Svan Funeral Dirges (Zär)

Svan funeral singers in the village of Latali.
Foto: Frank Scherbaum
Svan funeral singers in the village of Latali.

A particularly interesting subset in the new research corpus are eleven recordings (both headset-  and larynx microphone recordings) of three-voiced male funeral songs called zär in Svan and zari in Georgian, belonging to five different variants. Zär are believed to represent one of the oldest forms of collective music making in Georgia  (Bolle-Zemp, 1997; Kalandadze-Makharadze, 2004). An interesting  personal account of the context of this ritual has been given by Bray (2011).

Musically, these chants are very special in that they lack clear mnemonic anchor points (e. g. a pronounced rhythmical structure) which facilitates learning and memorisation of the music. According to one of the informants whom we met in Zargash during our field expeditin in 2016,  “zär can not be learned, one has to grow up with them”. This notwithstanding, these 3–5 minute long pieces are not improvised. Two different recordings of the same 5 min long zär in Zargash, performed by  the same singers for example,  turned out to be more or less identical. 

Svan funeral singers in the village of Latali.
Foto: Frank Scherbaum
Svan funeral singers in the village of Latali.
Note trajectories (with lyrics) of the Lower Bal variant of zär (sung by singers from Etseri), showing a strong pitch rise with time.
Quelle: Scherbaum & Mzhavanadze (2020a)
Note trajectories of a zär recording showing a strong pitch rise with time.

What adds to the special character of this music is the fact, that in the majority of the recordings the singers increase the pitch more or less continuously as a function of time. The steepest observed increase reaches approximately 100 cents/min. As a consequence, the used pitch inventory continuously changes over time, making classical transcriptions practically  impossible as this would require to continuously add accidentals, which would wrongly suggest (musically meaningless) key changes, just to accomodate the pitch rise.

Additional challenges are provided by the „lyrics“ of zär, which primarily consist of semantically apparently meaningless vowels. Since the Svan language has a much larger vowel inventory (18) than Georgian (5), the proper recognition of the lyrics and its documentation in a phonetic system simply from recordings is an enormous challenge.

A quantitative investigation of the language-music relation in zär was performed in the ground breaking study by Bolle Zemp (1997), who for the first time  examined this topic from both an ethnomusicological and a linguistic perspective. Within our research on zär,  we revisited some of Bolle Zemp’s observations and assumptions with a much enlarged (by a factor of 11 ) data set and by using computational phonetic analysis tools not available at the time of her study (Scherbaum & Mzhavanadze, 2021).

Note trajectories (with lyrics) of the Lower Bal variant of zär (sung by singers from Etseri), showing a strong pitch rise with time.
Quelle: Scherbaum & Mzhavanadze (2020a)
Note trajectories of a zär recording showing a strong pitch rise with time.
Harmonic melograph plots for all eleven zär recordings obtained during the 2016 field expedition.
Quelle: Scherbaum & Mzhavanadze (2020a)
Harmonic melograph plots for all eleven zär recordings obtained during the 2016 field expedition.

The visualization of  the pitch trajectories of three-voiced songs as harmonic melograph plot (Scherbaum and Mzhavanadze, 2020), shows the joint display of their melodic and the harmonic content in a single plot. The spaces between the middle and top voice pitch trajectories (dark blue and red wiggly lines, respectively) and the bass and middle voice (black and dark blue wiggly lines, respectively)  are color coded according to the corresponding harmonic interval sizes between the voices (see legend on the right). The space below the bass voice pitch trajectory is shaped and color coded according to the interval between bass and top voice.

For all eleven zär recordings obtained during the 2016 field expedition, the joint visualization of their melodic and harmonic content as harmonic melograph plots shows that the intervals between bass and top voice, indicated by the vertical bars hanging below the bass voice pitch trajectory - are dominated by the bluesh color repesenting 700 cents, corresponding to a fifth. In other words, most of the times bass and top voice move in parallel fifths!

