Two voices from one: folk singing from around the world

Video: Singing with two voices. An interview with Dessi Stefanova of the London Bulgarian Choir

When I first heard the London Bulgarian Choir I knew it would be really interesting to find out how they create that incredible sound. In a quite different way to the more operatic “bel canto” style of singing, they are able to create a very powerful, bright sound which includes some unusual effects and ornamentation. Dessi Stefanova, founder and leader of the London Bulgarian choir, graciously agreed to be interviewed on the subject. Experienced in teaching non-Bulgarians how to change their voice to produce this sort of singing style, she was able to explain exactly what she’s doing with her throat in singing – creating a “twanging” sound she likens to a seagull or bagpipe.

Making this film was enlightening. Though I’ve always enjoyed singing, I had no idea it was possible to think about it in this level of anatomical detail and to control it in this way. Discussion of the harmonics was particularly fascinating. I guess I knew in some sense that one note is in fact made up of several notes, harmonics, at once, but hearing Dessi sing makes it clear. Her voice style amplifies certain of those harmonics to create an effect like two voices singing from one. It’s not quite as marked as that of Mongolian or Tuvan throat singing (“overtone” singing), but it’s there.

Whilst I was preparing for the film, Dessi directed Alex and I to a BBC radio show on the human voice which she’d been a part of. I recommend a listen (it’s called Discovery – Musical Instruments 1 from December 2010). It even tells you how to get the overtone effect in your voice. In a bit I sadly had to cut from my film, Dessi also talked about other folk styles which use this, including a Sardinian style: singing “a tenore”.

The Unesco film above turned out to be just one of a series which led me off into a wonderful journey of discovery, in particular introducing me to various traditions of polyphonic singing (e.g. Georgian or the Aka pygmies of central Africa). Absolutely fascinating.

Dessi and the London Bulgarian Choir will be appearing at our Get Mouthy! event on Friday 30 September.

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