Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares

The cover of an LP copy of the 1986 4AD release of 'Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares'.

A few weekends ago out of the boxes of LPs at one of my usual haunts, I picked up a copy of Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, specifically the 1986 re-release on 4AD. As 4AD is a label which has maintained a certain vogue (and one which hit its stride at a time when cassettes and CDs were increasingly prevalent), one seldom finds affordable copies of their vinyl releases out & about. I was lucky enough to get this one as part of a 3-for-£10 offer. The cover is a typically enigmatic example of the work of 23 Envelope, whose connection to the music – if there is any – is far from obvious,

It’s an album that had first been released a decade earlier, as the fruit of many years' labour by the Swiss ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier, who had made and collected recordings of traditional Bulgarian song performed by female choirs (notably the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir). These performances were in contemporary (’60s and ’70s) arrangements, but the singing style, like the material, had much older Slavic (and even Byzantine) roots, utilizing close harmonies in a way that, to Western ears, can have a piquant dissonance about it.

An LP copy of the 1986 4AD release of 'Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares'.

At a time when the average listener’s musical horizons were more constrained than thay are now, the release of such unfamilar-sounding, yet inarguably beautiful and powerful music felt like a bolt from the blue, and the 4AD re-issue (and a subsequent one on Nonesuch in the US) made some waves. George Harrison, for example, praised and recommended it; Kate Bush invited the Trio Bulgarka (whose members also sang for the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir) to join her on a couple of the tracks on The Sensual World; and it inspired the soundtrack for the anime Ghost in the Shell.