Inside the Swedenborg Chapel, a new genre is coming to life. On banjo and acoustic guitar, an Appalachian tune rollicks to the lyrics of a prayer poem from the country of Georgia.
It’s the evening of Thursday, Sept. 28, the inaugural performance of Exchanging Notes, a collaboration between the Somerville Arts Council and Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. The program brings a Georgian writer and a Georgian musician to the United States and sends an American writer and an American musician to Georgia. They then spend the summer working virtually with their artistic counterparts from the other country.
The Georgian artists are Nana Abuladze, an award-winning fiction novelist and literary scholar, and Aleksandre Kharanauli, a Georgian folk and rock musician and TV producer. The American artists are Maxwell K. Evrard, a choir director at Somerville High School and Pilgrim Congregational Church, and Owen Thomas, a fiction writer pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at Goddard College. In June, Evrard and Thomas journeyed to Tbilisi, Georgia, for a week to meet their artistic counterparts and explore the city. The events this weekend, which have brought the Georgian artists to the United States, are the culmination of the summer’s work.
The event opens with Abuladze and Thomas alternately reading and discussing with each other the work they produced over the summer. Though her books have been published in Georgian, Abuladze wrote much of her work this summer in English.
“I think it’s very different when an author translates their own work from when a translator does this. In my case, translation was part of my writing process,” she says in a Q&A session later. “I translated the images and not words.”
Abuladze and Thomas also discuss the ambivalence people feel toward the complicated legacy of their culture, like patriarchy in Georgia or racism in the United States, and how to responsibly tell the stories about that legacy.
“Much of our society takes stories from other people and represents them in ways that are incredibly irresponsible,” Thomas says. “And then we get the blowback from that, which is people being super possessive of their stories. But stories are not meant to be possessed in that way. They’re not private property.”
After the literature portion, Kharanauli and Evrard take the stage, along with the Somerville High School choir. The music is Georgian folk poetry and mountain music put to American instruments, like acoustic guitar, and traditional Georgian instruments. The musicians exchange instruments between almost every piece. The choir features in every song.
At one point, Evrard lifts a chuniri, a round-bodied string instrument played with a bow that features in traditional Georgian folk music. The chuniri has a husky, mellow sound, adding a solemn tinge to the lighter, livelier guitar.
“I traded a banjo for a chuniri,” Evrard tells the audience. “He has the only banjo in Georgia and I have the only chuniri in Boston.”
“You definitely have the only chuniri,” Kharanauli says, somewhat sarcastically.
“Okay, you have the nicest banjo in the book,” Evrard replies, to audience laughter.
Exchanging Notes is the brainchild of professor Stephen F. Jones, who leads the two-year-old Georgian Studies program at the Davis Center. Jones says he came up with the idea after a course he taught on the Silk Road made him realize how fluidly language and art move across borders.
“We may think we have national cultures, but they evolve within the context of international exchange,” Jones wrote in an email. “We thought we could do our little bit in that process right here in Cambridge.”
In 2021, Jones and Cat Green, then an administrator at the Davis Center, reached out to Boston-based arts organizations for a partnership, and the Somerville Arts Council agreed to host. A call for proposals in March 2023 yielded around 60 submissions from Boston- and Tbilisi-area artists. Jones and Rachel M. Strutt, the cultural director for the Somerville Arts Council, evaluated the submissions.
At the event, after a Q&A moderated by Jones and Strutt, the night ends with a reception at the Fisher Family Commons in Center for Government and International Studies Knafel, with food catered from Jana Grill & Bakery, one of the only restaurants in the area that offer Georgian dishes. Attendees slowly file in from the Swedenborg Chapel, a mix of faces and ages — people from the community, parents, and friends of the Somerville High School choir members.
Jones briefly interrupts with a celebratory toast for Abuladze, who has recently been nominated for the Saba, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Georgia.
“We can’t eat the cake until we toast,” he says, gesturing toward the gigantic vanilla cake along the wall. “So I made sure to toast early on.” The Somerville High School choir chatters excitedly.
While people are still loading their plates with food, I manage to catch Abuladze and Thomas. Sitting at the red booths, over plates of Georgian food, we talk about the artistic process and philosophy. We’re intermittently interrupted by people who come by and say how moved they were by the readings.
Thomas tells me about how his favorite parts of the experience were just the conversations he was able to have with Abuladze. Three of the pieces he produced over the summer are titled “Conversations with Nana.”
“Just like Nana’s pieces had us as characters and our voices in it, we thought that our conversations were interesting. We wanted to have a conversation with the audience,” he says, explaining the reason they adopted the reading model that they did.
Abuladze mentions how her original project proposal centered around urban spaces, and how one moves through them differently as a host or as a visitor. Though Thomas’ was about collecting and telling stories, they found their goals aligned, because places are inextricable from the stories one might hear — and take down.
“One big part of our work together was to tell stories to each other. And the majority of our work came out from these stories,” Abuladze says.
When I talk to Kharanauli and Evrard next, they echo Abuladze and Thomas’ sentiments about how place can inspire storytelling.
Kharanauli mentions that mountain songs, many of which were performed tonight, are not commonly sung or recorded. His goal was to develop a more cohesive Georgian pop music culture. “Storytelling stuff,” he says, referring to Bob Dylan’s music, “didn’t develop in Georgia in music, but we have this in our roots. Because it was not recorded or appreciated, I’m searching for this kind of stuff.” When he showed Evrard a mountain song about the Virgin Mary, Evrard instantly drew a connection to religious folk songs sung in the Appalachian mountains.
“I’m going to bring this American clawhammer old-time style to the highest inhabited village in Europe with a language that is spoken by very few people, and I’m going to make people tap their foot,” says Evrard of his thought process behind the Appalachian-Georgian fusion, which mixes, as he put in the performance, “two kinds of mountains.”
What both pairs of artists found so wonderful was the exchange: how, in putting one culture’s art in another’s context, one might synthesize something new.
“Our time in Georgia was this rich sowing of seeds, of ideas and conversations,” Thomas says. “The return is, now you’re back and tending your garden. The time in Georgia for me was so fast and so full.”
“I would hope for everyone to have the opportunity to guide people through their space,” he adds, “because guiding other people through your space is a really beautiful way to see it differently.”
— Magazine writer Vicki Xu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @vicku___.