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Taking Music by the Throat

On the CD Fly, Fly My Sadness, the Bulgarian Voices--Angelite, a female chorus from Bulgaria formerly known as Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares, collaborates with Huun-Huur Tu, aka the Throat Singers of Tuva. The juxtaposition of the women's ecstatic, deeply felt wailing and the bottomless pitch of the Throat Singers, who hail from the south Siberian Republic of Tuva, near Mongolia, produces so wonderful a sound that their pairing seems inevitable. In truth, however, neither group would have met the other had Mikhail Alperin not had a vision.

Alperin, a Ukrainian-born, Moldavian-reared songwriter and pianist, lives in Oslo, Norway, where he teaches composition and improvisation at the State Academy of Music. However, he is best known outside his home country for a series of albums issued on the ECM label by the experimental jazz group he leads, the Moscow Art Trio. Back in 1993, when he first heard the Throat Singers (Alexei Sarytlar, Sayan Bapa, Anatoli Kuular and Kaigal-ool Khovalyg), he was busy with a project of his own: "I was trying to combine a Russian folk choir with some Tuvinian folk songs for a song I did on one of my Moscow Art Trio albums," he explains. But the Singers soon spurred another notion.

"It was very strange, because I began dreaming about the possibilities of this type of cooperation," he says. "Then, for the very first time, I heard the Bulgarian Voices when they played here in Norway, and I began thinking how nice it would be to work with them. This led me to develop, in my head, a kind of a portrait of an international musical family. Within the family, it is very multicultural, with the father being one nationality--say, maybe, Tuvinian--and the mother being from another, Bulgarian, and the son is Russian and the daughter would be Jewish. But still, it would be a very close family.

"Of course, this was just an idea," he goes on. "So I decided to collect material to create this family through music--to represent a real multicultural family, and not just one with multicultural influences, in a musical way." In the beginning, Alperin saw his notion as little more than a hobby. "I was just sitting home writing music for myself. Nobody had asked me to do it. I was thinking, 'Okay, I will just do this for fun. For me. It will be my little game.'"

Things changed when Alperin was contacted by a German producer, Ulrich Balss, who had heard about his merging of Russian and Tuvinian folk music. As it turned out, Balss had exclusive rights to the music of Bulgarian Voices--Angelite, and he wanted to know if Alperin would be interested in getting together with the collective. It didn't take much convincing: Alperin quickly gathered the musical program that would become Fly, Fly My Sadness before traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria, with Sergey Starostin, a reedman and singer for the Moscow Art Trio, to meet the Angelites and Huun-Huur Tu.

For the Throat Singers, entering a studio was hardly a novel experience. Prior to being contacted by Alperin, they had added their voices to recordings by Frank Zappa, the Kronos Quartet and the Chieftains, appeared on the soundtrack to the 1993 Walter Hill film Geronimo: An American Legend, and put out three releases of their own. As such, they were widely acknowledged to be the world's leading popularizers of throat singing, a full, rich technique whose fundamental tone, found two octaves below middle C, can sound like either a single note or a chord. But when the various musicians assembled in Sofia, Alperin recalls, "everyone was a little surprised and perhaps uneasy, because nobody knew anyone else, and no one had heard the music of the other. It was probably worse than your typical first meeting. But after a bit, it was so natural and beautiful. We recorded it and started to perform."

The platter created during these sessions was released in 1995 on the Shanachie imprint, and it immediately provoked phenomenal interest in the world-music community. Tours of Europe during the summers of 1996 and 1997 were successful enough to inspire a trip to the States, where the ensembles will also be rehearsing with an eye toward making a follow-up disc. Alperin promises that the new long-player will be a step forward for everyone involved.

"After two seasons, what we now do is very different from what you hear on the record," he says, adding, "The second album will be three groups, just like the American tour. We will have the Bulgarians and the Tuvinians and my trio. There will be much more composed music as well. Plus, some of the new music I have written has Norwegian influences, since I live in Norway now. It's funny: Russian-language compositions with Norwegian intonations."

As popular as Alperin's brainstorm has become, it has not met with universal acceptance. For example, he says, "There have been some people who are very conservative who believe that we have made the music not Bulgarian anymore, or not Tuvinian, or not Russian. And there have been some critics who are concerned that my piano improvisations in the concerts bring too radical a treatment to the folk music. But for all of us, this project comes from the heart.

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