Northern Harmony, the unique world music singing ensemble led by Larry Gordon and Patty Cuyler, will perform on January 28 at 7:30 pm. in Brattleboro, VT at the Old Stone Church, Main Street.
Hailed for their “sheer agility, vitality and power” by the Washington Post, Northern Harmony’s brilliant young singers are chosen from among the strongest recent graduates of Village Harmony teen ensembles. They stretch the normal boundaries of choral music with their command of varied world ethnic singing styles: sacred and secular harmonies from Corsica and Georgia; village music from the Balkans; South African folk and church songs and dances; American shape-note singing and a cappella gospel; and contemporary compositions.
This ensemble is preparing for a two-month European tour beginning next month, and they are one of the small number of choirs selected to perform at the American Choral Director’s convention in Philadelphia the following week.
Northern Harmony’s vocal styles range from the hearty and ultra bright Bulgarian “hard voice,” to the equally powerful, but darker and more sonorous Georgian timbre, to the rich, syncopated South African style, to the wild and unrestrained American shape-note sound.
Georgia has one of the world’s most ancient polyphonic singing traditions. The music is almost always in three vocal parts and features a dark, sonorous vocal quality. The harmonies are unlike anything in European music, with un-tempered intervals and striking harmonic convergences.
Shape-note singing, one of Northern Harmony’s trademarks, had its origins in the community singing schools of 18th century New England. It is simultaneously a sacred and a social singing tradition, featuring stark, open harmonies, rhythmic, contrapuntal “fuguing” sections, and the marvelous sacred poetry of the 18th century English hymn writer Isaac Watts and his followers. The concert will also feature traditional and contemporary arrangements of 1930’s gospel quartet numbers.
Traditional Corsican singing has been described as “wrenched from the bowels of the earth.” Passed down almost entirely through oral tradition, the three-part harmonies feature two highly ornamented upper voices over a more sustained harmonic bass. The excitement for the listeners and singers both comes from the impassioned delivery, the surprising harmonic shifts which ripple from voice to voice, and the buzzing vocal timbre which creates an extremely powerful sound rich in overtones.
South Africa has a particularly powerful and appealing folk harmony singing tradition, with a rich, resonant vocal sound, and wonderfully syncopated rhythm. The singing is always accompanied by dancing, with the rhythm of the dance movements often in counterpoint to the song. Northern Harmony directors Cuyler and Gordon have led regular study tours to South Africa, working intensively with South African conductor Matlakala Bopape and her Polokwane Choir. Cuyler and Bopape have jointly published two volumes of The Folk Rhythm including 36 songs from the South African singing traditions with accompanying audio and video materials.
Northern Harmony also performs a wide variety of village music from the Balkan countries. This music features the characteristic bright, “hard-voiced” Balkan vocal timbre, with dissonant harmonies frequently based on drones, and irregular dance meters in 7, 9 and 11. Many of these numbers also feature accompaniment on accordion, fiddle, tambura and drum.