« e-Geaux [beta] & TWT Slam--Where Advertising Meets Poetry | Main | Bending the Rules of Dance: Twyla Tharp Vs. Eiko & Koma »

Opening the Wells of Mugham & Turkish Music

If you aren't thirsty, even an oasis in the desert may not garner your appreciation. The Dresser says this by way of having wandered in the recent past into the world of Turkish, Azerbaijanis, and Mugham music. In our fast Western world of rapid communication and transportation, the Dresser thinks the average Western music lover may need not only to adjust his/her ear but also breathe deeply to slow down and sharpen up the senses.


Jeffrey Werbock, an American who passionately promotes Mugham music, says that at the time this music started, the world was a dangerous place and people craved a transcendental experience to escape the body and the assaults from a hostile world. Mugham, a folk music coming from Azerbaijanis, Iranian, Arabic, and Turkish sources, marries classical poetry and musical improvisation.

Mugham music may be characterized as monophonic, modal, microtonal, meter free, and highly ornamented. However, if monophonic means one melody line, ornamentation can change the musical texture to heterophony, a variation working against the melody and not so familiar in Western music. Likewise modal is associated in Western music with measurable tones in a scale but the Mugham performance builds in intensity and rising pitches, particularly in the singer's voice, that are not well measured by modern scales. Microtonal particularly plays against the Western expectation that music is made from a system of twelve equal intervals to the octave. The microtone falls somewhere in between.

In a program sponsored by Karabakh Foundation on December 22, 2011, the Dresser heard Jeffrey Werbock speak and perform at a senior citizens community in Silver Spring, Maryland. He performed with Vladimir Gamarnik. The acoustics were bad and visibility was worse since it was a huge ballroom with chairs flat on the floor with no risers. The Dresser went right up to the front of the room to take some videos and could feel the excitement coming from these musicians who are modern day troubadours sharing their love for this music to people who probably have never been exposed to such sound.


Kronos-Qasimov.pngOn February 18, 2012 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, Maryland, the Dresser heard the Kronos Quartet in performance with the Alim Qasimov Ensemble. A winner of the prestigious IMC/UNESCO Music Prize for performers (others who have won this award include Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin, and Benny Goodman), Alim Qasimov performs regularly in important concert venues with a variety of musical forms from pop to classical, including with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

Qasimov's music is Azerbaijani classical music in the mugham tradition. For this performance, his ensemble included singer Fargana Qasimov (his daughter), Rauf Islamov on kamancha, Zaki Valiyev on tar, Rafael Asgarov on clarinet and balaban, and Javidan Nabiyev on naghara. Both singers played the daf, a wafer-like frame drum. The kamancha is a bowed string instrument with a long neck and a lower bowl-shaped resonating chamber made from a gourd or wood. Often the bowl-shaped bottom has a foot, which accounts for its English name--a spiked fiddle. Precursor to the guitar, the tar is a complicated stringed instrument with a double bowl shape and three double courses of strings. It is played with a small brass plectrum. The balaban as it is called in Turkey and among the Azerbaijanis is a double-reed woodwind with a cylindrical shape that makes it sound somewhat like a clarinet or saxophone. The naghara is a long folk drum held under the arm and hit with the bare hand. The naghara is described in the Azerbaijani literary epic, "Kitabi Dada Gorgud" (Book of Dede Korkut--The Book of my Grandfather).

The Kronos players--David Harrington, violin; John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola and Jeffrey Zeigler, cello--opened the concert playing a dreamy composition by Michael Gordon that made the Dresser feel she was on a dock watching sea birds circle lazily while calling to each other in what might have been microtonal yelps. "La Didounak Sayyada" ("I'll Prevent the Hunters from Hunting you"), a love song by Omar Souleyman picked up the tempo and urgency with plucked cello and driving beat. It was decidedly Middle Eastern in its texture and color. "Tenebre," an east coast premiere by Bryce Dessner created a hypnotic effect that made the Dresser think, this is a lullaby for the 21st century.

Next the Qasimov Ensemble without benefit of the Kronos Quartet--Kronos left the stage as the Ensemble entered and climbed onto a raised platform outfitted with an array of pillows--played Shur Destgahi, a traditional spiritual piece that has a Muslim talking to the Almighty.

In the second half of the program, Kronos joined the Ensemble for a set of secular music that included love songs of various kinds including one that translates as "My Spirited Horse," which is about an offspring trying to make it home to his or her mother through mountain fog in snowy mountains.

While she loved how Kronos introduced the Qasimov Ensemble, what the Dresser wonders after this experience of the highest order with mugham is why she thought she needed to be on chaise longue by the sea with a bowl of grapes at hand.


