The place where I live for part of each year is 6500 kilometres away from Mongolia. Playing Mongolian music (on the piano and more recently the morin khuur) has become an important means by which I stay connected with the Mongolian people with whom I spend the rest of my time. Each year I search for good music books in Ulaanbaator’s retail outlets. There is a well-resourced music shop behind the Mongolian Parliament and Government Building off Sukhbaatar Square. It specialises in made-to-order morin khuurs and tuition. I have also come across some worthwhile piano arrangements and other music books in this quirky Mongolian shop.
Edited self-published volumes by the Mongolian composers themselves can be purchased. Of particular interest to me are the compendiums of piano arrangements of such Mongolian works. These fall mainly into two categories: (i) for the bowed string instrument of the Mongol peoples, the (morin) khuur; and (ii) piano accompaniments of operatic and traditional Mongolian folk songs for vocalists. Echoes of continuity with late 19th and 20th Century Euro-centric and soviet-style classical training prevail. The 50th Season’s repertoire of the Mongolian State Academic Theatre of Ballet and Opera (2012-13) is testimony to this.
One of the questions I am most frequently asked by my Australian musician friends who are curious yet unfamiliar with Mongolian (classical and folk) music relates to how notation is rendered. My answer usually goes something like this: Such music, if notated at all for paper-based publication, is done so in the traditional European style of notation, with its treble clefs, bass clefs and well-tempered stave-dependent forms. However, if one is looking for chord progression charts to accompany melodic lines of traditional Mongolian folk songs, you may well be disappointed. For although there are many books available documenting Mongolian song lines and their evocative prose, those with chord charts are more difficult to find.
The better editions of Mongolian music books are rarely found in retail outlets frequented by tourists and international visitors. Instead, such works are handed down from (Mongolian) teacher to student and distributed through their extended family and musician networks. Just as in other cultures, the serious study and performance of traditional music in Mongolia, whatever the instrumentation, is a one-to-one transmission of lineage and tutoring affair.
In a culture steeped in the practice of orality, although there is an overwhelming abundance of musically expressive Mongolians of all ages, youngsters as well as the more mature, in fact the experienced and Russian/soviet-trained teachers themselves are by far the greatest musical resource if one is interested in seriously pursuing such matters.
Byambasuren Sharav (1952– ) whose family roots are in Jargalkhaan Sum, Khentii Aimag (Mongolia) is an internationally recognized contemporary Mongolian pianist, composer and creator of song music. From the time he entered the Urals Mussorgsky State Conservatoire in Ekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) Russia in 1975, B. Sharav began fusing his indigenous Mongolian folk music and songs with European styles of musical composition, notation, instrumentation and style.
I have a growing number of works by B.Sharav in my collection, but one of my favourite musical vignettes for piano (and voice) is “сувдан долгио хараа минь” (My River Kharaa with Waves of Pearl) by B.Sharav (2004) and song by Z.Tumenjargal. In монголын тал нүтаг (The Steppe of Mongolia) 2005 Ulaanbator, Mongolia. pp195-198).
This composition honors the River Kharaa in Bayangol Sum, Selenge Aimag (to the north of Ulaanbator on the way to Darkhan.) As a pianist, I am particularly drawn to the sparse yet elegant open-voicings, as well as the need to work with (well-tempered diatonic) sound across the breadth of the piano’s keyboard.
Z.Tumenjargal’s beautiful poem (3 verses and a refrain) is respectful and nostalgic in tone. It honours the inter-connectedness of all things including one’s own mind whilst dreaming. To pristine water, to nature, and to notions of Mongol home country—one’s origin and spiritual source. Benevolence is at the heart of the prose as written. Z.Tumenjargal’s poem has been translated with the assistance of D.Gerelbayasgalan. Our final version of an English language rendering of My River Kharaa with Waves of Pearl, although not definitive, goes something like this:
In the lapis lazuli bend of the river Kharaa
One grew up with abundant pleasure and bliss
My river Kharaa with blue rapids
Flows on through flowers
Your crystal fresh water, mineral-like in quality
Is a lifeline to my diminutive form
River Kharaa, so tender-hearted
Essence of my vast Mongolian landscape itself
In your depths, like that of a mother’s womb
One grew up swimming with enjoyment
My Kharaa, murmuring through my dream-world
Flows on through grassland
Over you, the white mist
Descends and then rises, beckoning me
My pearl-waved river Kharaa
Flowing through my veins
Inspired by the beauty of Z.Tumenjargal’s evocative prose, I have attempted to articulate my own experiences of working with B. Sharav’s arrangement for piano in a somewhat imperfect English language (rhythm and rhyme) poetic way.
With sparse yet open voicings
Fingers are drawn first onto then deeper into the keys
I yearn to touch the sounds that lie beneath and behind them
Eloquent harmonies that are built and then made to recede
The river of sound on which I journey, panoramas of time
Within such pristine moving waters
Are the notes I am playing shaping the player?
Or are scaffolding notes being reshaped by mine?
Like a pearlescent bubble I am drawn, light and unresisting
Into meanders that flow through emerald pools of time
Swept along by tempered currents, the sonorities of another
I withdraw, pushing back with mine
With such elegant notation as substrata
I steer my own course through
A moment of transcendence?
Until the next time, I return my focus to the journey through.
end of transcript.
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© 2013-2024. 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: 21 January 2014. Last updated: 29 October 2017.