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Learning a song -- and its tuning -- orally from Anzor Erkomaishvili

Georgian tuning 

Many of the intervals and chords we sing might be a little disconcerting on the first (or tenth) listening. Our model for Georgian singing, in vocal timbre as well as in tuning, has shifted from the highly polished but rather homogenized sound of the professional urban singing groups to a more region-specific, less European-influenced sound. Some of the professional ensembles in Georgia have themselves been moving in the same direction.

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Ensemble Riho, in Svaneti

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Taping eminent Gurian singer Vazha Gogoladze

as he sings one voice part of a trio at a time

One ingredient of the more traditional sound we're after is a unique sense of where the steps of the scale ought to be: Georgian singers consistently sing intervals and tune chords in ways that are at odds with historical European practice. The goal of Trio Kavkasia is to sing this music the way we hear non-Western-trained Georgian singers doing it, whether in present-day villages and regional ensembles or on old field recordings. We believe that those singers know what they're doing and that the intervals they sing are not arbitrary but grow from the fundamental structure of the music.

Neither those assumptions nor all of the conclusions we draw from them are universally shared. In spite of decades of musicological study, traditional Georgian tuning is a puzzle that has not yet given up all its answers. In our own search we have drawn inspiration from old recordings and from contemporary Georgian scholars; the tunings we use seem to us consistent both with actual village practice and with an emerging theoretical model worked out by one of us (Stuart) and by a fellow Georgian music specialist, Guy Brewer. A later model evolved by our friends in the Georgian Anchiskhati Choir is similar, and in recent years that ensemble's tuning practice has closely matched Trio Kavkasia's.

members of the Latal Village Ensemble, in Svaneti

You don't have to know the theory to enjoy the music, but here's a brief and incomplete sketch: In general, in music with true three-part polyphonic independence and a small melodic range, fifths will be more important than octaves. The fifth will replace the octave as the unit of structural stability and pitch equivalence, and the scale will repeat at the fifth instead of the octave. We can usefully speak of such music as being built around the "quintave" rather than the octave.


In a scale based on the quintave, furthermore, the tendency will be to subdivide the fifth not into whole and half steps but into four intervals more nearly equal in size (about 7/8 of a piano whole step), blurring or erasing the sense of major and minor. Those intervals produce a lowered second, a near-neutral third, and a raised fourth — which, when projected by a fifth, results in a raised eighth degree, a wide octave. The effects of this tendency vary by region in proportion to the tradition of true three-part polyphony, but some form of quintave tuning is common to almost all Georgian music.

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