June 17, 2019 | By Chuck Carlson
For Albion College Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities Clayton Parr, ‘80, the Republic of Georgia has always been something of a second home.
A former satellite of the old Soviet Union, Georgia has been impacted by the influences of not only Europe, but Asia and the Middle East. It is a Christian country deep in the Muslim world; it is a green, mountainous country in a region not that far from desert; and it’s a country steeped in its own firmly held traditions that suvived even the Soviet system.
Parr has visited Georgia often over the years and has been enraptured by it. He speaks the Georgian language, he has done research projects on Georgian folk music, and in 2005-06 returned as a Fulbright scholar and lecturer where his wife was a teacher and his kids attended school.
“It’s a place I love and I relish every opportunity I get to show this place,” he said.
He got that opportunity in May when he took his Briton Singers—a 12-member a capella group—to Georgia to perform in several locations around the country, including the prestigious Tbilisi International Choir Festival in the capital city.
The 12-day trip, from May 6-17, was nearly a year in arranging as Parr called on some of the friendships he had made in his previous visits to help make it possible. Indeed, Albion’s performance of Georgian folk music at the Tbilisi festival was the first time a U.S. college had been invited in the event’s eight-year history, Parr said.
The Briton Singers also sang and performed a Georgian folk dance in the village of Sighnaghi, which included attendance from the town’s mayor; they learned Georgian folk songs and performed in the Caucasus Mountains town of Svaneti; and they performed at the QSI International School, a K-12 English-language school in Tbilisi where they also answered student questions about American colleges. On their travels, they were also immersed in the study of folk songs with local singing masters and a dance teacher.
But as much as the trip was about performing their music, it was also about introducing students to a culture of which they knew very little.
“I told the students that when you tell people you’re going to Georgia, they’re going to think you went to Atlanta,” Parr said. “This is really a part of a rethinking of the whole traditional concert tour model. And part of the teaching mission is to teach students how to do this on their own.”
To that end, Parr offered a course on the history, music and culture of Georgia in the spring that seven of the 12 Briton Singers took. It also included creating traditional Georgian food—much of it Middle Eastern-themed—including many types of sauces with nuts, fruits and vegetables and a dish of eggplant wrapped in walnut paste.
“It was cultural immersion,” Parr said.
So by the time the trip rolled around, his singers had some idea of what they would be experiencing.
“Georgia was shockingly beautiful,” said Connor Healy, '19. “The land, the people, the food, the music. It felt like we were in another world—like our own but more real and more fantastic.”
The trip was made possible with a grant from the David L. Strickler Music Endowment, created in the name of the former longtime Albion choral director (who also taught Parr as an undergraduate), which was established for choral group travel.
And Parr hopes it sets up an opportunity to one day bring another group of students back to the place he loves
“This was a chance to think about multiculturalism in music,” Parr said. “I got a chance to show my students what Georgia was like and I got a chance to show off the Briton Singers.”