Polyphony is an essential part of the Seto leelo. With a few solo genre exceptions, the leelo is always sung in choirs and is always polyphonic. It is nearly impossible to sing a leelo on one’s own because it is polyphony that makes the Seto leelo so unique.
The Seto choir is divided into two parts – torrõ and killõ. The torrõ, the main voice, is sung by all the singers except the killõ and repeats – mostly in a modified form – the lead singer’s tune. The killõ is the upper accompanying voice that remains in the upper notes of the scale and is sung by only one singer in the choir. When a Seto leelo is transcribed, the torrõ part is written with the stems down and the killõ part with the stems up. The lead singer also sings the torrõ part in the repetition with the rest of the choir, so her part, too, is also written with the stems down.
The nature of Seto leelo polyphony is fundamentally harmonic - the alternation of two harmonic complexes, in fact, is more important than the melody. The notes of the scale are divided into two groups of “chords” or harmonic complexes, and only the notes belonging to one complex can sound together. This is not Western major-minor harmony as we know it, but a very ancient musical system based on the alternation of two harmonic complexes.
The killõ can be constructed in one of three ways:
Traditionally, the torrõ singers did not sing the tune in exactly the same way, i.e. they did not sing in unison. Most of the singers altered their singing slightly, thus creating heterophony – the harmony of different variations of a single melody that gives Seto leelo its characteristically rich sound (Pulmalaul). The same singer could also use different melody variations during the song (listen, for example, to Anna Kõivo’s different versions in the bridal lament Mõrsjaikk or Lummo Kati’s rich variation in the song Hähkämine). There were singers who chose to sing only one version of the melody without altering it at all, and others who varied more. It seems that the greatest degree of variation occurred in those torrõ singers who used the lowest notes of the scale (in addition to Lummo Kati, listen also to the recordings of Anne Vabarna’s choir, for example). Comparison of older and newer recordings made with multiple microphones shows that in earlier times there was more variation in the torrõ part, resulting in a more heterophonic sound. In contemporary choirs most singers tend to sing in unison, i.e. using exactly the same melody, usually following the lead singers tune.
Sometimes, researchers also distinguish a lower torrõ – singers who use the lowest notes of the scale. There are no fixed rules according to which the lower torrõ can vary the tune, apart from the general harmonic principle explained above, i.e. that only notes of one harmonic complex can sound together at the same time (Järvelaul, lower voice). The lower torrõ has a special place in men’s songs (Miihi praasnigulaul, Vanaimäkene).
Polyphony in the Seto leelo is characterized by the timbral contrast between the torrõ and killõ parts. The timbre of the killõ is much shriller and more tense than that of the torrõ. In order to achieve a brighter sound, an experienced killõ can sing a little sharp (i.e. slightly above the note), with the result that the pitch of a Seto choir gradually rises throughout a song.
A moderate rise in pitch is a frequent phenomenon in traditional singing. In Seto songs, however, this rise is unusually fast, which makes one think that it has a meaning of its own. If the pitch gets so high that singing (especially for the killõ) becomes difficult, the lead singer lowers the next line abruptly in order to provide some “relief” for the choir. This special technique is called kergütamine – “relief” (Ilolaul, from 01:10).
The lead singer can often provide this “relief” quite early on – while singing is still comfortable – in order to enable a faster rise in the pitch. Contemporary choirs, however, do not usually raise the pitch naturally as in the past; as a result they use kergütämine less frequently and without practical need. Kergütämine is an extremely rare technique, which can also be found in traditional Mordovian singing.