“Musical and Ontological Possibilities of Mugham Creativity in pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet Azerbaijan” (PhD Dissertation)
Abstract: The different angles from which the phenomenon of mugham creativity can be approached all point to the significance of sung ghazal poetry. Even in instrumental renditions of mugham, the overriding presence of sung texts manifests itself through the musical structure, pace, technique and, most importantly, an imaginative and interpretive engagement with meanings that musicians undergo. In this dissertation, the link between music and poetry and its role in mugham creativity are investigated from both diachronic and synchronic perspectives. First, pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet contexts are examined to reveal how changes in musical and textual parameters influenced creativity and shaped its historical trajectory in Azerbaijan. Second, native terminology, musical examples, characteristics and experiences of creativity are explored using hermeneutic phenomenology in order to shed light on the creative process in the moment of performance. It is my contention that interpretation based on meanings in ghazal poetry that are rooted in Islamic sciences opens up both musical and ontological possibilities for musicians embarked on the mugham journey. This creates a state that is often difficult to express discursively as musicians themselves resort to phrases such as “revelation”, “explosion of thinking”, and “the self is taken from the self” that show only the limits of language to explain what goes on. The dissertation concludes with questions about how scholarship can further our understanding of the enigmatic flashes of musical discovery that are essential to Azerbaijani mugham and to musical traditions across cultures.
“‘An Elder in Punk Clothes’: Purged Frets and Finding True Mugham in post-Soviet Azerbaijan” (article)
Abstract: Today one encounters a striking diversity of approaches when it comes to the arrangement of scalar intervals on the tar, Azerbaijan’s primary national instrument. Frets are moved, added, omitted according to the idiosyncrasies of each musician. Each tonal scheme is fervently defended and justified by various factors such as aesthetic taste, a putative knowledge of pre-Soviet mugham, the desire to highlight an ‘Eastern’ nature of mugham, ‘mission from above’, and even suggested contact with the dead. What once was a rigid structure during Soviet times has now become flexible, unhinged from the past by the experimentation, innovation, restoration and reconstitution of musicians. Through an analysis of this extended creative moment, I theorise the many attempts to reintroduce extra frets as nativism. Instead of trying to find a pattern or argue for which version is historically valid, I stress the importance of all attempts as forms of decolonial activity.