Songs from Siberia

An overfilled room in Ida Noyes Hall was quite likely the only place in the Western Hemisphere where Semeyskie music could be heard last Saturday. Sixteen University of Chicago men and women in bright sashes and embroidered red dresses sang a selection of dirge-like secular folk songs, both a capella and accordion-accompanied, from the heavily-bearded pre-Soviet Old Believer community of the southeast shore of Siberia’s Lake Baikal.

The choir, called Golosá, was founded in 1997 by then-college student Noel Taylor after a trip to the University of Freiburg, where Russian singer Aleksander Kresling founded a similar choir in 1919. They sang the hundreds of songs he brought with him from his Siberian hometown. The choir’s style is characterized by halting melodies with many notes drawn out for as long as the most enduring singer can hold them. At their climaxes, they’re layered with close to a dozen different closely-dissonant parts. Many of the songs lamented death in war or lost love, keeping with the sad, haunting vocal style, but a few, like the jaunty “Rasti da Rasti,” mixed enthusiastic accordion and dancing with the still-dark tones of the music.

According to newly-inaugurated choir leader Tamara Ghattas, just the second director to lead the group in its eleven years, the choir has recently been moving away from Kresling’s secondhand music and seeking songs directly from their sources. Members of Golosá have visited Siberia twice to work with Sudbinushka, one of few other choirs in the world preserving the style, and are currently fundraising to return to Siberia and to help keep Sudbinishka alive. Golosá’s repertoire is now largely borrowed from Sudbinishka, but it has also worked from recordings from other groups, including one modern composer, Dmitry Garkavi. According to Ghattas, “He’s kind of this evil genius… he writes these absurdly beautiful songs in a perfect representation of an ancient style.”

Few of Golosá’s singers are Russian, and many speak no more Russian than the poetically twisted turn-of-the-century lyrics in their songs. The group is as much an ethnographic exercise as a folk choir–their style is vanishing even within Russia, so the choir exists in large part to try to keep the music alive and in circulation. As Ghattas explains, “Everything that we do is fraught with this tension of how can we present this in a way that is authentic and that really represents our understanding of what the folk music is, but at the same time is precise and sounds the way we want it to sound.”