Harmonic melograph plots for all eleven zär recordings obtained during the 2016 field expedition.
Quelle: Scherbaum & Mzhavanadze (2020a)
Harmonic melograph plots for all eleven zär recordings obtained during the 2016 field expedition.
The course of the Enguri river in Upper Svaneti superimposed by examples of the harmonic melograph plots for all recorded five zär variants.
Quelle: Scherbaum & Mzhavanadze (2020a)
The course of the Enguri river in Upper Svaneti superimposed by examples of the harmonic melograph plots for all recorded five zär variants.

One of the most interesting results of our analysis is the observation that the musical structure of zär, expressed for example in its ambitus, the complexity of its melodic progression, and its harmonic chord inventory change systematically along the course of the Enguri valley. This can nicely be seen by lining up the harmonic melograph plots for the five different zär variants along the course of the river. In the upper course of the river (between Ushguli and Mestia) the durations of zär are rather short, the diversity of the harmonic inventory is small, and the harmonic interval between the bass voice and the top voice rarely exceeds a fifth. In contrast, the durations of the Lower Bal variant of zär increases significantly (roughly a factor of 2), the harmonic inventory becomes much more diverse (the harmonic melograph plots become more colourful), and the ambitus reaches an octave and more. This strongly correlates with the exposure of the settlements to non-Svan influences.

A similar correlation between complexity and location of zär origins is observed for the musical structure derived from classical musicological analysis (Mazhavanadze & Scherbaum, 2020b), e.g. for the way the main compositional principles repetition and elaboration are employed.

The course of the Enguri river in Upper Svaneti superimposed by examples of the harmonic melograph plots for all recorded five zär variants.
Quelle: Scherbaum & Mzhavanadze (2020a)
The course of the Enguri river in Upper Svaneti superimposed by examples of the harmonic melograph plots for all recorded five zär variants.
Generative Models for Georgian Polyphony
Quelle: Mzhavanadze & Scherbaum (2020c)
Generative Models for Georgian Polyphony

Finally, we see another interesting aspects of our observations in the consequences that arise for the discourse on the origin of Georgian polyphony. The traditional view on the historical development of traditional Georgian favours the view that three-part polyphony is the result of a process which has evolved from a monophonic melody. There are two different flavours of this perspective.  In the "Fourth Model", which goes back to  Aslanishvili (1954), the voice carrying the melody is assumed to be the middle voice to which a second voice is added a fourth below. The voice added as third voice is the top voice, which is located a fifth above the bass voice. Most Georgian musicologists share that model.

In the "Fifth Model", proposed by Gogotishvili (1994), the voice carrying the melody is assumed to be the top voice to which a second voice is added  a fifth below. The voice added as third voice is the middle voice, which is located a fourth above the bass voice.

In contrast to the evolutionary models, von Ficker (1929) and more recently Jordania (2006, 2010) have suggested that polyphony can be an original sound form. Von Ficker (1929) has argued that polyphonic sounds are an indispensable part of any natural soundscape and therefore should be considered as a primary sound form. Jordania (2006, 2010) has suggested that group singing was part of the original pre-human communication with great advantage for survival.

Generative Models for Georgian Polyphony
Quelle: Mzhavanadze & Scherbaum (2020c)
Generative Models for Georgian Polyphony

Strangely enough, Svan zär are essentially melody-free. Except for the middle voice in the monophonic introductory call, there is no “melody/tune” which could be “harmonized”.  In addition, since the middle voice is never involved in the harmonic framework of parallel fifths (which is maintained by the bass and top voice exclusively, see harmonic melograph plots), the “fifth model” is ruled out as generative model anyway.

As to the “fourth model”, this would require the middle voice to be  harmonized by the bass voice a harmonic fourth below it. This is not observed either. In cases where it shows up temporarily, the harmonic fourth between bass and middle voice starts very late within the dirge (e.g. at about 20 seconds in the K’a-l Ushgul variant). In addition, the middle voice shows a highly variable, sometimes even seemingly erratic behaviour within the framework of bass and top voice. Hence, neither evolutionary model can describe the harmonic relation between the three voices in zär.

