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Ensemble Basiani, the choir of the Georgian patriarchate, performs at the Bing on Sun, Oct 16. Tickets and More Info.

By Carl Linich


Georgian polyphonic song is one of the world’s musical treasures, admired by such visionaries as Igor Stravinsky, Alan Lomax, and Werner Herzog. It is unlike any other traditional music in the world, with unique scales and voice structures, and progressions that seem unexpected, almost impossible. And while it may sound modern to our Western ears, Georgian music also has a primal appeal, speaking to our hearts and souls just as it delights and perplexes our minds.

Where did this remarkable music come from? And who are the Georgians?

Our story begins…well, in the beginning. According to legend, when God created all of the Earth’s peoples, he instructed them to come to him at a designated hour to receive a place to live on the Earth. The hour arrived, and true to his word, God carefully divided up all of the land on the Earth and gave it to those who came. The following day, the Georgians arrived. “We’re here for our land, O great and generous God!” The Lord shook his head and said, “I’m very sorry, but I’ve given all of the land away. I told you to come yesterday—why have you arrived so late?” The Georgians replied, “We are so sorry! We were having a banquet in your honor, and we got caught up in our toasts to you and your generosity in giving us land on the Earth. We toasted you till dawn and lost track of the time! Please forgive us! Isn’t there some small corner somewhere that we might still have to live on…?” God realized that he could not leave the Georgians without a place of their own, and so he gave them the one place on the Earth that he had been saving for himself. And thus, the Georgians came to live in the most beautiful place in the world, nestled in the Caucasus Mountains.

Legend aside, it’s true that the earliest historical accounts of the Georgians places them right there, in what is still Georgia. They speak a language that is unrelated to any other, and foreigners who choose to explore their culture will find it a Pandora’s Box.

Georgia is the fabled land where Jason and the Argonauts traveled in search of the Golden Fleece, and home of Medea, the sorceress. Many archaeologists agree that Georgia is probably the birthplace of wine, with the earliest evidence of winemaking dating to around 6000 BCE. Any visitor to Georgia will be sure to taste Georgian wine at a ritual banquet, or supra, where hours are spent in fellowship, merriment, and reflection on “this fleeting world.” It’s a time for everyone to stop, look around, and acknowledge the things that are important in life: family, country, love, beauty—but it’s not a free-for-all; there is always one person who leads the toasts, according to protocol. The supra remains one of Georgia’s richest living traditions, and it is closely linked to song.

Historically, Georgians have had songs for all occasions, many of which are represented on their upcoming program. Although few of these survive in their original context (work songs are no longer sung in the fields, for example), they are still sung, and new generations of Georgians will pass them on to their children. Polyphonic singing is a source of national pride in Georgia, and it has enjoyed renewed interest since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In close parallel to this, the Georgian Orthodox Church has also experienced a revival. Georgia adopted Christianity as its state religion circa 327 CE. Significantly, the Bible was translated into Georgian soon thereafter, and a liturgy was created in common Georgian language that all churchgoers would understand. Georgia reached its pinnacle as an empire in the 12th century under Queen Tamar, and monasteries nurtured the composition of hymns for the liturgy. However, this golden age did not last. After centuries of struggle with other invaders, Georgia was annexed by Russia at the dawn of the 19th century, and the Russian Orthodox Church restricted the use of Georgian liturgy. In the Soviet period, during the height of Communist atheism, the church went underground.

Today, Georgians enjoy freedom of religion, and Georgian liturgies are heard throughout the country, both in restored and in newly built churches. As Ensemble Basiani is directly associated with the Georgian patriarchate, the choir also devotes careful study to the practice of Georgian sacred chant, several examples of which we will enjoy this week.

Since gaining independence in 1991, Georgia has been struggling to rise from the ashes of its Soviet and post-Soviet past. Things are certainly far from perfect, but Georgia’s hope lies in its rich and unique culture, its wonderful heritage of arts, and its breathtaking natural beauty. Tourists who visit Georgia are guaranteed an unforgettable experience, and many return again and again, overwhelmed by the famous Georgian hospitality and spellbound by the land that God almost kept from us all.

This article is re-printed by the kind permission of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Copyright © 2012