The Augmented Fifth – 5/3/2019

Friday, May 3, 2019


Point of View: Fifth House Ensemble in Tuva

What does a chamber music group do in Tuva, a location known for its unique musical style? Any time we visit a new location or work with new collaborators, our goal is to learn as much as we can in the short amount of time we have—to give our brains some new wrinkles. I went into this trip knowing that music was important to Tuvan people, but I had no idea how imbedded music is in the culture.

Our first day: Meeting Alash!

After an eventful time at Abakan Airport and some much needed sleep in a location that was not hurtling through the air or zooming across pavement, we met our collaborators. Alash Ensemble is made up of three masters of Tuvan music: Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, and Ayan Shirizhik. Sean Quirk, Alash’s interpreter and manager, and Dolana Sarygbay, another interpreter and student of computational linguistics, made up the group that we would most regularly interact with.

The Centre for Tuvan Culture (founded in 2012) is a large, two story wooden building with a statue of Kongar-ol Ondar, a legendary Tuvan musician and the founder of the Centre. We dove right into a rehearsal on The Amphibian, a commission from William Pearson that demonstrated how masterful Alash was. With Sean in the room—Sean is also a musician—we were able to discuss some of the more complicated elements of the music as a group and ensure that everyone was on the same page (sometimes literally).

Between rehearsals, we would head to the Yert next to the Centre, open the tiny red door, and crawl through for meals of lamb and rice while we talked about our lives and got to know each other better. The fact that Melissa was vegan led to a recurring joke that vegetarians eat “The food of my food.” That one stuck and we brought it back with us.

Meeting Tuvan People

Equally important to the music we were preparing with Alash was meeting and interviewing different people from Tuva. Especially in Tuva, the rich musical heritage seems to stretch across all walks of life.

I didn’t get to be at all the interviews, but I did meet a Shaman and a sheep herder. The Shaman led us to his yert full of instruments and tools he had made from different parts of animals. Skins, claws, and bones dangled from his belt as he donned his colorful vest and shared stories of his childhood, growing up on a farm and becoming aware of his Shamanic gift. The herder’s home was quaint, but warm and welcoming. A low table in the living room served as our dining area as they brought out a tray of freshly-killed sheep. Sean was chatting with our hosts in Tuvan while we ate, and the herder showed us how to cut off some of the best parts of the sheep using a huge knife resting on the table.

The people we met generally talked about the importance of family and of Tuvan music in Tuvan culture. Despite the distance between people (Tuva is a huge republic), it seems that they know their neighbors and are proud of their Tuvan heritage.

What I learned

We met dozens of people and traveled to many beautiful locations in less than 4 days, and between those locations were long van rides where I got to talk to Sean and Dolana more in-depth about Tuvan history. One thing that stuck with me is that Tuvan music was banned by the Soviets, along with music of many other former Soviet colonies, but Tuvan music and culture survived where other colonies’ music and culture did not. This puts Tuvan music in a different light, for me. The fact that it remains present today is because of Tuvan people’s commitment to their culture and protest of government control through art. This passion for Tuvan culture seems to come and go in waves within the republic of Tuva, according to Sean and Dolana, and I can only hope that our collaboration with Alash can paint a realistic picture at the lives of Tuvan people through their own words.

By Eric Heidbreder

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