Singing polyphonic folk music from the Republic of Georgia was the last thing I imagined doing when I moved to southwestern Wisconsin six years ago to teach at a university. Having lived in New York, Maine, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, California, and Minnesota, relocating has never been easy for me, but in my early forties this move was the most challenging. I had little idea about what to expect in Wisconsin, a place I had visited once where I didn’t know a single person. It was a disorienting time. I longed to be grounded again in place, and to develop a sense of belonging in my new community, and form meaningful friendships.
A few months after my arrival, I spotted a flyer at the Viroqua co-op for Morning Glory, a community choir for adults and young children, led by Anni Zylstra, who had also recently moved to the area. Intrigued by the welcoming invitation to engage, I decided to give it a try. Gathered in the space of a community art center were women that spanned the ages, ranging from new and seasoned mothers, grandmothers, toddlers, home schooled children–and single women like myself. The music, often sung in rounds, was spirited, bouncy, full of play. Blended, our voices brought us into a shared space with one another. This was an entry point for connection.
In time, I opted to attend Anni's evening, adult-only choir–Ember, on Thursday evenings. This group was a better fit for my academic schedule, and when I read that the group was a more rigorous musical space to learn traditional polyphonic music from old European cultures, I didn't fully know what I was in for. Each week was a deep dive into the intricate multipart melodies of folk songs from Bulgaria, the Republic of Georgia, Ukraine, Corsica, early American traditions, and more, and though I continued to have great fun, as a newcomer to these odd dissonant harmonies and rhythms I spent the rehearsals holding on for dear life.
As a child, I was raised with few singing traditions beyond holiday caroling and school choir. Living as an adult in rural communities where impromptu gatherings with friends were common, our attention was usually focused on songs we already knew well, like those we often found in the American folk song book, Rise Up Singing as our guide for instrument and song. So, to be suddenly introduced to this world of rich musical and cultural traditions in rural Wisconsin–of all places, was a delightful surprise.
The word ‘polyphony’ literally translates to ‘many voices’ and generally refers to a style of singing which simultaneously combines a number of individual melodies with each other. Polyphony is considered to be one of the oldest known styles of multi-part singing, with a variety of styles and traditions found around the world. Those we study in our choir are primarily found in Europe and Euro-settler communities, which Anni believes are the most appropriate for a choir of primarily white European settler-descended singers.
Anni makes these intricate singing traditions accessible for beginners and create spaces for cultural learning in rural areas where there is less access to multiculturalism. Raised in rural Iowa with a music teacher for a mom, she has a robust musical background, having been immersed in the choral and voicework world for her entire life. The first time Anni sang a piece from a polyphonic musical tradition was in a Shapenote song in high school choir. She says, “the quick moving, surprising harmonies, odd lyrics, and full engagement required by all voice parts fully entranced me, an otherwise often-bored choral singer who tired quickly of a lot of more traditional, western repertoire.”
As a folk musician Anni’s research is rigorous, always including as much cultural background for our repertoire as possible and passing that understanding to her singers both in person and through a detailed online learning resource. That resource includes a recording of each voice part, pronunciation details, and extensive background about the historic origins of the song. Along with learning from American-based teachers, colleagues, and source recordings, Anni has had the opportunity to learn with multiple folkloric experts and musicians who grew up with the musical traditions we study in their home country or diasporic culture of origin, and has also had the privilege to travel to Bulgaria, Macedonia, the Republic of Georgia, and the UK to learn music. All in all learning, preparing, gathering source information, and recording all of the voice parts of our repertoire for each term of our choir takes many months of work to put together.
The rural community choir fueling a sense of place, belonging, and culture through folk music
by Margot Higgins
Choir members gathered at Nature Nooks, our weekly rehearsal space, learning from guest instructors Deva O'Neill from the UK and Stella Sanderson Green from Toronto.
Rehearsal begins each week with warm up exercises and technique work that awakens and stretches our vocal cords. Anni instructs us to mimic the voices of alley cats, 90s sitcom characters, and Bob Dylan, among others, to begin to locate the vocal and facial placements necessary for singing the very forward, bright Eastern European vocal style famous in Bulgaria, Ukraine, and other folk singing traditions. We sit up straight, tilt our chins, crank our faces upward, and enter the uncomfortable space of familiarizing ourselves with wildly different language and musical expression. Usually, we roll with laughter at some point, and that too seems to warm us up, physically and communally.
Anni encourages us to try every voice part throughout a term, and though we find our comfortable spaces, mixing it up and singing every part is one way to practice deeper and more culturally authentic learning within these musical styles. One of Anni's Bulgarian singing teachers described that “In Bulgaria, when you’re a child singing in your household as you grow up, you’re not allowed to sing with the family ensemble until you’ve listened to the songs so much that you know all the parts by heart. Even then, you can’t sing the ‘melody’ or ‘higher’ parts of songs until you have sung the ‘drone’ part enough that you understand each moment of the song and how the parts fit together deep in your bones.”
Throughout the arc of each rehearsal, we experience great hurdles in our convoluted attempts to grasp the songs. By the end of class though, our voices have imperfectly advanced to a rough, but surprisingly congruent space. I am not the only student who gets goosebumps from such unifying moments. As one student, Beth Krieger Frisch puts it, “Anni has an almost magician-like way in her teaching. She listens to us, gives us a few exercises and adjustments, listens again, readjusts in different, subtle ways and with humor. Pretty soon a [piece] that seemed impossible to learn has developed into a beautiful, satisfying, and powerful song.”
