In 1977, two space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, respectively, were launched on a mission to reach the outermost planets, including Neptune. Among the twenty-seven pieces of music on the spacecraft record, a short track of Azerbaijani mugham performed on two balabans (a reed pipe like the Caucasian duduk) was included. Despite its close linkage to the particular region along the western Caspian shore, one should not think of mugham as ‘purely geographic,’ but rather as symbolic of interstellar discovery – new universes in the vast cosmos, and the human imagination. And indeed, if one needs to point out something intrinsically vital in the peculiar genre of mugham, it should be the vivid sense of movement and flow (of water), the musical feeling associated with star-lit, wind-swept steppes – the ones you see occasionally in old science fiction movies – each depicting ghostly landscapes on distant planets. While the voice of mugham surely speaks with ethereal “otherworldly” clarity and eloquence, it also remains quite invisible to our sight. The music of Central Asia and Azerbaijan (as opposed to the “Western” idea of contemporary commercial music) has never relied upon the desiring gaze of its voyeur, even if it has always developed in close bonds with the visual arts. The trick had always been not so much to see, as to hear the voice, faint and silvery, that comes ‘out of nowhere,’ and then try to locate its source inside the conduit. They sing to get their ‘blue’ fire out of them, spreading it around to a symphonic surround.

The oriental lavishness and ornamentation of mugham’s melodic structures are, not seldom, compared to the enchantingly diversified landscape of Azerbaijan with its dry steppes, mountainous areas, fertile oases, coastal winds, and sea breezes, as well as the geometric and abstract patterns on its carpets. In form, mugham is essentially avant-garde. The discontinuous, erratic, arrhythmic layers (or “structures” as they are referred to) of mugham are placed in service of mystifying the façades of its invisible city – its “acoustic space” (McLuhan). It has ambiguity, while its soundscape is full of mysteries; rhythmic and melodic patterns are further complicated by the extreme lack of order in this city, which enhances the presence of arrhythmia, intrinsic to the steppe ecology, correlating mugham to Faig Ahmed’s distorted, deconstructed carpets, such as “Synthetic Enlightenment” (Flood Series, 2016) or “Speech of the Birds” (Equation Series, 2016). The argument that landscape and climate determine the spirit [Geist] of music can be well supported by quoting Nabokov’s ‘The Gift.’ “[I]n the desert,” he there says, “I also saw and heard the same as Marco Polo: ‘the whisper of spirits calling you aside’ and the queer flicker of the air, an endless progression of whirlwinds, caravans and armies of phantoms coming to meet you.” Airiness and fluidity stand in stark contrast to irregular wall-like structures, which provides both the enticement and keeps listeners at a cool distance, precisely because mugham doesn’t allow for its demystification.

In Italo Calvino’s fantastic tales, the great Kublai Khan, Emperor of China, is resolute to hear (about) all those ‘invisible cities’ he has conquered, as if their living existence could only be proved by sounds, not visions. Being invisible, however, does not simply damn them to the realm of nowhere, since truth can be ‘heard’ invisible, and that which is true creates the visible things (e.g., signs). Mugham, then, is built on acoustic ‘invisible’ symbols rather than on visual (or visible) signs; the latter being more common in contemporary Western conceptions of music – in which music just depends on this “modern tendency to picture or visualize [its] existence” (Mirzoeff), e.g., via expensive music videos, extravagant staging, etc. So while modern music of the West generally announces, Central Asian music – being symbolic as it is – discovers and re-connects: “The sign indicates, the symbol represents; the sign transmits directly, the symbol indirectly or obliquely; the sign announces, the symbol reminds or refers; the sign operates in the immediate context of space and time; the symbol extends the frame of reference indefinitely [– i.e., infinitely]” (Dillistone). The former visualizes a spectacular ‘sound landscape’ with separate centers and rather ‘fixed’ boundaries – the latter has centers nowhere and expanding boundaries everywhere. Listened to in an internalized way, mugham becomes a form of meditation, and can be said to prefigure the advent of our increasingly intangible world, which is now shaped by ethereal streams of symbols.

Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh, an immensely talented pianist and keyboard artist from Baku, has revolutionized symphonic mugham by being the first to combine it with the Western jazz tradition. Starr described it as “a provocative crossbreed of the music of ‘Scheherazade’ and that of Minton’s Playhouse.” This is a fair appraisal (taken and transcribed from Bob Rusch’s Cadence #12). With the exception that Mustafa-Zadeh’s counter-rhythmic jazz compositions are much more akin to the natural voice of the nightingale in the Emperor’s garden, which extended so far, that no one knew the end of it, than the fictive Arabian Nights’ entertainment. Mugham composition has a complex cyclic structure, in which improvised parts (shoba) correspond to fixed, composed interludes that are either song-like (tasnif) or dance-like (rang). In shoba, virtuoso singers such as the Azerbaijani vocalist Alim Qasimov demonstrate their improvised, spontaneous vocal style, which is high in meditative if hypnotizing capacity; the set pieces provide both the artist and the audience with the opportunity to ease up and use the downtime to ready oneself for the next stage or level of improvisation. Mugham exists in vocal, instrumental, and mixed styles/types. — Well, since this is the first part of a long series about music in Central Asia in general – and Azerbaijan in particular – I will content myself with focusing on specific elements of mugham while flying over the rest in a sort of pictorial vision, a bird’s eye view. The next part shall certainly ‘call up’ a new visuality.

To be continued…