Greek and Bulgarian Salon Concerts

Lyuti Chushki plays as concertgoers dance.
Lyuti Chushki plays as concertgoers dance.  Photo by Margaret Loomis.

Twice over the last week the performance space at Washington Revels was filled with dance and exciting music. Friday night, the music was Greek; last night, it was music from Bulgaria.

The salon concerts are a chance for tradition-bearers in this year’s Christmas Revels to share a bit more of their music than they’ll get to play on our stage in December.

Last night, Tzvety Weiner, who has been valiantly teaching us Bulgarian songs all fall, joined her husband Bryndyn Weiner and her parents, Tanya Dosseva and Lyuben Dossev, to perform several songs (in this configuration, they are “Dossevi”).

Dossevi (with Bryndyn Wiener) performing at the Washington Revels Office
Dossevi (with Bryndyn Wiener) performing at the Washington Revels Office. Photo by Margaret Loomis.

Tzvety gives off an aura of good humor, and now that I have seen her mother, I can report that it’s inherited. Seeing the two of them singing together was a delight. After one particularly silly song–you didn’t have to understand Bulgarian to know that this song was funny–Tzvety announced that we’d witnessed a real accomplishment: the two of them getting through it without cracking up. Lyuben Dossev is a celebrated player of the kaval, a wooden shepherd’s flute, and this was the first time he and Tzvety had performed together–a real treat for us.

After a reception, the second half of the evening was about dancing. The band Lyuti Chushki, which includes Tzvety, played boisterous Bulgarian tunes while concert-goers joined hands and danced. Numbers varied a lot–on simpler dances, dozens of people were up and moving through the steps with varying levels of competence; in one dance, about half a dozen more experienced dancers sprang around the room.

Spyros Koliavasilis and Karpouzi Trio playing a Salon Concert on November 15, 2013.
Spyros Koliavasilis and Karpouzi Trio playing a Salon Concert on November 15, 2013. Photo by Greg Scholtz.

Last Friday, Spyros Koliavasilis and the Karpouzi Trio (Spyros with Len Newman and Margaret Loomis) gave a wonderful concert of Greek music, highlighting traditions from Asia Minor (most notably on the oud and kemane) as well as music from the Greek islands. Spyros plays and teaches 19 instruments and specializes in the authentic practice of traditional music spanning all of Greece.

We heard music played in many different modes. Much of the music was “microtonal”–music that contains intervals smaller than the conventional contemporary Western semitone (our 12-tone equal temperament). It was truly amazing! Margaret plays the santouri, a giant Greek dulcimer with a delightful sound, and her hammers were flying as she played this fascinating music. Len plays the laouto, a Greek version of the lute; that name comes from the Arabic word oud, meaning “wood.” The sound box of the Greek laouto is unusually large and creates a very resonant sound.

We’re all looking forward to hearing much more from these groups over the coming weeks.

Learn more about the 2013 Christmas Revels: Echoes of Thrace
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets

Eleven-Sixteen? What?

One measure of this year’s music, in 7/8.

Overheard in rehearsal: “Eleven-sixteen? Whaaaat?”

One of the challenges for this year’s Christmas Revels chorus is singing in unusual time signatures.

If you don’t know what a time signature is, let me take a moment to enlighten. A piece of music written in the standard way has a couple of pieces of information at the top left. One looks like a fraction, with a number on top and a number on the bottom. The number on the top tells you how many beats there are in a measure. (A measure is sort of the basic unit of a piece of music—each one starts with a strong beat, normally. That’s one measure in the example above.) The number on the bottom tells you how long a beat is. So music in 7/8 has seven beats to the measure. Music in 11/16 has 11 beats to the measure.

Almost everything I’ve ever sung was written with two or four beats to the measure.

Until now. The people of Thrace use a ton of different time signatures. In the first three weeks of rehearsal, we’ve already worked on several songs with seven beats to the measure, one with five beats, and one that alternates between eight and eleven. We’ve danced to at least seven and nine beats, and maybe some other time signatures that I’ve forgotten about.

When working on this music, it’s pointless trying to count to five or seven in your head. Instead, the counts are grouped into beats of different lengths. A seven is actually sung as an uneven three: ONE two THREE four FIVE six seven becomes short short long, short short long. A five is called the limping rhythm: ONE two THREE four five becomes short long, short long, short long, like someone limping down the street.

The only way I can get the time right is to get the swing of the music into my head. In rehearsal, Tzvety Weiner, our fearless leader of Bulgarian music, keeps us in line with her laser-precision clapping. Most of the chorus is so used to singing with beats of even lengths that it’s easy to nudge the music that way, even we don’t mean to. At home, I’ve been wearing out the “Christmas 2013” playlist in my iTunes, listening to the new beats over and over.

When I’m in the weeds with 5/8, trying to keep that second beat on time, singing in a new time signature can be frustrating. But one of the great privileges of being in the Christmas Revels chorus is having a window into the music and dance of other cultures. In 2005 we sang the music of Scandinavia and I got my first introduction to the uneven beat and unfamiliar drone of Norwegian fiddle music; the dances that go with that music turned into a years-long interest for me. It’s daunting to think that I need to get 11/16 into my bones by our opening show on December 7, but it’s thrilling, too.

Learn more about the 2013 Christmas Revels: Echoes of Thrace
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets