Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Perfect Instrument and its Related History in Mongolia

I've been teaching "togoldor xuur" (pronounced like the following English words in succession: toggle - door - whore) i.e. piano at the local children's theater lately and have been working on my Mongolian music vocabulary as a result. I discovered this morning while studying some root words that "togs", the root of the word "togoldor" means perfect/complete and the word "togoldor" used alone has acquired the same meaning. "Xuur" traditional meant a two stringed instrument but is used in combination with a number of prefix words to name a number of other instruments. The idea that the word for piano is "the perfect/complete instrument" juxtaposed with the generally neglected state that most of these instruments are in made me wonder how this instrument got its name...

Classical music really wasn't around Mongolia before the 1920's. During that time Mongolia, with the assistance of Russia, drove Chinese troops out of the country. After the successful revolution the Russians didn't leave. In fact they did the opposite of leaving: they organized the government and infrastructure of the country, implemented a public education system, sought to get rid of organized religion, among other things. Because of all these reforms UB (the capital) grew enough to allow an entertainment and arts culture to develop. The Russian residents had an opera/ballet house, symphony orchestra hall, and other cultural building constructed. And with them came, naturally, the neccessary instruments.

Seems to me that this must be where the instrument got its name: they certainly weren't around before that time. Perhaps someone reading this that knows more about the Russian side of the story can inform us on this.

When the Russians left in the late 80's/early 90's they left their instruments behind, but without the educational infrastructure to support it. As a result many of these things fell into disrepair: I cite the requisite broken down piano in every soum (village) center (see also the blogs about trying to get the piano here in Bayankhongor ready for last May's concert). Another example: one of my piano students studies music at the national school of music. Her piano teacher Russia of course.

When we played the classical music concert this May it was the first classical music experience for many in the audience. Talking to some of Leslie's counterparts at the theater it seems that Mongolians, in general (dare I use such terminology!?) dislike or are indifferent to classical music. And unsurprisingly so! Imagine Mongolians running the States for about 60 years and bringing with them their traditional music. While it would certainly get some attention from citizens, it probably wouldn't be on the top 10 list. Similar deal here it seems.

Need not be this way. And to some extent, it isn't. The opera and ballet company is still performing though orchestra hall was burned in the July 2008 riots (what does that tell you? A political riot that involves burning orchestra hall...). I think that a lot of the apathy results from unfamiliarity. People simply haven't heard classical music. And if they have it is a small slice of what is out there.

Which leads us back to Bayankhongor and the 15 or so students studying both Mamu Nash Ir (folk songs) and Bach (even someone working on Chopin!):

The only person at the local theater that could theoretically be a piano teacher can't read music (this person hold a Bachelor's degree in music). So, what happens after I leave next year? A serious sustainability issue, that's what happens. My current thought is this: I have a handful of adult students and some very promising teenage students. If they can get far enough in the next year, they could teach after I leave.

In unrelated news the BACC received Wheat Grant funding this week with funds arriving in the back account next week: this means general happiness and lots of work to get done before the grand opening in September.

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