Vol. 4, No. 23 (December 01, 2011)

Song and fire: Mugham reaching West

Nick Naroditski, MA 
Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University
Inna Naroditskaya 
Associate Professor of Musicology, Northwestern University

Mugham as a mode of Azerbaijani creative thinking (Rena Mammadova)
Fire and songs have been entwined in Azerbaijani lands from the antiquity of Zoroaster and his fireworshipers, who recited gatas in open-air temples under velvet skies, to the today of the modern industrial Azerbaijani state.  Central among a variety of musical genres is mugham, a classical tradition that weaves refined written poetry and musical improvisation, the intricacy of poetic formulas, and the complex formula of mugham modes, passed orally.  Mugham entered the twentieth century in a wide variety of regional traditions and individual masters’ lineages, mainly located in three geo-cultural areas: Shirvan, Garabagh, and Absheron.  Mugham is typically thought to be associated with urban culture and accordingly with three cities: Shamakha, Shusha, and Baku.  

The early 20th century and the mugham-opera

The oil boom in Azerbaijan at the dawn of the 20th century [1] brought to the capital Baku an international crowd of investors, engineers, and entrepreneurs (including the Nobel Brothers, Robert, Ludwig, and Alfred)—among them Russians, Tatars, Armenians, Persians, Jews, Germans, Georgians, Poles, Greeks, British, and Turks—and transformed that city from an old unpaved town on the periphery of the Russian empire into a multi-cultural hub with touring troupes, world performers, rapidly built theaters, and an opera house.  This development, in turn, helped to create Azerbaijan’s modern national culture, including the beginnings of inter-“marriage” between Azerbaijani and Western musical forms.  Local and traditional cultural forms began to flourish as the city became more affluent and opportunities in Baku arose for national artists, musicians, and intellectuals.    

Among them, Uzeyir Hajibayov, the son of a couple from the household of the Garabakh princess and poetess Natavan, in 1908 created the first Azerbaijani opera, Leili ve Majnun.  The hybrid genre, mugham-opera, united improvised mugham solo numbers with composed ensembles, choruses, and orchestral episodes, combining an orchestra with native tar, operatic vocal technique with the intense raspy recitations of a khanande (singer of mugham).  Leili ve Majnun thus bridged Western musical theater with a widely-known, endlessly recited Eastern story of love akin to Romeo and Juliet.  This opera and the aspirations of its creators paved the way to the coexistence, juxtaposition, and fusion of western and native musical traditions. 

The collapse of the Russian Empire enabled Azerbaijani political elites to form a secular republic.  The state was short-lived.  In 1920, Bolshevik forces had re-taken the oil-rich region, soon remaking it into an “autonomous republic” of the Soviet Union.  Both Azerbaijan and oil-rich districts in the north Caucasus would become essential to the rapid industrialization of the USSR, with Russian national poet V. Mayakovsky writing poems referring to Baku as the oil-provider to the “engine of socialism.” Moscow’s political elite endorsed and shaped the development of Azerbaijan’s native culture envisioning it as both a nation-building tool and an instrument of centralized control, hoping to create an Azerbaijani national culture that fit into a larger EuroAsian—Soviet—cultural context.  

The Soviet concept of socialist art was quite complicated.  Artistic works were to correspond to European models but to reject “degenerate” values of the West.  While some forms of Westernization were associated with progress, it had to be reshaped and remolded to benefit socialist ideology.  The process of doing that proved to be particularly complex in Azerbaijan, where an ancient and re-awakening artistic national consciousness had only sporadically interacted with Western cultural traditions and had cooperated with cultural forces brought to the country by Western capitalists.  Inheriting the territorial vastness of the Russian empire, Soviet officials promoted both internationalism and nationalism, urging artists to create art, “socialist in content and national in form.” The success of the first mugham-opera inspired a chain of compositions, mainly on the theatrical stage with literary programs or stories that would appeal to the diverse population of Azerbaijan and lead to the creation of a unique national compositional school.  The first graduates of the Azerbaijani Conservatory (now Baku Music Academy)—opened in the first month of Soviet Azerbaijan—transcribed and notated mugham melodies, adapting them for western instruments, even as the ensembles of Azerbaijani instruments, learning notation, performed arrangements of European classics.

From Mugham Symphony to Jazz-Mugham

The generation of native musicians following Hajibayov—among them a large number of his students—adopted the fusion of mugham and Western music with more abstract musical forms of purely instrumental music and specifically with the symphonic genre.  A son of Jamil Amirov, a legendary tar player of the early twentieth century, conservatory trained Fikrat Amirov exceled in fusing symphonic sound with the melodies and dramatic processes of mugham in his Shur (1946) and Kurd Ovshari (1949).  

