Saturday, March 22, 2014

Where has your father gone?

Vdova - The Nightingale Trio

The term "World Music" is so broad that it borders on silly.  Generally, anything that isn't English language pop or Western classical music can be and has been categorized as such.  Cuban jazz, Algerian rai, Polynesian drumming, Brazilian salsa, J-pop, klezmer, Celtic, Cajun... the list is endless.

Whether or not it makes sense to combine all these diverse and rich genres under one heading is debatable.  There's no denying, however, that expanding your musical horizons beyond the Top 40 opens up worlds of rhythm, melody, harmony and instrumentation you never even knew existed.

Nowadays it's easy to explore this cornucopia.  You can wander down a million musical rabbit holes online and listen to any type of song, any time, any where.

It hasn't alway been thus.  A generation ago, if you lived in an area that had a public radio station, you occasionally might have heard World Music.  Your library may have had a few records.  Or perhaps you'd read a review somewhere that opened your eyes and ears.

I don't recall how I came across the following album, which I bought on cassette...      

...but it was one of of the most strikingly distinct things I had ever heard.  While the acapella woman's voices had echoes of familiar religious music, the tone and (especially) the harmonies were strange. Strange and beautiful.  I loved it immediately.

"Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares" ("The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices") is a collection of folk songs by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir.  The album was released in the US in 1987 and three years later the group's second album won a Grammy.

Fast forward to this year, when I was deep in one of the musical rabbit holes I mentioned above.  I came across a video shot under frozen Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis.  That alone was enough to enticement me.

To my delight, the music was as wonderful as the setting.

It turns out the Nightingale Trio is a unique act, one inspired by the folk songs of the Balkans and Eastern Europe (such as "Le Mystere des Voix Bulgare").  While remaining true to the music's traditions, the trio also brings a unique approach to this type of singing.

Sarah Larsson, Nila Bala, and Rachel LaViola met at Yale as members of the Women's Slavic Chorus.  Now based in Minneapolis, San Jose, and Dallas, respectively, they continue to perform together.

You can learn more about the three of them and their music at nightingaletrio, and

I had the chance to ask Sarah and Nila about recording "Vdova."
1 -  As a teenager, I enjoyed exploring underneath/behind Minnehaha Falls, which may or may not have been permitted.  What was it like singing in this unique environment and why was it chosen?
Sarah Larsson: Why we chose that spot: We had already filmed another video with Trent Waterman from North Shore Sessions, and we loved his work.  We contacted him about filming another video, with our thought being, “Something haunting, beautiful, still—like winter.”  

His first suggestion was the Falls!  Since I live in Minneapolis, I had actually explored back there before, and knew it would be magical.  Actually, the first time I climbed back there, I was by myself, and I couldn’t help but sing.  The cavern makes a beautiful acoustic space.

2 - The trio includes a Minnesotan, a Texan and a Californian.  Did the cold winter air affect your voices, particularly for the two of you coming from warmer climes?
SLTotally!  You can’t tell in the video, but I was moments away from drooling almost the entire time.  Trent, the videographer, took off his gloves to do the filming, and we were completely impressed at his fortitude.  In the cave, the air was a little warmer than the air outside, but we still happened to be singing in Minnesota during the coldest weekend on record — the “polar vortex”, if you remember!

Nila Bala: Cold weather is definitely something we have to watch out for.  We like to keep warm water or tea close by, and cough drops to counteract the cold.  Since we didn't have to do too many takes for Vdova, our voices survived the adventure!
3 - "Vdova" is a sad song about a woman learning that her husband has been killed, his body scattered by ravens. Since most of your listeners are unlikely to understand Ukrainian, how much is your song choice dictated by "sounds amazing" and how much by "great lyrics"?
NBI think its hard to separate the "sounds amazing" from the "great lyrics," since the meaning of the song drives the sound and the way it is rendered.  It is important for us to know the meanings of the songs, so we can imbibe the songs with that feeling, even if our listeners may not understand Ukrainian. 

Sarah Larsson

SLMost of our first impressions about songs are based on the harmonies and aesthetics, sound-wise.  Pretty often, we find out about the meaning of a song in a general way at first, and don’t get literal translations until we are already performing the songs and meet a native speaker.  Other times, we learn the songs directly from a master-singer, who tells us all the song’s background right away.  

For this one, we knew it was a widow’s song from the start, and we hope that the sorrow in the song comes through just through the feeling in the tune.  

In any case, so so many of the songs are about the stark, real, often-desperate calling-out of women in the old country.  Other songs say, “Mother, oh please do not marry me off; I will forever miss my friends and my little garden.”  Somehow, we love these sorrowful stories, too.  Other songs, of course, are as joyful as can be.
4 - Do you sing this any differently than would a traditional group of Ukrainian women?
SLYes, our style is very different.  Traditional folk Ukrainian is a bit more brash, and “forward”, to use the language of vocal production.  It varies a lot region to region, but here is an example that is pretty typical of what we have heard:  

Our style is different, but we have grown into our style through being really focused on listening in to each other, and letting our harmonies ring.  

Ukraine is, admittedly, one of the nations whose music we know least about.  We’ve studied with master singers from Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Russia, but not yet Ukraine.  

Also, it’s interesting to note that we each have very different singing backgrounds.  Nila was trained in classical South Indian music, and also performed in touring Broadway shows as a child.  Rachel has no formal music training, but is also a phenomenal country and bluegrass singer.  I had most of my vocal training in a classical Western women’s choir, and I’ve also studied music of several West and East African traditions.  We all come together!

NBWe try our best to sing Slavic music as authentically as we can--meaning the pronunciation, the vocal placement, and the tone.  However, we are not fluent in the languages we sing in, nor is it the only type of music we enjoy, so you are likely to notice some differences. 

If you listen to traditional Ukrainian women's groups, you might find that they have an even louder, fuller, tone, with a heavier vibrato than we use.  However, even within Ukrainian voices you will likely notice differences, since every vocal group makes different stylistic choices.

Nila Bala
5 - The three of you live in different places, so singing together live is not always an option.  Do you ever rehearse a song like "Vdova" via Skype or other digital technology?
NBFor now, electronic rehearsals are not a good option given the feedback and delays that occur.  We tend to learn our parts very well on our own, and then come together before our tours to put our songs together.

SLWe have tried to use Google hangouts, but the problem is that the program mutes your microphone while anyone else is talking!  So no, that doesn’t work for us.  What we do instead is have our hangouts to plan tours and repertoire, and then we all go home and learn our parts on our own.  We convene for an afternoon before our gigs start for each tour and put everything together.  We’re constantly emailing back and forth with new music ideas.

Rachel LaViola

6 - The video was produced for the North Shore Sessions.  What are they and how did the Nightingale Trio get involved?
SL: North Shore Sessions is an awesome project based in Minnesota, that films local and touring bands playing in interesting spaces.  Most of the videos they film are taken in one single shot without cuts, so they have a great live feel.  

I learned about it because Trent Waterman filmed videos of several musician friends here in town (The Hummingbirds: and Lynn O’Brien:  Trent is also a good friend. 

There are a lot of amazing local artists in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Trent does all of his filming just out of his own artistic passion for good music and for film.
7 - Did you nail this video on the first take?
SLWe did about 5 takes of this song, but I think this version is maybe the 3rd or 4th one.  It took us a moment to get into singing mode after climbing up an ice covered waterfall (!), and then we needed a bit of time to get the sound right. Fun detail: we recruited some strangers who were also exploring that day to guard the entrance to the cave, so no one would walk into the shot.  

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