This is the backstory to my music video on You Tube. If you are interested in flowering cherry gardens in China, the nuance of translating Mongolian, ostinati as a music composition technique or 20th Century Mongolian composers please continue reading. If you’re just interested in the music video please scroll to the end of this page for the link to my YT channel.
About the Music
“The Wish to Make One’s Way Towards a Distant Enlightenment” (Mong. Гэгээн алсад одох юмсан) is a piano etude in Works for Piano (Volume 2, 2013) by Mongolian composer and pianist Byambasuren Sharav (1952-2019).
The same year this folio of classical piano pieces was published in Mongolia, I flew to Beijing to visit important Qing Dynasty historical precincts in the capital, hence the inclusion of the above photograph from that time. We also took the opportunity to visit some of Beijing’s specialist cultural-art bookshops. Incredible collections! I paid a hefty surcharge to the airline that year for the collection of new reference books I brought home.
Translating the Title
The English language translation from the Mongolian title of this etude “Гэгээн алсад одох юмсан” is “The Wish to Make One’s Way Towards a Distant Enlightenment”. I thank Mongolian Zava Damdin Rinpoche (1976-) for his continuing generous assistance with such tasks. Online dictionaries and translation services are of limited value when interpreting into English the nuances of Mongolian speech-thought and language.
Here is a simple illustrative example: “явах” means “to go”, “одох” also means “to go” but expressed in an eloquent way. Two words, same meaning in English, yet a nuanced difference between the two. And so instead of using the one word only “going”, the 3 word string “make one’s way” was chosen in translating the original title.
Mongolian Composer Sharav’s title also retains the personal (and possibly culturally-embedded) notion that ‘enlightenment/enlightening’ (Mong. гэгээн) isn’t someone or something waiting somewhere in the distance. Rather, it is a continuing and unfolding process born from the wish in the here and now.
More about the music – why an ostinato?
An ostinato is a short melodic phrase repeated throughout a musical composition, at times slightly varied or transposed to a different pitch. The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody in itself. Both ostinatos and ostinati are accepted English plural forms.
Ostinato patterns have been present in european music from the middle ages onwards. During the late renaissance and boroque eras, in Italy during the 17th century for example, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) composed many pieces using ostinato patterns in his operas and sacred works.
Ostinato patterns also feature in many works by composers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms). In the 20th century, Debussy also featured ostinato patterns in his works. Having studied such piano works by Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy in my classical training (for examination), these days, like some kind of bedrock, ostinati are my ‘go to’ left-hand accompaniment strategy when improvising on the piano, much to the chagrin of my insightful improvisation tutor New York’s jazz pianist Ron Drotos!
Of all the major classical composers of the 20th century, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) is possibly the composer most associated with the practice of ostinato. In conversation with the composer, his colleague Robert Craft remarked, “Your music always has an element of repetition, of ostinato. What is the function of ostinato?” Stravinsky replied; “It is static – that is, anti-development; and sometimes we need a contradiction to development.” [Stravinsky, I. and Craft R. (1959, p.42) Conversations with Igor Stravinsky. London, Faber].
From this perspective, ostinato patterns are like “the rhythmical current running through the music” that binds together otherwise mosaic-like pieces. [cf. Vlad, R (1978, p52) Stravinsky. Oxford University Press.] Ostinati continue to play an important role in composing contemporary and improvised music in which they are often referred to as riffs or vamps.
Reflecting Composer Sharav’s own Conservatoire training, each piano etude in this collection draws on classical music composition techniques for dramatic contrast and texture. If one were to adopt a program music interpretation, then the use of ostinato in this particular etude could be considered an echo of the steady step-by-step aspect of the task alluded to in the title, that of making one’s way towards …
In addition to the (at times punctuated) ostinato played by the left hand, in certain passages “The Wish to Make One’s Way Towards a Distant Enlightenment” draws on the ambiguity of neither major nor minor (by omitting the 3rd). Suspended 4ths and 2nds in the voicings add to its harmonic texture.
The melody of the first part uses notes from a minor pentatonic scale, which then expands to include all notes from the natural minor scale. The first melodic line atop the ostinato repeats but is played an octave lower. With the right hand crossing over the left, for a pianist so much fun to play! The resonance of the final suspended broken chord from the preceding note cluster is simply delicious.
Composer Sharav also indicates that this tightly constructed etude for piano should be played, ‘Andante non troppo e patetico‘. That is, played moderately slowly whilst at the same time expressing feeling and great emotion in a balanced way. I found studying and playing this etude deeply moving. Its melody lines and partially-resolved poignancy touch the heart and echo on, long after one steps away from the piano …
“The mind is like a shelter to protect the wick from the wind.”
[ZDR 10 November 2023]
20th Century Classical Music in Mongolia
Readers, you may also not be aware that euro-centric classical music and ballet in Mongolia flourished during the second half of the 20th Century. In addition to Composer Byambasuren Sharav (Mong. Бямбасүрэнгийн Шарав;1952 – 2019) below is an introductory list of equally accomplished others. [See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Mongolian_composers]
PLEASE NOTE: Yet-to-be-westernised Mongolian names have longish consonant strings (eg. nkht, mbyn) with an occasional vowel in between. Please, do not be dissuaded. How about trying to say them aloud? As challenging as working on today’s New York Times “Wordle” you say? Perhaps … [she laughs quietly].
- Agvaantserengiin Enkhtaivan (Mong. Агваанцэрэнгийн Энхтайван; 1958 – )
- Natsagiin Jantsannorov (Mong. Нацагийн Жанцанноров; 1949 – )
- Gaadangiin Altankhuyag (Mong. Гаадангийн Алтанхуяг; 1948 -)
- Luvsanjambyn Mördorj (Mong. Лувсанжамбын Мөрдорж; 1919–1996)
- Jamyangiin Chuluun (Mong. Жамъянгийн Чулуун; 1928 – 1996)
- Bilegiin Damdinsüren (Mong. Билэгийн Дамдинсүрэн; 1919–1992)
- Sembiin Gonchigsumlaa (Mong. Сэмбийн Гончигсумлаа; 1915-1991)
- Tsegmidiin Namsraijav (Mong. Цэгмидийн Намсрайжав; 1927–1987)
- Eregzengiin Choidog (Mong. Эрэгзэнгийн Чойдог; 1926–1988)
🎧 CP Visual piano cover version (2023): The Wish to Make One’s Way Towards a Distant Enlightenment on You Tube.
© 2023. CP in Mongolia. This post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions. Posted: 14 November 2023. Last updated: 15 November 2023.