Theses Doctoral

Setting the Tone: Fluid Hierarchies in Contemporary Georgian Polyphony

Kaganova, Marina

Vocal polyphonic music, as one of Georgia’s primary cultural exports that has been gaining popularity in the world, plays a big part in the effort of creating a marketable Georgian identity – an effort tied to the Georgian state’s desire to join the EU and get away from its Soviet past.

Whether state-sponsored or private, a number of institutions have risen to prominence in recent years, all proclaiming to be dedicated to the preservation and popularization of Georgian folklore. While their contribution to these missions is extensive, their policies and practices often carry an eerie resemblance to the Soviet attempts at selective promotion of indigenous cultures. By the very nature of their structure, these institutions impose a particular idea of power and hierarchy: wherein a few select people control the distribution of finances, information, and other resources, performers adhere to dress codes, and ensembles have centralized leadership. My argument in this work is that this idea of power and hierarchy is at odds with the practice of Georgian polyphonic singing, which involves (usually) three distinct voices coming together, without designating a “chief” or “main” one among them. Rather, the singers trade off taking the lead, with endless opportunities for melodic and textual improvisation, and the songs in question are not possible if all the voices are not present.

Through a close analysis of ethnographic data from the provinces of Guria and Svaneti in Western Georgia, this project explores how power, preservation, and death — both semiotic and literal — coincide, intersect, and diverge in the Georgian folk singing communities. I approach the tradition as a dynamic habit, with its practitioners as participants in a continuous process, which can only die if performance reaches the “perfect” form, so often exulted by the very institutions that vow to keep it alive.

My discussion of the singing practice in this dissertation poses broader questions within the disciplines of anthropology and ethnomusicology, such as: how does the growing popularity of a musical practice shape the worldwide discourse and local policies around it? What happens when rigid institutional power structures are imposed onto a tradition that is pre-disposed against them? And what options and choices do the practitioners of this tradition have when it comes to maintaining their commitment to it?


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Daniel, E. Valentine
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 11, 2021


An earlier version of this dissertation was accessible via this record from January 11-April 2, 2021.