For Dr. Rebecca Gustafson, a naturopath in Viroqua, this singing is a way to express her feelingsand heal her heart. “Sometimes you express joy, sometimes you express grief, or overcoming challenges. Sometimes you feel emotion and you just cry. I am thankful we have this form of expression in our community.” Gustafson moved back to Wisconsin after a ten-year absence. As a graduate present, she was gifted a choir membership from a peer in her program. “Choir [is] a way to connect with community and myself. I saw Ember as a beautiful opportunity. It felt like a way to explore some cultural heritage in a nice frame and context where it felt like it was doing justice to the communities from which [the singing] comes.
When asked why she is invested in Ember, Elizabeth Tigan, a resident of the Driftless for over twenty years replied, “It has given me the opportunity to raise my voice with a group of people which is always uplifting and edifying. I have also learned new techniques that enhance how I use my voice. [Participating in choir] gives me access to a group of people that I wouldn't otherwise have been with, and has made great friendships.”
Reflecting on her role as a choir director, Anni explains, “singing this music often feels like a collective feat of doing something ‘impossible’. When receiving a new song, usually a song that is quite difficult and in a non-Latin-language-family language, my students fully believe there is no way they will ever be able to sing it. And usually, in around 30 minutes, they are in fact singing it together, having a rather good time while doing so, and feeling dually amazed with themselves and one another about it. I think it’s important in these times that adults have some kind of experience of doing things that feel impossible together.”
Laleta, Ember's auditioned performance ensemble, performing at the La Crosse Mediterranean Festival.
Ember has grown from a group of less than fifteen to sometimes a community of up to forty singers who gather at Nature Nooks, a local retreat center run by choir member Pam Saunders. In the fall we start adding layers of wool as we make the trek through the winding colorful fall roads down to the valley, and begin to sing songs that nod to the harvest, the full moon, the necessity of winding down for winter. In the spring, songs turn to spring blooms, planting seeds, and folklore associated with Orthodox and pre-Christian seasonal markers like Easter or St. Lazarus Day.
Occasionally an illness or heavy snow cancels class, but thanks to the pandemic, there is now an online option for attendance. Over time, virtual singers have joined our group who tune into choir from all over the world. At one rehearsal, I was surprised to see a woman on the screen sitting in daylight. I quickly realized that was because she was Zooming in from Australia. The microphone and camera for online class are placed in a chair nestled in the group, like any other choir member would be, and the singers on screen hear the harmony and laughter of the full group throughout rehearsal, feeling as though they are there in the room with us. The online option not only brings this music into other parts of the world, but it also allows a way for our local singers to keep up a careful policy surrounding Covid, since they can now tune into class and keep up with the repertoire easily from home.
As a professor who spends much of my time in the tangled head space of academia, I find it challenging to take a step away from my teaching and research. Singing is a consistent way to reset my brain. The practice has enabled me to get to know members of the community that I might not have the opportunity to connect with on such an intimate level. Often, while driving home I will pop a favorite CD in my car stereo and think to myself, this western folk music is so boring!
The songs we sing are dialogs through harmony. They are springboards to traditions that transcend our egos. Though they might include solos, or portions performed in small groups, they usually can’t be sung individually. Choir is also an expression of social and political engagement, a celebration of diversity and challenge to cultural norms. Anni explains, “it is so easy in rural spaces to get lost in a cultural vacuum, and to believe that how things are done here are the only way they are done. So for me, choosing to live in a rural place over a cultural metropolis like Chicago or Minneapolis means I need to actively participate in ensuring I and my community can access cultural learning opportunities, and to continually educate myself to counteract the rural tendency to be increasingly cut off from the world. My goal is to provide one small way for people to remember that there is a wider world out there with people and cultures who do things vastly differently from us, from organizing society to organizing musical notes and rhythms.”
At the end of the semester with the winter holiday season upon us, we celebrate our accomplishments with a traditional Georgian feast, called a supra. Another community bridge building event, Supras are inspired by just about any occasion–an impromptu guest visitor, a birthday, or a wedding. Structured by toasts, a toast master or Tamada traditionally leads the guests through a series of themes that include god, family, children, the home, and the cosmos. The crowd then riffs off of that, giving the meal a purpose, propelling the performance of music and dance. This is poetry in the making.
Supra translates to “table cloth,” as the dining table is often difficult to see. The food laid out can often serve twice the crowd seated around it. Dishes might include kachupari – a gooey bread stuffed with salty cheese, platters of tomatoes and cucumbers with fresh palate cleansing herbs form the garden, beat salads, roasted eggplant dotted with pomegranate seeds, grilled mushrooms, stews cooked in earthenware pots and my favorite - brothy dumplings stuffed with cheese, meet and veggies, called khinkali and of course, plenty of wine. The ingredients are almost always local-there is very little industrial agriculture in Georgia. This parallels the high production of local organic agriculture in the Driftless. We study the recipes and present these dishes as authentically as we can.
Before my toast, I looked around the table, savoring the food, the company, the feeling of being authentically connected through a regular committed practice. Our celebration took place in the old Gays Mills Community Center where some students grew up square dancing and attending weddings. Through choir, I have experienced a version of being similarly rooted in place. I departed that night, knowing I am likely here to stay. Whatever changes come, these simple but important things, the delight that comes from cooking and singing with people whom I have grown to appreciate so much–will continue.
If you’d like to learn more about our choir or perhaps even add your voice to the mix and make
some new friends in our upcoming fall season, you can find us at heartlandharmony.net/ember.
Margot Higgins is a professor in the sustainability and environmental studies department at University of Wisconsin at the University of Madison. She has participated in Anni's choirs since 2018 and last summer traveled to the Republic of Georgia to learn more about polyphonic folk music with Village Harmony. This piece was originally written for the Ocooch Mountain Echo.