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Theater group explores ancient vocal roots of European liturgical music
May 11th, 2011

“The Gospels of Childhood Triptych,” a performance of singing and chanting that is the culmination of 10 years of investigative research and development into ancient sacred songs, premieres in the Bay Area May 19-25 at St. Gregory Episcopal Church, 500 De Haro St. in San Francisco, as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival.

The work by Teatr Zar, the resident company at the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw, Poland, features three- and four-voice polyphony with roots sunk deep in Europe’s past. At the heart of the piece are traditional funeral chants from the highest Caucasus that date back more than 2,000 years. They are the oldest form of polyphony in the world and live on — though the original language has been lost — in liturgical music heard in the oldest Christian churches in Georgia, Zar’s artistic director, Jaroslaw Fret, said in a phone interview with Catholic San Francisco.

The music’s strong harmonies and tiny intervals between the pitches of the various voices will sound exotic to Western ears. Melody barely exists and the harmonies form what Fret called a “column of sounds.”

He said the acoustic column represents an axis mundi, “like the pillar of the world … which exists around sounds to send people to heaven.”
Zar’s expeditions also took the group to Sardinia and Corsica to rediscover vocal music that dates at least to the 16th century and is preserved by confraternities that vocalize in Easter celebrations in Catholic churches.

Fret is interested in sacred chant as a universal wordless language that carries “the messages of the lives hidden there, of the generations of people who sang it over and over” for centuries.

The group performed the piece previously in the U.S. in Chicago, and Fret was pleased with the reception.

“Somehow in the scattering of the different traditions we represent not the fully forgotten but the hidden traditions of Europe, because Christian Europe spread from the Caucasus,” Fret said. “We in our performances are putting it together and we can present it in one shape.”

Each part of the “Triptych” can be seen as a stand-alone show or as part of a series. For more information, visit the festival website at

From the May 13, 2011, issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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