By Jessi Smith
As a writer, I like to think of the English language as one vast galaxy of words — a respectable percentage of which I pride myself on knowing how to use in a sentence with relative accuracy. However, when I attempt to describe what it is like to become immersed in the music of Ensemble Basiani, that Milky Way of words in my mind seems like an inconsequential swirl of inadequate verbiage.
To put it simply, this group really is like none I’ve heard before. Just thirty minutes of Basiani’s undulating polyphonic chants and howls feels a like a journey through space and time to some far-off, mythical land.
Although there are lyrical aspects to the music, the language of those lyrics is so far removed from that of the contemporary western listener —by both geography and time — that Basiani’s vocal chants are transformed into a layered symphony of pure sound. Although their original meaning may be buried beneath time and the barriers of language, the vocalizations of Ensemble Basiani do not fall meaningless upon the ears. Rather, the polyphonic choir’s music flows with a certain visceral purity that is typically singular to exclusively instrumental compositions.
The group, which hails from the Republic of Georgia, performs music from the Georgian folk tradition that dates back as far as the 7th to 12th century. Starting in the 10th century, Georgian chanters used a written musical language known as “neumes” to transcribe their melodies. However that language was lost over the centuries, thus the music Basiani performs today was passed solely through oral tradition.
The spirit of this deeply personal tradition relies entirely on human connection, which is in large part what I believe makes Basiani so special. Like the ancient literature we revere today (think The Iliad or Beowulf) the music Basiani creates through complexly layered vocal harmonies is quite literally the stuff of legend, passed person-to-person in one robust chain that spans the centuries.
The Iliad and Beowulf are known as epic poems due to the heroic nature of their narratives, which are central to the cultures that created and carried them on their tongues throughout the ages. Although the irony that I am writing these words to publish in a blog that can be accessed instantaneously throughout the world with just the click of a button is not lost on me, I recognize the same noble spirit in the music of Basiani.
The language of jubilation transcends all others and is accessible to every human being that walks this planet, no translation necessary — and it is that very language that runs a current through each energetic chant performed by Ensemble Basiani. It is music that not only celebrates the traditions of its native country, but expresses the joy of simply existing in this world.
Basiani’s harmonies are unbridled beasts that gallop through verdant, undulating terrain; soar to the peaks of mountains and plunge deep into cool, refreshing rivers. It is music that embodies the spirit of a country whose unique geography includes both snowy mountains and temperate rainforests; glaciers and arid-plains, but is accessible to everyone because it communicates that spirit through the art of sound rather than language.
And so perhaps I may never find the words, in this little galaxy of mine, to perfectly describe the unique majesty of Ensemble Basiani — but the more I listen to their music, I find that words themselves seem to matter less and less in the shadow of glorious sound.
Ensemble Basiani launched their United States tour this week and will arrive in Sarasota to perform at the Ringling International Arts Festival on October 11, 12 and 13. Reserve your tickets here or call the RIAF box office at 931-360-7399 or 800-660-4278.