Why Should Central Eurasianists Care about Music?

Why is it that, amidst ineffective governance, failing infrastructure, violence, poverty, illness and death, Central Asians continue to make music? What does music offer that cannot be gained in other ways, and how might attention to it add to our knowledge of the region? 

[Editor’s Note: The author, Maureen Pritchard, is an ethnomusicologist, and just received her Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University of London, SOAS.  She works as CESS’s first and current Administrative Coordinator]

I’d like to introduce “expressive culture” into the mix of this blog. Expressive culture refers to the sensory embodiment of emotions, ideas and social processes in aesthetic forms such as literature, art and music. Much has been written about formal politics, economics, and security in post-Soviet Central Asia. Research on Central Asian arts tends to regard them as elite constructions or as a “natural” by-product of ethnicity or faith. In contrast, this column seeks to explore the arts, specifically music, as a complex medium through which the world and self is engaged, performed, and constituted.

Music is a universal human phenomenon and can be defined as humanly organized sound.[1] Sound is given order, meaning and purpose through structures of human perception and emotion. These structures are often deeply entangled with beliefs and practices.[2] They vary from culture to culture, across time and space and between individuals. This column will look at music as a mode of creative engagement through which Central Asians form their distinct personhood, negotiating complex constructions of gender, faith and ethnicity, and broaching ethical dilemmas particular to their social, economic, and political conditions.

We will focus on individual musicians, instrument makers and audience members. Looking at individuals allows us to consider the relationship between music and “subjectivity”. Subjectivity is created through interpersonal interaction, encompasses all the identifications that can be formed by, discovered in, or attributed to a person.[3]

Taking a Subject-Centered Approach to Central Asian Music

For Tashkent-born composer, metal-worker, and guitarist, Alexei Alexandrovich Agibalov, these identifications are constantly unfolding, unraveling and changing. As Agibalov pointed out, no two performances are ever identical and no individual performer is ever the same person twice. While using the metaphor of ‘an umbilical cord that extends all the way to Russia’, to claim a certain ethnic, religious and artistic identity, Agibalov also asserted that ‘the Agibalov who played at twenty is not the Agibalov who played at forty, and certainly not the Agibalov who plays at the age of seventy-two.’

While noting that the process of aging brought a need for increased practice to maintain dexterity, the composer also observed that art had the ability to unlock hidden aspects of a given personality [lichnost’]. In the case of Agibalov, the course of history had taken an unexpected turns, and this dramatic shift was negotiated through art. Before his birth in 1940, starvation had forced the entirety of his parents’ village to migrate from Russia to Tashkent, which was known at the time as “the city of bread”. In the 1970’s, Agibalov lost one of his best friends, Leonid Borisovich Diadychenko. From among “the thousands who died on account of perestroika”, Diadychenko “decided to leave the world accompanied by the sound of Russian guitar”, calling Agibalov to play for him in his final moments.[4]

Growing up amidst the height of socialist realism, and yet in the creative periphery, Agibalov set the seven-stringed guitar (rather than balalaika) as the representative of Russian folk instruments, developing new compositions for guitar and orchestra. For the composer, these works are as much defined by faith, feeling, desire, deep emotion, movement through the natural world, and engagement with its beings (ie. birds, rocks, mountains) as with the historical trajectory of people, ethnicity and nation [narod] definitive of socialist realism.

Although these themes are approachable through conversation, music presents a far richer semiotic site. This led the composer to request that he and I listen to his compositions together. The first piece that Agibalov played for me was a recording of his unpublished composition ‘Fresco’. Popularized in the Renaissance, frescos belong to genre of visual art made by painting with water-soluble pigments on plaster. Making certain that I understood the meaning of the word, Agibalov offered me the images of Constantinople, Byzantium, Michelangelo, saying that due to the abstract nature of music, it was uncertain whether these were a whole image, an image in ruins or a collection of fragments. The composition began with the most significant of all sounds in Russian music: the bell. A historic means of signalling alarm, prayer, celebration and mourning in pre-Soviet Russia, the bell holds a unique place in sonic imagery used by Russian composers, and its presence served to place Agibalov’s work in dialogue with the various bells that have rung throughout the history of Russian music.[5] The sound of the bell’s clear ring was followed by a string section and then, much to my surprise, drums. Somewhere there, in the resonance of bell, string and drum, a guitar began.