On February 17, 2012 at the Takoma Park Community Center Auditorium in Takoma turkish_jewish_0118Sm.jpgPark, Maryland, Washington Musica Viva presented a program of Turkish Jewish music. This included Adnan Saygun's Suite for violin and piano, Op,33; Darius Milhaud's Poèmes Juifs and Mordecai Seter's Partita for violin and piano. What's always a treat from Carl Banner, founder and pianist of WMV, is that he teaches something about each of the pieces he plays. And to this program, he added musicologist Ronit Seter, the daughter-in-law of Mordecai Seter. Not only did Ms. Seter talk about Seter's Partita, but also she put it in perspective with the compositions by Saygun and Milhaud. Saygun began Turkish modern classical music. Milhaud merely alluded to Turkish and Jewish influences and was clearly a French composer. The Dresser stresses now that this program was neither mugham nor improvisational music but it was Western music with accents of Turkey and the Middle East. Darius Milhaud was Jewish but not of Turkish extraction.

What the Dresser liked best of this program was the four-movement Partita by Seter. She loved the strong energetic opening of the "Allegro con brio," the ethereal conversation between the piano and violin (Andrea Vercoe on violin) in the "Allegretto commodo," the call to prayer in the string part in the "Andante lento senza misura," and the scherzo-like close of the "Molto vivace e impetuoso." While there was an oriental quality to this piece, Seter, who studied with the renowned Nadia Boulanger, was tuned into Western music and made it a point to stay away from local color. He created a voice uniquely his own.

kluegel_176cropped.jpgThe Dresser enjoyed Saygun's Suite (also four movements), especially the "Horan" which incorporated tunes from Turkish folk dance and the majesty of the opening "Prelude," which features an ornamented passage on the piano. But, the Dresser thinks this piece as well as the Milhaud Poèmes Juifs, an eight-part song cycle sang by the lyrically sweet soprano Elizabeth Kluegel, suffered from the poor acoustics in the Takoma Park Auditorium. Milhaud's beautiful and basically simple songs need a much more intimate space where the soprano's voice can envelope the audience.


In Margo Berdeshevsky's poem "On Giving Away the Stone," the speaker interacts with an elder, taking out from her suitcase, "full of old Eden," a stone that she wraps in a moist leaf so that the stone will never be thirsty. The Dresser believes Berdeshevsky's reference to old Eden includes the Muslim faith--therefore, the spilled milk of Abraham's union with Hagar, mother of Ishmael and the origin of the Muslim descendancy. Hagar and Ishmael when sent away by Abraham ran out of water in the wilderness of Beer-sheba, but God opened up a well for them and saved their lives.

Reading Berdeshevsky's poem requires finding a quiet space to meditate on the mysteries she presents. Like mugham, "On Giving Away the Stone" offers a simplicity that is surprisingly multi-layered and dense. Once a reader has sat with Margo Berdeshevsky's poem, mugham, and new classical Turkish music, wells open up in an oasis of extraordinary splendor.


In new rocks new insects are sitting
With the lights off -- from "Whenever I Go There" --W. S. Merwin

I had a stone. ...The book of common armor slams, ... it is no
speaker-stone, it is no protector, ... shhhh, ptuiii,
I gave away my open mouth to my elder

so he'd love it for me--love me for it--here,
godfather, put him in your garden. Older one, see how he is stone and
living? See how his natural beak is ...wide for saying? Let him

whisper new speeches as your fierce hands age--here is what the ibis
sounds like wading in white morning, ...her down-curved beak
shut. Here is my suitcase full of old Eden, its contents of spilled milk.

I wanted to give him one gift. Solemnly, I'd wrapped it
in a moist leaf so it would never be thirsty, and
gladly, I gave the stone.

When I lifted the barn owl's wing, the distant stone's
gift, ... it stroked the faith I'd lost. Small rain massing
between grasses. The lamb's miniature knees were

buckling, ...her effort to stand as her species.
When I lifted the silken thing of brown feathers,
fingering it, smelling the blood-body of it--

I stroked my own face with it.
Breeze that had been bath-warm all summer chilled the maronnier
catching flame, and the old man whose house I was sleeping

in, goldilocks, godchild-woman, ...would return next
week and I wouldn't be there, would he die there ... or on our

island ...when the minute came...don't die, don't die. His owl
--or mine: shifted feet on its twig.

Margo Berdeshevsky
from Between Soul and Stone

Copyright © 2011 Margo Berdeshevsky


Post a comment

Use this form to place a comment to a post in the blog. You must include a valid email address for spam protection. Please see our Privacy Policy for details on how your private information is used and protected. Your comment will be posted as soon as it is reviewed by the blog editor.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 21, 2012 8:41 AM.

The previous post in this blog was e-Geaux [beta] & TWT Slam--Where Advertising Meets Poetry.

The next post in this blog is Bending the Rules of Dance: Twyla Tharp Vs. Eiko & Koma.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.