By Jessi Smith
My most recent musical exploration, however, took me on a journey straight to the heart of Georgian folk tradition, where compositions that date as far back as the 7th to 13th centuries are reborn in the glorious harmonies and crisp crescendos of the Ensemble Basiani.
With its roots grounded in history that dates back to the first millennium, the music of Ensemble Basiani may be steeped in ancient tradition, but prior to my exploration of Basiani’s performances, my ears had never encountered such an otherworldly sound in contemporary music — or anywhere else, for that matter.
In her 2010 New York Times review of Ensemble Basiani’s performance at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, Manhattan-based music critic, reporter and pianist, Vivien Schweitzer, praised the ensemble for its “harmonically quirky polyphonic songs.”
“As wild and unfamiliar yodeling unfolded over startling harmonies and complex rhythmic patterns in Alice Tully Hall on Saturday evening, it seemed that despite the male choir’s traditional costumes, the song must surely be the work of some new experimental composer,” Schweitzer writes of the performance.
Established in 2000, Ensemble Basiani is an all-male polyphonic choir whose unbridled sound verges on wild and primitive at times, yet remains tempered by intricate vocal layering. The result is a powerful hypnotic chant that is neither stodgy nor old-fashioned as one may expect, considering its roots.
Instead, Ensemble Basiani subverts expectations by breathing new life into the ancient style, infusing traditional chants and melodies with raw energy and dense layers of textured sound that make it difficult to believe those harmonies originated in the cold musky chambers of medieval churches.
For centuries, the music to which Ensemble Basiani now introduces the western world remained secluded in Georgian folk culture, only to be unearthed in 19th century texts and folk songs first recorded in 1901. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, Ensemble Basiani took the music world by storm during more than 200 performances throughout 20 countries, where they resurrected the ancient songs and through doing so, introduced an innovative “new” sound that pushes the envelope in the realm of contemporary experimental music.
In October, Ensemble Basiani makes its first visit to Sarasota to participate in the Ringling International Arts Festival. The ensemble takes the stage at the Historic Asolo Theatre on three occasions throughout the festival, at 5pm on Thursday, Oct. 11; 8pm on Friday, Oct. 12 and at 2pm on Saturday, Oct. 13. Tickets start at just $25.
Tickets for Ensemble Basiani at the Historic Asolo Theatre are available online or by calling the box office at 941-360-7399 or 800-660-4278.