joseph Jordania, Rie Kochi, Gerda Lechleitner, Lu Yu-Hsiu, Bruno Nettl, Daiva Račiūnaitė-Vyčinienė, Tim Rice, Michael Tenzer, Tsutomu Ohashi, Trần Quang Hải, Polo Vallejo, Hugo Zemp, Izaly Zemtsovsky, and Susanne Ziegler, among many others. Jordania is, in addition to being ICTM Liaison Officer for Georgia, the Head of the IRCTP International Bureau, one of the organizers of the conferences in the 1980s, who actively participates in the organization of Tbilisi Symposia. The support of these world-renowned ethnomusicologists significantly enhanced the prestige of Tbilisi symposia on an international level. 

It is an established tradition to enrich the Symposium’s general themes with new special ones. At the 5th Symposium (2010) this was Asian Traditional Polyphony, for the 6th (2012) it was Comparative Studies in Research of Traditional Polyphony, and the special theme of the 7th Symposium (2014) was Polyphony of Ethnic Minorities. Special themes are not meant to be the topic of a one-time interest, but as a means to pay more attention to a specific theme and to focus the interest of the participants. Of course, special themes do not lose topicality with the following symposium, so for instance at the 2014 Symposium there were two presentation on the theme of Asian Instrumental Polyphony (“About Polyphonic Principles in Azerbaijani Mugham” by Sanubar Bagirova and “Instrumental Polyphonic Music in the Eastern Black Sea Region of Turkey” by Abdullah Akat), together with vocal polyphony of the Yi people of China (Bi Yixin), polyphony of Nuristan (Afganistan) and vocal polyphony of the Amis from Taiwan (Lu Yu-Hsiu, Kao Shu-Chuan), etc.

The wide presentation of the world’s polyphony is one of the principal objectives of the symposium, to familiarize participants with lesser-known polyphonic cultures. At various times papers were presented on Non-European polyphony, such as the polyphony of Pygmies (Simha Arom), Ainu (Rie Kochi), Tibetans (Su Wei and Wang Qi), the Arabic world (Dieter Christensen), the Wagogo people (Polo Vallejo), Indonesian Gamelan (Michael Tenzer), and many others. At the 7th Symposium we got familiarized with new “centres of polyphony”: Slovaks from Serbia (Gordana Blagoevic, Serbia), Georgian Jews from Vienna (Nona Lomidze Austria/Georgia), Chechens from the Pankisi Gorge (Nino Razmadze, Georgia), and Georgians residing outside Georgia (Giorgi Kraveishvili, Georgia). Other presentations were concerned with Sardinian (Renato Morelli, Italy) and modern Lithuanian polyphony (Daiva Račiūnaitė-Vyčinienė, Lithuania), as well as the history of Abkhazian choral singing (Marina Kvizhinadze, Georgia). The most memorable presentation of the 2014 Symposium was “Concerning an Article in Musical Quarterly Vol. 47 (1961). Comments on North American Indian Polyphony Half a Century later” by Bruno Nettl, who joined from Illinois via Skype.

In addition to issues of world polyphony, Georgian polyphony had a significant share of the presentations. Besides Georgian scholars (Giorgi Baghashvili, Nino Kalandadze-Makharadze, Natia Dekanosidze, Zaal Tsereteli and Levan Veshapidze, Nino Pirtskhalava, Magda Sukhiashvili, Malkhaz Erkvanidze, Otar Kapanadze, Teona Lomsadze, Nino Naneishvili, and Sopiko Kotrikadze), Simha Arom, Polo Vallejo, and Kae Hisaoka also presented papers on Georgian polyphony. Susanne Ziegler’s presentation “Georgian Recordings Made in German Prison Camps 1916-1918”, together with Nino Nakshidze, announced the recent publication of the book Echoes From the Past: Georgian Prisoners’ Songs Recorded on Wax Cylinders in Germany 1916-1918”, jointly published by the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv and the Tbilisi State Conservatoire. 

I would like to note that papers focusing on general theory and musical-aesthetics have had a shift in popularity at the symposia. Seven papers on those topics were presented at the 2012 Symposium, while only three were discussed at last year’s symposium: Caroline Bithell’s “Polyphony as Tool and Trope: Theorizing the ‘Work’ of Polyphony in the 21st Century”, Tamaz Gabisonia’s “Semiotic Dimensions of Drone in Traditional Music” and Nino Tsitsishvili’s “Love Song, Collective Cultures, and Sexual Taboos”. 

In my opinion, it is very important that young Georgian and international scholars participate in Poster Presentations at the Tbilisi symposium. The organizers’ aim is to give them opportunity for gaining experience, to support continuity with newer generations of ethnomusicologists, to give them examples of the culture of presentation and discussion, and to benefit from seeing their presentations alongside papers by renowned scholars in the symposium’s printed proceedings. 

