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Do They Sound Like Bells or Like Howling Wolves?

Interferential Diaphony in Bistritsa- An Investigation into a Multi-Part Singing Tradition in a Middle-Western Bulgarian Village


Gerald Florian Messner

This study represents a thorough investigation of a polyphonic vocal village tradition in Bistritsa, Bulgaria. Outsiders describe the narrow intervals of these songs as being «maximally rough», while the singers themselves experience their performance as smooth, beautiful and pleasant. Almost identical polyphonic traditions can be found in places sometimes thousands of kilometers apart. This inquiry is carried out within a very broad and comparative context, whereby historical sources, the origin of different constituents and etymologies as well as electronic sound analysis are taken into account. The results are stunning and ever more relevant – and not just for ethnomusicologists: The babi or grannies of Bistritsa and their songs have been inscribed on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind in 2008.


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197 3 . PART THREE 3 .1 SYNT HESIS 3 .1.1 Socio-cu ltura l factors and pre-Chr i st ian , mag ico-re l ig ious symbolic ideas 1. The hierarchical structure of the performance groups in Bistritsa as well as the functions, rights and duties of the individual performers are strongly reminiscent of a socio-cultural context of functionally dependent musical practices in so called tribal societies. This indeed seems to echo the patterns of a very ancient social stratum. 2. As can be shown by a number of examples, the texts of these songs contain the remnants of ancient, symbolic magico-religious ideas, which the performers no longer understand. 3 .1.2 Psychoacoust ic and audio-physio logica l phenomena 1. The musical processes of the songs studied occur mainly within the frequency- bandwidth of 100 Hz within the 0-500 Hz range. This corresponds exactly to the definition of the ‘critical bandwidth’ by Zwicker and Feldtkeller (21967: 122f.). 2. The central interval formations, (simultaneously performed) of this type of multi-part singing correspond to their own structure, in that the notes that form them show without exception a frequency difference of 15-30 Hz. This is exactly the definition of ‘maximal roughness’ by Terhardt (1974: 201ff.). 3. To the above mentioned psychoacoustic phenomena can also be added the ad- aptation (Dunker 1972: 49) caused by the central note, whereby the ear’s ability to discriminate, together with the effects caused by the characteristics of the critical bandwidth, is increased. 4. Rapid ‘beats’ (interferential fluctuations) seem to be...

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