Some twenty years after these symphonic mughams and also twenty years after the persecution and death of Azerbaijani jazz saxophonist Piro Rustambayov, Amirov created his symphonic Gulistan Bayati Shiraz (1968); one of the two solo instruments is voice or saxophone (during parts of the Soviet period, the saxophone was seen as a “dangerous” instrument signifying a connection with the capitalist West).  No longer did the composer “translate” a single mugham into symphonic media.  Instead, he fused several mughams (including Humayun, Segah, and Shur), inserted elements of the bardic tradition of ashiks, and integrated different strings into a passionate dynamic unfolding.  Not confined within an established mugham formula, his complex of different elements epitomized a powerful unified national consciousness.  

The gulistan (rose garden) is associated with motherland, the tone of the composition is dramatic and joyless.  The two solo instruments—piano and voice (or saxophone), a romantic duet sustained separately throughout the piece—converge only in the painful long-dying final chord.  The composition conveys a craving that emerged in Azerbaijan by the late 1960s, marked by increasingly rampant corruption and nepotism, as well as slowing of economic growth.  The response provided from Moscow was the appointment of Heydar Aliyev the First Secretary of Azerbaijan (1969).  Under Aliyev, according to Tadeusz Swietochowski (1995), Azerbaijan by 1974 “had risen to fourth position among union republics in industrial labor productivity and national income growth.” 

The year Amirov composed Gulistan Bayati Shiraz, a young group from Baku won the prime spotlight in the First International Jazz festival in Tallinn.  Among them was Vagif Mustafa-zadeh, who would become known as the creator of another fusion, mugham-jazz.  The unstoppable fingers of this virtuoso pianist—who played concertos by Edward Grieg and jazz classics by Thelonious Monk and who learned mugham from his mother, a music teacher—wove together harmony and rhythm, the driving force of jazz, with the intricate melodic filigree of mugham arabesque.  This was an act not only of musical innovation, but of artistic separation from the Soviet hold on Azerbaijani culture: Soviets generally held jazz in contempt, linking it with “degrading American capitalism;” Mustafa-zadeh’s rebellious personality, appearance, and behavior challenged socialist conventions and carved for him a somewhat ambiguous space in the socialist frame.

The end of the Soviet century and the beginning of an independent Azerbaijani state 

As the Soviet era approached its end, war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh, an historical center of mugham.  Major musicians living in Baku cherished Karabakh as their musical ancestral origin.  Among them, the late Vasif Adigozal, a celebrated composer (and student of Shostakovich), the son of Zulfi, a beloved Karabakhi khanande, travelled to the area in the early days of conflict on a peace mission.  Afterwards, he created the oratorio Karabakh Shikestesi.  His monumental composition exemplifies a seemingly impossible combination of the Eastern mugham and ashiq music with the Western genre of liturgical oratorio, performed by a full orchestra, large chorus, bel-canto soloists with a small mugham ensemble, a native tar solo, female and male khanandes, the imagery of ashiks, and folk songs.  In this multifaceted all-embracing musical canvas, the composer poeticized Karabakh gardens, an old mulberry tree, and a local flower, the ayangul.  The 1990 premier of the composition in Moscow turned into communal, familial, deeply personal expression, with Elchin Adigozal (the composer’s son) conducting and Tofig Adigozalov (the composer’s brother) singing one of the solos.  In 2006, Azerbaijan saw the premier of Adigozal’s last opera, whose title bears the name of Natavan.  The first act, picturing late nineteenth-century Garabagh, brings on the stage Hajibayov as a boy.  Natavan, an operatic soprano, is situated in both Western and Eastern contexts.  A European-type ball in the second act of this opera, in the style of grand opera and with a historical twist in the style of French historical novels, shows an encounter between Natavan and French novelist and traveler Alexander Dumas.  The following act relocates spectators to the majlis Urs, a school of mugham opened by Natavan.  No longer does mugham serve only as a basis of musical expression of characters, their feelings, and the storyline.  Rather, it becomes a central character, the focus of a scene that portrays traditional gatherings of mugham singers, older masters competing, younger students learning from them.  In this way, post-Soviet Azerbaijanis made mugham not only the language of their expression, but the personification of their cultural self-concept.  

Experiments with modern composing techniques and native musical lingua are apparent in the works of Faraj Garayev, an Azerbaijani professor of composition and a member of the experimental musical studio of Moscow Conservatory.  In his symphonic Hutba, Mugham ve Sura (1997), he included mugham (Second Movement) and taped Qur’anic chant interspersed with orchestral episodes (Third Movement).  Firanghiz Alizadeh, a winner of many International prizes and currently the chairwoman of the Azerbaijani Union of Composers, created Mugham Sayagi (In the style of mugham, 1994), which received its American premiere in Julliard and was recorded by the Kronos Quartet.  

The decline of the socialist empire led to wars and to Azerbaijani demographic, cultural, social changes, some invigorating, others ambiguously transformative.  Most importantly, however, Azerbaijan developed the agency, both in the political and social spheres, to choose and to carve out its own political, economical, and cultural destiny.  The 1994 signing of the “contract of the century” regarding the ACG fields reminds one of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, with international companies forming consortia to develop Caspian reservoirs.  However today, Azerbaijan itself is a key player in its own resource development, with the state-owned SOCAR (the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) developing and profiting from reservoirs and Azeri leaders signing contracts and treaties with international business and political partners.  