An additional argument against both evolutionary models is the observation that the tonal center, in relation to which which the whole musical structure is built, is maintained by the bass voice, which is actually not considered by any of the  evolutionary models as a primary voice.

More information on our research of Svan zär, which involves the cultural context (Mzhavanadze  &  Scherbaum,  2020a), an acoustical perspective  (Scherbaum  & Mzhavanadze, 2020a),  a  classical musicological perspective (Mzhavanadze  &  Scherbaum, 2020b),  and an analysis of phonetic aspects (Scherbaum  & Mzhavanadze, 2020b),  can be found in the four manuscripts attached below and the  video of our presentation of parts of our work at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Ethnomusicology, Ottawa, 2020 Oct 30 (Mzhavanadze  &  Scherbaum, 2020c).

References

Aslanishvili, Shalva. (1954). Narkvevebi Kartuli Khalkhuri Simgherebis Shesakheb [Essays on Georgian Folk Songs]. Vol. I (in Georgian). Tbilisi: Khelovneba.

Bolle-Zemp, S. (1997).  Mehrstimmige Wehrufe, Georgica, pp. 134–148.

Bray, M. (2011). Echoes of the ancestors Life , death and transition. Caduceus, (81), 6–9. (PDF)

Ficker, Rudolf von. (1929). “Primäre Klangformen” [Primary forms of sound]. Jahrbuch Der Musikbibliothek Peters, Leipzig, 21–35.

Gogotishvili, Vladimer. (1994). “Svanuri Sagundo Mravalkhmianobis Pakturuli Taviseburebebis Sakitkhisatvis” [On the Issue of Structural Peculiarities of Svan Choral Polyphony]. Issues of Musicology. Scientific Works, Ed. Tsurtsumia, Rusudan: 3–39. Tbilisi: Tbilisi State Conservatiore.

Jordania, Joseph. (2006). Who Asked the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech. Ed. Matthews Grant. Second Edi. Logos.

Jordania, Joseph. (2010). “Georgian Traditional Polyphony in Comparative Studies: History and Perspectives.” Echoes from Georgia: Seventeen Arguments on Georgian Polyphony, Ed. Tsurtsumia, Rusudan and Joseph Jordania: pp. 229–48. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. http://www.novapublishers.com.

Kalandadze-Makharadze, N. (2004). The funeral Zari in traditional male polyphony, in Proceedings of the 2nd Inter- national Symposium on Traditional Polyphony, Tbilisi, Georgia,  pp. 166–178. (PDF)

Mzhavanadze, N. & F. Scherbaum, (2020a). Svan Funeral Dirges (Zär): Cultural context, LaZar Database (https://lazardb.gbv.de) . (PDF)

Mzhavanadze, N. & F. Scherbaum, (2020b). Svan Funeral Dirges (Zär): Musicological Analysis, Musicologist, 4, 2, 168-197, DOI: 10.33906/musicologist.782185. (PDF)

Mzhavanadze, N. & F. Scherbaum (2020c), Zär, polyphonic group laments from Svaneti/Georgia, Video presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Ethnomusicology, Ottawa, 2020 Oct 30. (Video)

Scherbaum, F. (2016). On the benefit of larynx-microphone field recordings for the documentation and analysis of polyphonic vocal music, in Proceedings of the International Workshop on Folk Music Analysis, Dublin, Ireland,  pp. 80–87. (PDF)

Scherbaum, F.  & Mzhavanadze, N. (2020a). Svan Funeral Dirges (Zär): Musical Acoustical Analysis of a New Collection of Field Recordings, Musicologist, 4, 2, 138-167, DOI: 10.33906/musicologist.782094. (PDF)

Scherbaum, F , Mzhavanadze, N . (2021). Svan Funeral Dirges (Zär): Language-Music Relation and Phonetic Properties . Musicologist , 5 (1) , 67-82 . (PDF)