How did you find your way into Balkan singing, and what drew you to this style?
Willa: Well initially I was drawn to the unique qualities of the music; its stridence and dissonance, the power behind the vocals, and the expressiveness... I think many people are effected in this way when they first hear it, which is probably why this style of singing has taken root in the United States in the way it has. It’s very powerful, and speaks to something very primal that a lot of people relate to.
And so I was just a fan for a while, but after college I had the opportunity to join a middle eastern Balkan ensemble based here in Santa Fe... and in fact I've recently returned home again to this area and now help teach this ensemble, so in many ways I've come around full circle.
But when I first saw the group, they were singing a three-part Macedonian song, Shto Mi E Milo, which is probably the most classic and well known three-part vocal song from that region. And in this particular performance they were only singing two parts, so I decided to jump in on the third -although I was very shy to do so- but it changed my life, and I've never stopped since.
Shelley: Similar to what Willa said, I fell in love with the music as soon as I heard it. There’s something spiritual about it that's kind of a soul connection for me -I don’t know about the whole past lives thing- but I feel there's something about it for me that's unspeakable and healing, something vibrational, that you can’t really put into words.
I come from a musical family- my mother is a pianist, and I grew up listening to her playing Beethoven sonatas, and always loved hearing chords.
And I find the chordal structure of Bulgarian music so very interesting and unique, because it's a crossway between East and West, and has a lot of different influences and styles from both of those worlds. And even though there are many beautiful vocal styles throughout the world, this one contains so many unique elements- like different types of ornaments, rich harmonies, diaphonic songs, and beautiful melodies...
Sarah: I think it's true that we all came to this music from different places, be it in school or by accident, and every time we do an interview I share that I actually found out about it randomly on Craigslist, when looking for something to do musically.
At the time I thought what I was looking for would be some sort of Alice in Chains or goth metal-type band because I liked tight harmony, and that's what I wanted to be inside of... and then I found Bulgarian singing very randomly, and was like ‘oh that’s just amazing, and so dark and delicious,’ and so that’s kind of what birthed it for me.
And I grew up with classical music as well, and renaissance music, as my mother was a renaissance player and my dad a contemporary pianist. But I feel like all the scales and rhythms that I see and breathe now through the Balkan tradition have added so much complexity and richness to my experience of music, a richness I feel is often lacking in most predominantly Western styles.
Past and Present
What's your experience been like singing in a style that resonates on such a personal level, yet has its origins in a very different time and place?
Willa: Well over the years my relationship to the music has changed and deepened in many ways, such as how educated I’ve become about the tradition, as well as learning how to negotiate my own personal pathway between a sort of ethnomusicological approach to the music on one hand, while also remembering that it's an expressive medium for me myself, which is why I was really drawn to it in the first place.
I've found that although honoring the cultural roots of the music is very important, there can at times be some rigidity within this field about that side of it -not always, but sometimes- that can actually restrict the more personal and creative side from emerging, and so for me it's important to find a balance between the two.
Shelley: Yes and there’s also a lot of racial stigma going on these days, so there’s some sensitivity and conservatism around the legitimacy or authenticity of non-native musicians performing another culture's traditional music; but the way I look at it, it's actually very similar to singing opera, in the sense that someone performing in that medium is also usually singing in a language that is not native to their own culture.
Sarah: And I think the whole thing about respecting tradition and adhering to what's correct is very relevant, and that we definitely had to do our due diligence to get to the place where we really understand what we are doing... and once you do get there, and really understand the tradition, it's very liberating because then you feel like you can do whatever you want to, and take it in your own direction creatively.
Willa: It is liberating, to feel like you've earned it...
Sarah: It really is, it's no longer like an 'oh, maybe...', it's like ‘I understand it, and now I’m going to do this with it!’
Willa: And it's that expressive dimension that really gives it a certain legitimacy for me personally, because this music was originally made by people who clearly needed to express something: so much of it is about storytelling, about women sharing their life experiences or somebody else’s they can relate to, that speak of the difficulties and joys of life...
Shelley: And it's also really exciting to be able to create new material, because even though some people may say ‘well why make anything new, because it's all been done before...’ you may just as well ask ‘well why exist?' because we all have our own unique fingerprint or expression in the world, and so it's our responsibility to bring that out of ourselves.
And so we try to do this music in as respectful a way as possible, while at the same time adding to the evolution of it, because we're fusing cultures, and being representatives in the states of this style, and singing for Bulgarians and for Americans, and also making new arrangements of the songs in ways that other people haven’t, so its really interesting and exciting.
In addition to infusing your own personal creativity into this style, I imagine this music has influenced the qualities and sounds of your own voices as well...
Sarah: Oh absolutely- I recently started school at Juilliard, and am writing some string quartets right now that are directly influenced by Balkan music. They actually feel like they're vocal pieces being played on strings—the harmonies, the melodies, the rhythms, something about the other worldliness of all of that, it takes you to that place...
