The countries of Georgia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Corsica have little in common unless you listen to their singing traditions. Each has a tradition of harmony singing, some very ancient in origin. Larry Gordon, the leader and founder of Northern Harmony, a touring group of singers is prepping his 10-person group for three concerts this month that will bring the unique sound and songs of these countries, and others, to a public that might be unfamiliar with this music.
Northern Harmony represents the very best performers that have studied under the umbrella of the world music organization Village Harmony that Gordon created in 1989. Previously, he organized the Word of Mouth Chorus in the 1970s and that group toured Europe and the United States before ending its run in the early 1980s.
Village Harmony sponsors singing camps and workshops in New England and many parts of the world and has been touring Europe regularly since 1995. Because of pandemic restrictions, Northern Harmony has been limited in its touring schedule and Vermonters are benefiting from the restrictions by having these three concerts scheduled here as a result.
The 10 singers in this month’s concert schedule range in age from 18 to seniors, Gordon said. He and his partner Wanda Philibert are the seniors with younger singers coming from California, Vermont, Connecticut and New York State. One of the selected participants from the British Isles was unable to join the group because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Most of the veteran singers in the present ensemble, Gordon said, have studied traditional singing styles first-hand with native teachers in South Africa, Corsica and Caucasus Georgia, and some are leaders of their own ensembles. The singers, who have been exchanging material and vocal arrangements online as result of the pandemic restrictions, will be in residence for a week at the Marshfield headquarters of Village Harmony preparing this concert program.
According to Gordon, harmony singing, as opposed to soloing, is a very ancient style. For example, he said, Georgia, a country at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and a part of the Caucasus region “had harmony singing before the Middle Ages and thus is a very early example of this music.”
Georgian music, he explained, “is distinguished by their unusual, what we call dissonant harmonies and unusual tunings of the voices and the scales.”
“We don’t know why harmony singing developed in these countries,” he said. The harmonies are based on vocal qualities, Gordon said, with the Balkan countries having “a hard-edged sound, bright forward, almost nasal sound, especially from the women.”
According to Gordon, much of Asian and Middle Eastern music is sung in solo parts. “We really specialize in harmony singing, but we do sing music from elsewhere.”
For example, the chorus will sing some material from South Africa. The singing style of that country,” he said, “is based on the sound of the native languages. There is a lot of vibrato with a full sound. They sing really loud and with deep bass voices.”
“South Africa has a particularly powerful and appealing folk harmony singing tradition,” Gordon explained. “They sing 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.”
While Gordon directs the chorus, participants bring music of their choice to the programming. “We tailor the music to the abilities of the singers, and sometimes to the instruments we use,” he said. For the concerts this month there will be instrumental accompaniment on fiddle, accordion, guitar and percussion and “the singers will do harmony singing with accompaniment.”
This year’s singers, Gordon said, are “people who have been singing in the larger Village Harmony body of singers.” In the past five years, the camps that Village Harmony runs have seen “probably several hundred participants.” Those singers who will perform this month are “drawn from the strongest and best singers for the Northern Harmony tours.”
For Gordon, who has led many different groups of singers over the years, what draws him to the music and the groups of singers, he said, is: “It’s really gratifying to put together a program and then tour together; it becomes rewarding to internalize the music.” Northern Harmony, he said, “is my favorite thing in the world. I enjoy putting together groups of singers and watching them develop, internalize the program and become unified in the music.”