4AD Founder Ivo Watts-Russell On Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares

Thirty-five years on from 4AD's reissue of the first volume of recordings of Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, label founder Ivo Watts-Russell describes the epiphany that led to his tracking down the mysterious voices of the Bulgarian folk singers to release their music on his label. Interview by Richie Troughton

Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares became famous at home in the 1950s as the Bulgarian State Radio And Television Female Vocal Choir, performing traditional folk songs that had been given contemporary arrangements by composer Philip Koutev. Although recordings of the group circulated in the 1960s and were heard by, among others, the Grateful Dead, it was an album from 1975 recorded and released by Swiss musicologist Marcel Cellier that would go on to be a global hit when 4AD reissued it 1986. A second volume, released in 1988, went on to win a Grammy. Speaking from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell recalls when he first heard the Bulgarian voices

My introduction to Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares was fantastic. I was helping Pete Murphy, the singer from Bauhaus, make his first solo record. And at the end of the first day in the studio Pete pulled out a cassette and said, ‘Right, we are going to listen to this at the end of the end of every night.’ I was standing up behind the mixing desk getting ready to go home, and I was like, ‘Oh, all right Pete’, popped the cassette in, and this track started up. The fog of memory will tell me that my knees literally buckled. But I think I was huddled in a little room behind the mixing desk and I was very tired and when it came on it just hit me emotionally and so I just simply sat down. So that was my introduction. It’s one of two solo voices, as opposed to choral things – ‘Prïtourïtze Planinata’.

You can’t play me a piece of music that affects me like that and expect me just to forget about it. I was like, ‘What the hell is that, Pete?’ He said he had been given it by an Australian dancer friend of his, who I pleaded with him to contact, ’cause it was just a cassette, a compilation tape this guy had made for Peter. So I made him track down the guy and find out what it was. So I then knew that it was from something called Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares.

In those days you couldn’t just click, click, click and have it, so I did what was the obvious thing at that point in time, and went to a record shop on the Charing Cross Road, a sort of folk/worldy specialist record shop. I went there and found a copy on Disques Cellier. It appeared to be from a series of different, for lack of a better expression, world recordings, and I bought it. For me, it is a highlight of my life, my career, whatever, because of the purity. I responded to just this one song, I tracked it down, found it as an obscure, but still in press in Switzerland, LP, and just thought, which really was my modus operandi, if it moves me it’ll move other people. So I tracked down Marcel Cellier in Switzerland and arranged to license it from him.

I remember him coming over to 4AD and us meeting, and he was a lovely and excited man. He would have loved it if I responded to and licensed everything from him. I’d love to hear the stuff again. I can’t remember where he did these other field recordings, Macedonia probably. But he was a European musicologist, almost like the second phase of the Smithsonian recordings that were done on wax cylinders in America. It was almost like a contemporary version of that, of going from country to country and documenting things. It’s the purity of it, to respond to it, to hear it, to be able to track it down, to license it, and make it available to the world as part of 4AD. We even were able, with his permission, to license to other countries. I mean, how bonkers is that, licensing a Bulgarian recording, through an English record company, to Japan, because it was part of 4AD? It fit into 4AD as far as they were concerned, so, you know, whack it out. It was just a new world.

We pressed up a promo 7" with that track I am talking about, with ‘Polegnala e Todora’ on the other side, and sent it out to people and gave it away in record shops. And, bless him, Richard Baker, probably at Radio 4 at the time, started playing it, a lot. And we received phone calls from people saying, ‘Ooh the BBC gave me your phone number. I went to Harrods and I couldn’t find it!’ I would sell them mail order. So obviously we were reaching people that perhaps would not listen to regular 4AD releases, although I do not understand why Dead Can Dance, or the Cocteau Twins, or This Mortal Coil, or whatever were not being played on Radio 4. But that’s my fantasy world. Back then. Honestly, I really enjoyed it. It’s really at the heart of what I ever hoped to do with a stupid record company, just beautiful music, in a beautiful package, regardless of who created it and what language it is sung or spoken in, that touched the world. That was the reasoning.

It is an obvious thing [how the music fit into the vision of 4AD], with Gordon Sharp from Cindytalk, who sang on the first This Mortal Coil record, who I met in the same week or two as Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance), and I was already working with Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins). That was three extraordinary voices that one label was able to work with, that worked outside of the English language for the most part. So throwing in something that wasn’t in English, but was just as extraordinary, the sound of the open throated technique that I have never been exposed to before, it all made sense. It made sense to me then, and it makes sense to me now.

It just seemed so natural to the Bulgarian singers to be able to access that in their throat. And it is just not to Western ears. Lisa Gerrard clearly had a throat that, once pointed in that direction, was going to be able to do it, and she could and she did. ‘The Host Of Seraphim,’ a Dead Can Dance track on The Serpent’s Egg, is just an absolutely fantastic example of somebody clearly responding to something that they have heard and incorporating that technique that she was able to teach herself, into a piece of music that will equally buckle my knees. There aren’t many that can do it.

The way Marcel described making the recordings to me was more time travel than physical travel. I think these were specific choirs. But were they specific choirs that existed say in the 60s, and would have been different to whatever he recorded in the sixties? Or does that mean that they were specific choirs that were recorded around Bulgaria in the 50s and 60s? I don’t know. It sort of says it on those sleeve notes that when I responded to the music I didn’t care what it was. Frankly, the repeated listening didn’t pique my curiosity up any more. I loved the anonymity of it. I loved not really knowing. I’m sure Marcel might have told me, or I might have asked him, but I have forgotten the details, because as I said, I didn’t care. But my impression is that was somebody who travelled parts of Europe, documenting musicians and vocalists. Things that you could hear in the fields. Things that you could hear in people’s houses. He travelled the world documenting them, probably with a two-track tape machine. Not literally, I’ve never heard any wind through the microphone! But whatever was available to him.

I didn’t know about the Grateful Dead connection, but I know that Frank Zappa heard it. Steve Mason, who owned and ran Pinnacle distribution, went out to visit with Zappa to get rights to his catalogue or whatever, and he told me that Zappa was a fan of Bulgarian voices, or choirs. So he gave me an address and I sent Zappa a copy of the record and that was that. Joe Boyd called me up after I put the record out. It is weird that I am talking about Joe Boyd as I saw him here in Santa Fe, two days ago, doing readings from his book, with Robyn Hitchcock playing some songs. There were about 30 people there. Nothing ever changes! But Joe Boyd rang me up after I put the record out, and he was off to Bulgaria. There was going to be an annual competition or something, where people could walk in from over the hills and across the fields to a stage in the centre of a field and basically just get up there and sing.

I didn’t go with him, but a couple months later I did go to his house for a little soiree, where he was showing video from that, which he was very pleasured about. It puzzles me. Joe Boyd was involved with everything in the 60s and I am certain he would known of some recordings or of that technique way before me, and I was surprised that he had not already been involved, as he worked with Trio Bulgarka and whatever else he did, and in Hungary as well. I think it was just very difficult to find. There was an awareness of it in the 60s, but I have no idea why it hadn’t reached more people. I have no idea why it hadn’t reached my ears. I don’t know, and don’t care, but I’m damn glad it did! And I’m really damn glad that it became part of the 4AD legacy. I am really pleased and proud of that.

In anticipation of this, talking to you, I listened to the first volume yesterday. It’s timeless. It was timeless, it is timeless, and it always will be timeless.

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