That's very interesting... some of the earliest instruments in the world actually made to mimic the human voice, as many of the cultures of that time perceived music and language as non-separate, so their instruments were used for both forms of communication...
Willa: Recently I’ve been talking to my students about how music relates to the language part of the brain, because they're so similar...
Sarah: I was actually reading something yesterday about how perfect pitch is something that can in fact be learned, and that Asian cultures are in some ways more prone to developing it because their languages are often based on very subtle pitch inflections, making them more sensitive to musical tones.
That makes a lot of sense... I've actually found that in many traditional cultures ways of sensing and knowing are often much more unified- inspiring them to see all kinds of connections between things, such as between seasons and sounds, or musical notes and colors and feelings...
Shelley: I've done a lot of Ghanaian drumming from West Africa, and they in fact have specific syllables that match their language. Sometimes the drums actually form sentences, and have brother and sister identities, and the tree and wood that they're made from are considered to contain the spirit of the music, or of a specific person.
Sarah: I think people often don’t even think of all of these things as forms of intelligence, they just think of perfect pitch or synesthesia as some sort of cool feature that you might have...
Right, rather than seeing them as something we all naturally possess, but are not encouraged to develop in our culture's approach to learning... I’d say if people today feel cut off from their own creativity, it has a lot to do with being disconnected from exactly this type of intuitive and holistic intelligence.
Shelley: I think this also has something to do with the split between the sacred and the profane in our culture... which is why I'm interested in learning and singing in many languages, and exploring these universal elements within song and folklore, and what that means for humanity.
In this way I feel the Balkan style of singing really has something about it that speaks directly to the heart, and that music in general can unite people in a way that no other art form can... although as we've been saying, this is often overlooked within today's culture.
I feel this is also why as artists we struggle with many of the challenges that we face today, such as getting rights for our work, or getting enough money for gigs, because people often take the role of a musician for granted... although it's actually a very fundamental part of human existence, one that should be appreciated so much more than it is.
A Sacred Space
Speaking of appreciation, when you performed for us last fall many people in the audience were very affected, using words like 'magical' and 'transported' to describe their experience. I remember before you went on stage, you all took a moment with one another to enter into a very focused and special place together...
Sarah: Yes, we've learned we need to have that transition time to get into that kind of transcendent place with one another, and then in turn with our audience. And so if we sort of wrap ourselves together -not by pushing other stuff away- but by kind of insulating and breathing together, we become grounded and remember that we are becoming one for that period of time.
Willa: Yes, it’s a very, very intimate space together. I think earlier on when we were just beginning to perform together, it was a little more willy-nilly; we would get on stage and get drawn into this altered state while we were performing. But we’ve realized over time that it’s better to have a moment together beforehand, and really remember to understand and feel that absolute relationship, that intimate connection we have with what we are all doing... it's really so special, and I feel that comes across.
Shelley: Yes and any performer has to prepare themselves for their role in performance, which is different than their regular life.
So that's one aspect, and then another thing is that because the voice is your instrument, and it's the most intimate and organic instrument there is, everything that you’re feeling, everything flowing through your whole body is available in your voice, and is presented when it comes out.
So you want to have as pure a tone and focus as possible, and then the third point is that in this trio configuration, we have an intention to create one voice, and to make it so that no one is overpowering anyone else.
So we have to unify our energies together, and we've actually spent a lot of time working with specific people like choreographers and body movement experts who've given us tips on how to create this sacred space, and make sure that every movement is intentional in being together on stage; and that creates a really powerful effect I think.
That’s very beautiful...
Shelley: And I think that is our favorite place to be, when we sing and get the goose bumps, and are like 'alright guys we did it again!' That is my favorite place to be in existence. And then in performing, we can bring the audience into that space with us as well.
Sarah: You know we actually have a secret gesture, when we run our finger across our forearm, that means that our arm hairs have risen up, and we have the shivers... recently right after our performance with Kronos Quartet, one of the members came up to us and said 'that was absolutely beautiful, I really want to record this piece with you!'
We were of course over the moon, but later on after he looked at the logistics of things, he said there was actually no way their schedule could accommodate it, but he was just so overtaken in the moment he wasn't thinking straight; so again that speaks to that effect...
So I just find it amazing that as a group we've come together with this love of something that's almost hard to define, and we pour it all over the world in different ways, and people accept it, and it moves them.
Willa: And I think that's a major connecting point between all three of us- it's totally undeniable and obvious when we reach that point together. And it's really meaningful to be able to give the audience -who knows who they are, or where they came from to end up there- but to give another person the opportunity to feel that experience directly, without any of the convolutions in life that often come along with intense feelings like that.
To give them this little window of time where they can really be with themselves and experience their own emotions, their own interpretations -to just have that opportunity to experience whatever flows through them- that feels like a big gift to me, and is what I live for personally.