An ancient sound
Kitka, which started out as an informal group accompanying the dance company Westwind, has traveled many paths since 1979 as both a musical ensemble and a theatrical performance group. But they have always maintained a commitment to a particular vocal sound—one based in the harmonies and techniques of Eastern European women’s music, especially those practiced by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir. This choir, directed by composer Philip Koutev, catapulted into the world music scene in 1988 with its internationally famous anthology, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.
The choral sound is an ancient one, with a bright, edged timbre produced primarily in the singers’ chest, and the harmonies depend often on second, seventh and ninth intervals, giving them a dissonant and electric quality. Drones are also used, instrumentally and vocally, with a single voice rising above.
Composers like Koutev, who grafted contemporary musical ideas onto the folk songs, modernized the final sound through their arrangements, enlarging the harmonies and sweetening the sound. Kitka’s current composer and collaborator, Ukrainian-born Mariana Sadovska, takes the modernization quite a few steps farther.
For years Kitka remained committed to the essence of folk-based Balkan music, singing songs that told of village life throughout Eastern Europe and adventuring outward in the occasional theatric event. This past weekend showed a major deviation in the ensemble’s performance emphasis: their full-length piece “Singing through Darkness,” presented at Satya Yuga in Oakland, addressed the issue of war, using textual sources that were more often written by Americans—from soldiers to observers—in reaction to recent and current conflicts.
A contemporary sorrow
Listed among the sources were the Facebook blog of Colin Wells, currently stationed in Afghanistan; a character based on a Bosnian sniper during the Yugoslav war of 1991-5 from a novel by Steven Galloway; and Cormack McCarthy’s novel The Road, among others. Many of the texts were about women’s experience during war, especially as soldiers. Woven into these texts were songs from Albania, Greece, Transylvania, Chechnya, and Transylvania—laments over the loss of children and lovers during war.
“Singing Through Darkness” began with a complex choral piece with sustained notes and a repeating chorus: “And am I born to die, to lie this body down, and let this trembling spirit fly into the world …” Then the piece moved into brief story-tellings in which each singer told of some painful personal experience. Those swiftly moved into fragments from the World War I song, “Over There.” The blending of the songs and text created a “sonic collage”—an interweaving of vocal textures and techniques.
For the most part, the collage used spoken word as the primary sound, with harmonic backgrounds rather like drones. Care was taken to give the spoken voices a pitched quality so that they blended seamlessly in with the singing. The swift transitions from spoken word to harmonies required the use of pitch pipes in this a cappella work, but they were discreetly used and seldom noticeable amid the shifting field of sound. Microphones were used, as a means to allow the singers to move freely around the stage, but were also not noticeable, for which I give them lots of extra points.
Other vocalizing techniques blended in, including whispering in groups and a long series of lamenting screams by Shira Cion, which were hair-raising and soul-shaking. Perhaps most beautiful among the songs was the Chechnya love song sung by Caitlin Austin: “I will not look for you any more … you’ve gone and you are in other hands now.”
André Erlen worked out the choreographic staging, but it was the vocalizing and the composition that gave this extraordinarily moving piece its real power.