Source: Ignazio Macchiarella

Multipart Singing in Sardinia

Multipart singing practices are widespread in Sardinia, including different musical structures, mostly in parallel parts and by chording. It is a primary and highly characterized phenomenon that is hard to outline on the whole given the varieties of local music patterns, the social scenarios where these patterns are practiced, the elements of continuity of the past or the recent innovations, the cultural and social meanings the music practices assume and so on. A large amount of field research and studies have been carried out (including some in-depth works on specific local practices), but more still needs to be done.

In general, multipart singing by chording has a special relevance. Usually, in everyday language, it is subdivided into two different domains: on the one hand the so-called profane polyphony of the a tenore song repertory and, on the other hand, the religious polyphony of the a cuncordu song, which is linked to the micro-world of the religious confraternity. This subdivision is fictitious and it is confuted by the analysis of several local practices; sacred/profane is not a dichotomy: the practices of multipart singing by chording are present in all contexts of social life, according to the different local customs of each village.

From a technical point of view, the different music structures can be represented like a continuum, at one end of which there is a type with a clear distinction between a leading part and three (or four) accompanying parts, while at the other there is the co-presence of more or less equivalent vocal parts. As a rule, each vocal part is performed by one singer. During the performance the singers stand still in a circle. According to Bernard Lortat Jacob (1993), Sardinian multipart singing by chording is a numerus clausus practice, since it is always performed by specialized groups made up only of men.

The first type is often performed by four voices/parts. The leading voice is called sa boghe (literally the voice). It begins the performance, giving the tune its tempo, length and tonal shifting. It is also the only voice which sings the text. The other voices are called (beginning with the highest): sa mesa boghe (the “half a voice”, about a third over the boghe), sa contra (“the contra”, about a fourth under the boghesu bassu (“the bass”, about an octave under the boghe). The designation of the parts may change depending on how they are used in the villages. On the whole, the performance can be described as a soloist song (proposed by the boghe) accompanied by three voices arranged in a chord in root position (1/5/10) singing stereotyped successions of nonsense syllables (bim-bam- birambambo; mba-ué-mba; lallara-lillara; bom-bom-mboro: this feature also varies according to the different villages). This practice is particularly characterized by the special vocal sound techniques of the parts. In particular, the two lowest voices, contra and bassu, show a peculiar guttural timbre created by the distinctive use of the resonance of the oral and nasal cavity. In several villages (for instance in Orgosolo, Bitti, Irgoli, Orune, and Orosei), this structure is called cantu a tenore, while in others there are other names (in Seneghe it is cuntrattu, in Fonni and Bortigali cuncordu, and in Mamoiada it is ussertu ) (Macchiarella-Pilosu 2011).

The second type  is in four (or sometimes five) voices/parts. The names of the parts and positions are more or less the same as the ones we mentioned before, and vary according to local customs. The performance can be subdivided into macro-units which are clearly delimited by long pauses. Every unit begins with a solo incipit sung by the boghe or the bass. This soloist incipit ends on a precise note where the other parts enter, producing an overlap in the form of a chord, often in 5/8 position, sometimes in root position, which is held or repeated. Then the parts move differently within very narrow ranges creating various overlaps that lead to a point where the part movements stop, producing a chord again which often corresponds to the initial one. Each part has a specific timbre of its own (but there are no guttural voices), and during the performance the four voices search for the highest possible level of merging of the voices which creates the quintina phenomenon, i.e. the emergence of the first overtone (see Lortat Jacob 1998). In some villages (Santulussurgiu, Orosei) this multipart singing typology is called  cantu a cuncordu (“in harmony”), while elsewhere there are other designations. In the Gallura area (northern Sardinia), a fifth high voice is added: it is called tripli, and enters in the cadenzas, doubling the fundamental an octave higher (see again Macchiarella-Pilosu 2011).

Music patterns in two (and sometimes three) parallel parts are spread all over the island. Usually they are inclusive practices, allowing the broadest level of participation by men and women. These practices are common in devotional contexts, above all in the singing of the gosos (songs in praise of the saints sung in Sardinian) and su rosariu (rosary). In the city of Cagliari during the Holy Week rituals, hundreds of men, women and children establish large choirs performing in parallel parts, reaching an impressive sound volume.

A special pattern in two non-parallel parts is linked to the local poetry duels and the cantu a mutetu of the campidanese area in the south around Cagliari. It is a specialized male practice performed by two voices with peculiar vocal timbres (including guttural effects), singing nonsense syllables which accompany elaborate monodic performances by alternate voices.


Selected bibliography


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