Wedged between Turkey and Russia, the Republic of Georgia is older than both countries. Musically, it’s more like an island, with a deep-rooted polyphonic vocal tradition (music in several independent voices) completely distinct from all cultures around it.
Proudly carrying the folk music of Georgia into the 21st century is the vocal unit, Trio Kavkasia, who have immersed themselves into this original vocal styling which was in full bloom around the Ninth Century. Consisting of three Americas - tenors Alan Gasser and Carl Linich, and Stuart Gelzer singing bass - they have collectively dedicated more than 40 years to this unique East-European music. And they’ve done it with respect and an archeological attention to detail.
Formed in 1994, Kavkasia (meaning "Caucasus") have now put all this phenomenal vocal knowledge, plus a few traditional instruments for accompaniment, on display on their Naxos World debut, O Morning Breeze.
Neither Russian nor Slavic, the density and complexity of Georgia’s polyphonic vocal tradition is so different from the styles outside its Caucasus Mountain region, European musical notation is inadequate in capturing the Georgian intervals and scales. The tuning may even be a little disconcerting on the first (or tenth) listening.
In general terms, the music’s three-part polyphonic independence makes it appear off-key to Western ears. In more technical description, the available pitches in the Georgian scale exceed that from European music. An octave is subdivided, not just into tones and semi-tones, but also quarter-tones, thus blurring and erasing the sense of major and minor. It’s hardly surprising then some of the harmonies seem odd to the conventional Western idea of pitch. And in spite of decades of musicological study, traditional Georgian tuning is a puzzle that has not yet given up al its answers. In short, this vocal style is like nothing you’ve heard before.
Trio Kavkasia’s wholly traditionalist model of Georgian singing is entirely based on a region-specific, less European-influenced sound. In fact, its regionally accurate sound is at odds with historical European practice. The trio’s goal is to sing the way non-Western trained Georgian singers do it.
Besides leading workshops and singing concerts in North America, the group has made several extended visits to Georgia to study with singers there. In 1997, each member was made a Georgian State Prize Laureate and was awarded the Silver Medal of Georgian Ministry of Culture for "profound knowledge of the folk music of Georgia and his role in its popularization around the world." The trio’s debut CD, Songs Of The Caucasus was released on Well-Tempered World.
Over 25 tracks of liturgical tunes and secular ballads, not to mention happy drinking songs sung at taverns and weddings, O Morning Breeze is a remarkable achievement and musical experience. While some aspects - such as Georgian liturgical music - have been documented since the Middle Ages, other folk elements are entirely passed on orally, with wax cylinders from the turn of the century as its earliest snapshot documentation.
To capture the stark, rustic environment from where this music originates, Trio Kavkasia chose to record this album entirely in a monastery. Over three nights in August 1999, Linich, Gasser and Gelzer spirited this CD of unedited single takes at the chapel of Holy Cross Monastery, mother house of the Anglican Benedictine Order of the Holy Cross, overlooking the Hudson River in West Park, New York. Recording late into the night, engineer Rich Woods claims if you listen very carefully to the quietest moments in these songs, you might hear the crickets in the monastery garden.