The country’s successful effort after the fall of Soviet power to make itself a subject and not just an object of history in the economic and political spheres was paralleled by similar drives in culture and music.  As it had a century earlier, cosmopolitan Baku again fostered an unmatched atmosphere of paralleled, overlapping, rivaling, and mutually enriching cultures.  In addition to multiple ethnic musical venues existing prior to the 1990s, Baku’s classical musical realm discussed above included mugham, Western classical culture, a national unique composing school, different ethnic folk traditions, and mugham-jazz.  While becoming a part of global culture and having an open and direct communication with the outside world, Azerbaijan turned into a rather homogeneous society. 

In recent years, the state has demonstrated strong support of multiple musical areas, mugham in particular.  The UNESCO recognition of mugham as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of the World (2003) and the commitment of the Azerbaijani state led to construction of an architectural marvel, the Mugham Center in the shape of tar on the Caspian Sea, and to the patronage of large-scale International Mugham Festivals.  

In various Western and Eastern cultures alike, musical traditions fall into two separate musical domains, which scholars identify as oral and written, improvised and composed music.  By contrast, during the last century, Azerbaijani composers and performers have acquired striking fluency in both, navigating and integrating these two.  Alim Gasimov, a beloved Azerbaijani khanande, well known in Europe and America, brings to international arenas a short piece by Firanghiz Alizadeh, Derwish.  Against the combined ensemble of European strings and Azerbaijani mugham group, Gasimov dialogues with Yo-Yo-Ma—voice and cello, the dramatic incantation of the khanande sitting cross-legged on a woven patch of carpet-gulistan and the human-like song voice of cello.  At the end of the performance on the stage of the Chicago Symphony, Alim invites Yo-Yo-Ma to improvise, and the latter holds a drone, while the “dervish” utters a short expressive solo. 

Oil and music, American West and Azerbaijani East entwined in the 2011 premiere of Alizadeh’s chamber opera, Your Name Means the Sea.  Commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera’s Song of Houston: East and West project, this opera portrays a romance between a young female artist from Texas, an American oil industry hub (Houston, a sister city of Baku) and an Azerbaijani mugham singer.  Her image and story, conveyed by a quartet of strings and flute, is wedded with his, expressed by tar, kamancha, and mugham singing.  

In the early twentieth century, Hajibayov introduced Azerbaijan to the opera by bridging the genre with national lore.  At the rise of the twenty-first century, Alim and his daughter, adapting Hajibayov’s first opera by “re-translating” it to mugham duet, introduced Leili and Majnun to American audiences.  Once “national in form,” Azerbaijani music today is complex, woven of many strands each affected by and reflecting the conflicting political and social texture of the last hundred years.  The twenty-one-year-old Azerbaijani state celebrates the dreams, inspirations, and energy of its youth, contemplates the wisdom and sadness of the long centuries, thinks through the intense drama of recent history, as it is lit by Zoroastrian fire with the oil flowing in the national pipelines—all expressed in the ever-changing and ever-intimately familiar all-embracing mugham. 

Selected References

Babayev, Elkhan (1990) Ritmika Azerbaijdzhanskogo Dastgah [The Rhythmics of an Azerbaijani Dastgah] (Baku: Ishig).

Hajibayov, Uzeyir (1985) Osnovy Azerbaidzhanskoi Narodnoi Muzyki [Foundations of Azerbaijani Folk Music] (Baku: Yazichi).

Mammadov, Tariel. Musiqi Dunyasi [The World of Music], Online Journal, available at: http://www.musigi-dunya.az/Magazine4/index.html (accessed 17 September 2011).

Mammadova, Rena (1985) Rol' Maye [The Role of Maye] (Baku: Akademiia Nauk Azerbaijana).

Naroditskaya, Inna  (2003) Song from the Land of Fire: Continuity and Change in Azerbaijani Mugham (New York: Routledge).

 (2011) “Musical Enactment of Conflict and Compromise in Azerbaijan,” in O'Connell, John Morgan & Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco (2011) Music and Conflict (Champaign: University of Illinois Press). 

Swietochowski, Tadeusz (1995) Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press).


[1] International development of Baku’s oil industry under the purview of the Russian Imperial government created economic partnerships that resulted in major technological developments that would become vital to the oil industry worldwide: the Zoroaster, the first oil tanker in the world, built in 1878 by the Nobel brothers, and the first transit pipeline, carrying oil from the Caspian reservoirs at Surakhany to the Nobel refinery in Baku.  By the beginning of the 20th century, Azerbaijan was responsible for more than fifty percent of the world’s oil production, surpassing American production with a total of 11.5 million tons of oil produced per year between 1899—1901.  The city became a crucible for a number of world prime financial and energy players, with participants including the Royal Dutch Shell company and the Rothschild, a vital European banking family.