Song Reciting in Vocal Drone Polyphony

Teikšana “song-reciting” is a distinct and traditional Latvian form of singing, which is mainly used at annual, traditional family occasions. Song-reciting, or -calling, is different from cantilena, or melodic singing, due to the fact that it is closer to speaking in sing-song: the inherent short-scale – often tertiary or quarter-toned – melodic, syllabic text and the musical form of presentation, where each syllable of text corresponds to a musical sound, but without bends and grace notes. The song’s excellence arises from its text, its content, and less so from the beauty of the melody. Unlike chant-songs, which are usually text-based with a plot, and hence longer, each song forms a separate, four-line canto. A spoken-song involves a number of singers, or singers (traditional singing usually involves a greater number of female voices), but with different functions: a soloist or main voice recite-sings one half of the quatrain and the other singers repeat it, either verbatim or modified.

A specific vocal music phenomenon is associated with this style of singing, the so-called vocal drone polyphony, where, along with quatrain repetition, one, long, continuous sound is sung – drone bass (from the French word bourdon meaning ‘bumblebee’, ‘big bell’, ‘bass organ’). Often, such true bourdon is replaced by a syllabic bass drone: instead of one long, continuous sound the text is sung, repeated almost completely without changing pitch, creating the impression of true bourdon. The vocal bourdon is usually sung by several people, thus almost all those participating in the event may become involved.

Various vocal drone polyphony types – the true or bagpipe bass, syllabic drone bass – are known or documented in all parts of Latvia, but mostly in the south, and almost never around the Gulf of Riga and the northern part of Kurzeme and Vidzeme. The bagpipe drone, sung to “ā” or “ē”, is known from the southwest and middle parts of Kurzeme and from the south and north of Latgale, where in some cases it is also sung to the last vowel produced by the soloist; the variable drone bass, sung to “ē-o” is popular from the areas inhabited by the suiti. The earliest records of bagpipe drone bass, also known from Southern Zemgale and Sēlija; here one should  note especially “rotāšana”, the spring songs, about which the collector of Latvian dainas, Krišjānis Barons wrote: “Rotāšana was without a doubt the most beautiful kind of singing, for it sounded like it was done in a number of voices.” In the seasonal songs the bourdon may be associated with certain refrains: “rotā” (spring solstice), “līgo” (summer solstice), etc. The syllabic bourdon occurs almost everywhere where the bagpipe bourdon is the tradition, but mostly in southern Vidzeme, Sēlija, and southern and northern Latgale. Sometimes both syllabic and bagpipe bourdons are used interchangeably.

The polyphonic drone is a unique, if archaic musical phenomenon that is still part of the continuous tradition in certain parts of Kurzeme and Latgale – among the suiti, in Nīca and Bārta parishes, and in northern Latgale. Counterparts exist elsewhere only in a few places in Europe – the Balkans, the North Caucasus, and Belarus. Today, the living tradition carries this forward with renewed, creative work that absorbs modified versions of polyphonic drone in folk ensembles, choirs, and other musical performance groups.

Valdis Muktupāvels

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Valdis Muktupāvels par dziesmu teikšanu vilcēju daudzbalsībā Latvijas kultūras kanonā, 2008.

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