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Tapestry of sound: a journey to the music of Azerbaijan and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh
by Zarya Alexandra Rubin for Vocal Area Network
Posted February 29, 2008

Mark ShapiroIf you happen to be in New York City in mid-March and are musically intrepid, you will have the opportunity to deconstruct any previously held notions of what choral music typically sounds like, and to feast your ears on something new, yet old. Under the nimble and inspired direction of Mark Shapiro, Cantori New York, a small ensemble known for its daring and innovative repertoire and impressive roster of premieres, will be entering foreign territory with the North American premiere of Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh's Gottes ist der Orient. This work for chorus, harp, organ and percussion, combines the poetry of Goethe with ancient Azeri texts.


If you had asked me a few months ago where to find Azerbaijan on a map, I'm not sure I would have been able to tell you. This tiny country, tucked in the Caucasus on the Caspian Sea, sandwiched between Georgia and Iran, has an incredibly rich tradition of music, art and poetry, influenced by successive conquering empires and changing religions throughout history. According to Siyavush Karimi, Rector of the new Azerbaijani conservatory, “Azerbaijan has such a vast, rich musical culture. The truth is that we have more music than oil.”

The industrial revolution and prosperity of the early 20th century prompted an influx of talented musicians and composers to Azerbaijan, producing a musical renaissance. One such composer is prodigal daughter Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. Born in the capital city of Baku, she studied piano and composition at the local conservatory where she would later become a professor of contemporary music. She has received numerous honors, including the annual award of the Azerbaijani Composers' Union, the title of “Outstanding Artist” from the Azerbaijan SSR, and most recently, the honorary title of “People's Artist of the Republic of Azerbaijan.” She participated with Yo Yo Ma in his renowned “Silk Road Project” and recorded a CD of traditional Azeri compositions with the Kronos Quartet. She has been described as “undisputedly, one of the leading women composers of today.”

In the past, musical education in Azerbaijan tended to emphasize Russian and Western composers over folkloric Azeri musical styles. Ali-Zadeh, although influenced by modern composers such as Alban Berg and John Cage, continues to infuse her work with the color and emotional genre of mugham.


Traditional Azeri music is based on the language of mugham, which encompasses a modal system and a style of musical performance, drawing from Arabic and Persian influences. Because mugham relies on ornamentation and improvisation, no two performances are ever replicated. The poetry of mugham is that of Arabic love, both sensual and platonic, arranged in sequences of short and long syllables. Mugham forms an integral part of Azeri culture and history, and is the predominant form of prayer and ritual, from weddings to burials.

Despite the quintessential role played by mugham in Azeri culture, and the richness of its musical texture, mugham is not considered to be “music” in the traditional sense; in Islamic thought it is believed that music is forbidden, or haram, for its potential to awaken unholy impulses in man. Mugham, therefore, is not perceived as music per se, but as spoken word, prayer, a devotional outpouring.

The musical structure of mugham is based on a series of modes or scales. It is monodic in nature, with a narrow tonal range and without much variation or melodic direction. To the uninitiated listener, its ornamentation and subtle repetitive structure may seem oblique; however, there is a melancholic beauty about these odd, minor modes that, although foreign to our Western ears, still evoke something primal and deeply resonant.


Musicologist and scholar Inna Naroditskaya has compared mugham to another classical art form integral to Azeri culture—carpet weaving: “In mugham and carpet, balance and symmetry result from the repetition of musical and visual motifs...The same symmetry seems to define the form of every small motif, pattern, and element of the carpet, each element having its own ‘tonal' centre and cadence.”

Both carpet weaving and mugham involve the interplay of symmetry and asymmetry, ornament and whimsy. These seeming “imperfections” demand attention; when we expect symmetry and receive asymmetry, we are drawn to the imbalance. In Islamic tradition, the depiction of people or animals is strictly forbidden; but, as music is disguised as mugham, so anthropomorphic forms are woven into geometric patterns, discernible only upon close scrutiny: “If live figures woven into a geometric ornament can be alternatively perceived as merely patterns, the recitation of mugham can be viewed as non-musical, the singer simply ‘reading' mugham...” says Naroditskaya.


When I spoke with Mark Shapiro, he shared his thoughts about the piece:

“In this four-movement work, I think Ali-Zadeh has zeroed in on certain states of feeling —social isolation, the promise of spring, a powerful but wordless mystical feeling, and a grateful love of life—that everyone can relate to...she draws on the musical vocabularies of both east and west in a way that transcends pastiche.” I asked him how Ali-Zadeh manages to achieve different tonal color and articulation for the sections in German as compared to the ancient Azeri interludes, and he explained, “[There are] melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic traces of Schumann... and Bach, respectively, in the scherzo-like third movement and the chorale-like finale, supporting Goethe's poetry. Then the interpolation and juxtaposition of ancient Azerbaijani poetry takes the music to another plane, with ecstatic short phrases overlapping in luminous imitation.”

When choirs attempt the avant-garde or bring less familiar works to audiences fed on a diet of traditional tonal fare, the response is not always favorable. Asked how he expects listeners to respond to Gottes ist der Orient, Shapiro replied: “Audiences will be agog at the sheer beauty of the sound, and the vivid presentation of the poetic texts... Any listener capable of responding to poetry, to the soulful poetic sensibility embodied in these texts, will light up at hearing the music.” He added: “I'm a fervent believer in the importance of presenting new and neglected repertoire...the key is to mix it up, as we are in this concert, which is a kind of sandwich, with Ali-Zadeh in between two delicious slices of Fauré.”


I'm out at a hip nightspot in Tribeca, when the manager, who turns out to be Azeri, and I are introduced. I'm eager to share my newfound fascination and respect for his culture, so I dazzle him by attempting to wrap my tongue around the few foreign syllables I can recall from the choral texts. Amazed, he occasionally understands me, and his eyes light up, beaming with national pride, when I tell him I will be performing Franghiz Ali-Zadeh's work: “You know our girl? This is wonderful!” And I feel then that music has the power to bridge worlds that are miles apart in language, in culture, and even in the color of sound.


Cantori New York will perform Franghiz Ali-Zadeh's Gottes ist der Orient along with the Fauré Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine on Sunday, March 16, 2008, 4 PM, at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

Zarya Alexandra Rubin is an ex-neurologist, former opera singer, a first soprano in Cantori New York and has now put Azerbaijan on her list of places to visit.

Content Contact: Zarya Alexandra Rubin.
Revision Date: February 29, 2008.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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