A Solitary Quest

Saturday, April 25, 2015
Hanover — John Graham can count on the fingers of one hand how many American academics have immersed themselves in studying the liturgical chant music of the Georgian Orthodox church. He happens to be one of them. In fact, he might be the only one.

The question is how Graham found his way into a world that is, for the vast majority of Americans, unknown. And why? Does the world need or want a scholar specializing in the liturgical music of the Republic of Georgia?

But, in a world of internet hits, clicks, listicles and pre-digested junk information — Stop Making Fun of Gwyneth Paltrow! (Slate), 18 Pictures of People at the Lowest Point in Their Lives! (Buzzfeed) — there are still people driven to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Graham, who is working on his Ph.D. in Musicology at Princeton University, is a visiting scholar this year at Dartmouth.

The point, Graham said, in an interview in Hanover, is that more isolated cultures and languages around the globe are under threat, plowed under and trampled over by modernization, demographic changes, political and military conflicts and the international trend toward homogeneity.

Although Georgian sacred chanting, as a practice, is not in imminent danger, the number of scholars outside Georgia currently studying how it was passed down over hundreds of years, orally and then in transcribed form, is few. To keep cultural practices flourishing takes determined effort and study.

Georgian liturgical, polyphonic singing, with historical roots dating back centuries, is an expression of the divine through human voice. Or, possibly, it is also the converse: an expression of humanity through divine voice. Georgian polyphonic singing has been recognized by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”

Graham describes the music as “completely unique and to western ears very unusual,” characterized by “breathtaking harmonies and dense chords all close together.”

While a choir performing Gregorian chants will sing one melody in unison, a choir performing Georgian polyphonic chants — usually between seven and 12 people — will sing multi-voiced, three-part harmonies, Graham said. He used another analogy to distinguish between monophonic and polyphonic: a group of people singing Happy Birthday versus a Bach fugue.

To an untrained ear, the Georgian chants have a deeply felt, untrammeled purity of sound that lingers in the ear like an echo. It’s an expression of a culture that has withstood invading armies over centuries, ending with the Soviet Union’s domination of the country, and its efforts to obliterate religious institutions.

Graham has Vermont roots: he was born in Brattleboro, while his mother was studying at the School for International Training. His mother later taught at the Upper Valley Waldorf School in Quechee, and, now retired, lives in White River Junction. Graham lives in Hanover, with his wife, Ekaterine Diasamidze-Graham, and their 3-year-old daughter.

When Graham was a boy, his family moved fairly frequently, from Vermont to Japan to California and then to Pennsylvania, where both his parents had grown up. Graham began singing when he was 9, in a suburban Philadephia Episcopalian choir that adhered to the Anglican choral tradition familiar to many through the recordings of the Cambridge University King’s College choir.

Although none in Graham’s family were professional musicians, they were a musical family, singing and playing instruments. Graham knew from a young age that he gravitated toward singing in a group, rather than performing as a soloist.

“I love choral music,” he said. “The sound of other voices fills your ears. Through sustained singing you’re forced to breathe; you’re flooding your body with oxygen.” That experience creates a “certain brain high,” as if you had exercised vigorously.

As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Graham majored in ethnomusicology and also studied sociology and environmental science. He also started a six-person chorus that sang both Georgian and Gregorian chants, the monophonic, liturgical singing of the Catholic church that dates back to the early Middle Ages; at Princeton he started up a group singing Georgian folk music.

While still at Wesleyan, he happened on a recording of Georgian choral music — just one of three in the music library — sung by the Rustavi choir in the capital Tbilisi.

Graham was struck by “not so much the notes, but the quality and timbre of the sound,” quite different from that of a Western European choral tradition.

The CD had been produced by Ted Levin, a professor of music at Dartmouth who is also known for his work with the Silk Road Project, founded by cellist Yo Yo Ma. Graham later had a chance to meet Levin at a conference. When he asked him how he could learn more about Georgian liturgical singing, Graham said, “Levin listened to my whole, excited spiel and the only thing he said to me was, Go to Georgia.”

Graham made his first trip there in 2003 as part of a two-week “singing camp” run by the Marshfield, Vt., organization called Village Harmony, which brings people to countries around the world to learn about various musical traditions.

“There are these moments where people are pushed in a certain direction,” Graham said, and that was his.

But in order to pursue studies in Georgian music he had to learn the language, not the easiest thing to do. Its grammatical structure is complex.

What appears to English speakers as a single word may contain an entire sentence, with its component parts strung together. (“velaparakebdi,” for instance, means “I was speaking to him.”) Some of its characteristic sounds do not correspond to any made in English. It also uses three different alphabets: one for everyday speech and two others for church use.

Graham studied Georgian intensively while on a Fulbright in 2004, staying in a village, Sighnaghi, where there was no running water. The townspeople filled up plastic jugs at a spigot in the middle of the village that was fed by a cistern at the top of the town. Nor was there electricity, so Graham studied by candlelight.

This was the time of the so-called “Rose Revolution,” when Georgians protested the mismanagement and corruption of the regime of President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had also been the minister of foreign affairs in the Soviet Union just as it was dissolving. The peaceful protests led to his resignation.

Very few Americans were traveling or studying in the country, and people were astonished and thrilled to meet an American who could speak to them in their native tongue.

“They wanted to take me home and feed me and marry me to their daughters,” Graham said. Which he eventually did, in a sense, because he met his future wife at a music conference in Tbilisi in 2008, and they were married in 2011. Diasamidze-Graham is working on a dissertation in Anthropology at Javakhishvili State University in Tbilisi.

On occasion Graham wonders why he’s been pulled into this pursuit, or more to the point, whether he’s up to the long haul.

“I sometimes feel inadequate to the task; it’s consumed me for 10 good years.”

When you fall in love, though, you fall in love, and Graham fell in love with a place and culture. He bought a small property in Sighnaghi, which he and his family visit when they can. He converted to the Eastern Orthodox church in 2005, and attends services with his family in Claremont. He also leads tours to Georgia in the summer.

“Things have aligned for me to do this project. I have to keep doing it until the end,” he said.

For information on Georgian chants and tours to Georgia led by Graham go to georgianchant.org.


John Graham, a scholar of Georgian liturgical chant, lives in Hanover with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. He majored in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he also studied sociology and environmental science and founded a choir that specialized in Georgian sacred chant. A choir he later founded at Princeton University specialized in Georgian folk music. Graham’s mother and father graduated high school in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, respectively. These facts were incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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