Concerning publications, participants of the 7th Symposium received the bilingual volume with the proceedings of the previous symposium. Proceedings and booklets of all symposia to date are available from this webpage (in Georgian).

Roundtables are an inseparable part of the symposium. They are dedicated to themes suggested by participants. At the 2012 symposium two such roundtables were held: “New Thinking About Evolution and Behaviour” on the initiative of Dieter Christensen and “Modality of Medieval Georgian and European Music” on the initiative of Simha Arom and Polo Vallejo. At the 2014 Symposium the roundtable “Let’s Talk About Drone” was held on the initiative of Joseph Jordania, and the speakers were Izaly Zemtsovsky (USA/Russia) and Alma Kunanbaeva (USA/Kazakhstan). This form of musical expression is widespread in Georgia, and it turned out that discussion on this theme was an interesting challenge, because, as  Zemtsovsky noted, “Anthropologically speaking, the problem of drone is so fundamental and important, that it exceeds the borders of ethnomusicology and musicology”. 

In addition to sessions, the format of the symposium allows for concerts of polyphonic music and screening of films. The evening concerts, held at the Grand Hall of the Conservatoire, are intended for both participant and the general public, whilst the afternoon concerts at the Recital Hall present groups from different countries performing Georgian and other polyphony. The groups visiting the symposium (on their own expenses) sing with amazing enthusiasm both on and off stage (an old church, at a traditional Georgian feast, even in the corridors of the Conservatoire!) and are cordially welcome by the audience. Many ensembles participated of the symposium’s concert programme several times, such as the Australian “Gorani” and the British “Maspindzeli” ensembles. How can I not mention the ensemble “Darbazi” from Canada, which took part four times in the Symposium, or the singers from the Melbourne Georgian Choir, or the ensembles “Golden Fleece” and “Utskho Suneli” which always visit Svaneti before the symposium to have workshops in Svan folk music led by legendary song-master Islam Pilpani...?

In my opinion, the advantage of the Tbilisi symposia is that besides Georgian, Abkhazian, Ossetian and Chechen (Kists from the Pankisi Gorge) polyphony it offers live performance of the world polyphonic traditions, such as those of Austria, Bulgaria, Corsica, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, and those of the the Amis and Basque peoples. 

Particularly touching was the case of the Ukrainian ensemble “Korali”, which could not come to Georgia due to the political situation, but the ensemble’s director Ludmila Zborovskaya and her daughter Mariana fascinated the audience with the performance of Ukrainian traditional two-part songs. 

A very interesting project was presented at the 2014 Symposium: the functioning of folklore under modern conditions. The most typical way for its transformation is by being included in composers’ work, but contemporary composers rarely follow this path any more. On 25 September, the Grand Hall of the Conservatoire hosted “Georgian Motives”, a joint concert of the Georgian folk ensemble “Didgori” and the State Choir of Latvia, where they performed the works of modern Latvian composers with inlaid authentic examples of Georgian polyphony. I think this was an interesting experiment representing cultural dialogue on the one hand, and a new possibility of cooperation between folk song and contemporary composer’s thinking on the other. 

The following films on polyphony were screened at the 7th Symposium: “Polyphonia: Albania’s Forgotten voices” by Eckehard Pistrick and Bjorn Reinhardt (Germany), a narration about the friendship between two shepherds, showing how music can build bridge between peoples and religions; “Su Concordu” by Renato Morelli (Italy),  telling about the Holy Week ritual in Santulussurgiu, one participant of which is Sardinian polyphony; and fragments from the unfinished film “Swiss Yodelling: 30 Years Later” by Hugo Zemp (France), a story about a 7-year-old boy’s changing attitude towards to traditional singing. 

As a rule, one day of the symposium is reserved for a cultural programme. In 2014 symposium participants visited Uplistsikhe, an ancient cave city (cca. 1000 BC) several kilometres from the territories occupied by Russia. The guests enjoyed visiting the monuments and the traditional repertoire performed by children from Gori and several other ensembles, to say nothing of Georgian traditional food and wonderful wine. 

At the closing gala concert on 26 September 2014, all participating ensembles performed polyphony one after another, but the pinnacle of the concert was the performance, by all the concert’s participants, of “Khasanbegura”, one of the pinnacles of Georgian polyphony. This experiment by Anzor Erkomaishvili, a renowned representative of a traditional dynasty of singers, was to structure the song as an alternation of choir and trios. Five trios from different ensembles would different variants in the final stanza, and the unity of their variations created a cosmic sound effect which provoked sincere enthusiasm in the audience. 

Even though the 7th Symposium has only just finished, preparations for the 8th International Symposium on Traditional Polyphony, to be held in 2016, have already begun. 

While the Tbilisi Symposium are indeed among the most important events of Georgian ethnomusicological life, it should be noted that many other interesting events took place in 2014. Information about these events can be obtained in the Bulletins of the IRCTP (in Georgian) from this website

For more pictures of the Symposium, please visit the ICTM Online Photo Gallery.