Why should we parse the complex meaning of these multiple layers of sound and the evoked imagery? Listening, performance and composition are all complex means of being in the world, making music medium of thought and communication that cannot be substituted by language.

Music and Motherhood

The way compositional processes combine with human experience can be seen in the example of the Kyrgyz-born komuz player, Nurzad Orozalieva. The komuz is a three-stringed lute played by strumming (rather than with a pick or bow). As a komuz player, Nurzad specializes in a particular genre of solo instrumental music known as küü. Although wordless, küü is a narrative genre, associated with story-telling. These may be myths, personal experiences or historical events.

Kyrgyz speakers typically translate küü as “mood”. Connecting a string of Russian and Kyrgyz words etymologically related only within the Kyrgyz musical imagination, Nurzad explained that küü could “structure” time, a place, a nation or an individual. In saying this, Nurzad expressed a common perception that küü is a part of history. As such, it aids in the construction of individuals, groups and their associated identities.

Nurzad has reconstructed a formative portion of her own life-history through music: Like many other Soviet women, Nurzad got married shortly after completing university. After the wedding, she discovered that her husband had lied about his education, social status and previous relationships. He became jealous of his wife’s independence and success. Ultimately, the two divorced. The tumultuous relationship with her husband brought mixed feelings about pregnancy. Nurzad created a composition describing this portion of her life entitled ‘Sezimdegi Tolgoo’.

The composition begins in a major mode and is articulated slowly. Each phrase within the initial melodic line is punctuated by an elongated trembling note. The melody picks up speed before shifting into a more minor mode. Such shifts of mode and tempo are characteristic of the piece, emoting wonder, joy, tenderness, anxiety and reflection. In a music video performance, made by Nurzad in conjunction with a recording studio, the sound of the komuz is complimented by flute, violin, synthesizer and piano. The musical narrative is made visible through cinematographic images of child, mother and a distant father figure.

According to Nurzad, the composition had not been written all at once. Rather bits of melody rose up alongside life events. For example, the beginning melody came to Nurzad while visiting Issuk-Kul. A preferred vacation spot for Soviet citizens, the lake was established as a place for rest and healing. For many Kyrgyz, the lake remains a powerful spiritual entity, and this spirit, as well as that of the komuz aided the compositional process. Nurzad said that after her daughter was born it was as if the komuz wouldn’t let her go. She would nurse the child, put her to sleep, pick up the komuz and compose.

According to Nurzad, the first word of the title, sezim, refers to feeling, sense or sensation. The second word tolgoo holds the dual meaning of mood and birth. Thus the composition depicts the complex physical, emotional and life-altering experience of giving birth. As Nurzad’s daughter’s name is also Sezim, the title to be interpreted as “Feelings about Birth”, “Feelings about Sezim” or “Sezim’s Birth”.

Maureen Pritchard

COMING NEXT: Nationalism and the Moral Citizen


[1]Blacking, John. 1979. How Musical is Man? University of Washington Press: Seattle.

[2]Feld, Steven. 1982. Sound and Sentiment. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia.

[3]Biehl, João. 2013. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. University of California Press: Berkeley.

[4] Agibalov, Alexei. 2006. “Plach Guitary” in Literary Kyrgyzstan. March 2009: http://www.literatura.kg.

[5]Williams, Edward. 1991. “Aural Icons of Orthodoxy: The Sonic Typology of Russian Bells” in Christianity and the Arts in Russia, edited by William Brumfield and Milos Velimirovic. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.