The Pearl of Muğam Philosophy: Qəzəl Poetry and Musical Hermeneutics in Independent Azerbaijan.
Abstract: The 650th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s beloved poet Imadaddin Nasimi (1369–1417) in 2019 was marked by two compositions in which his famous qəzəl “Sığmazam” was set to music. Qəzəl poetry is usually performed in muğam, a branch of traditional Azerbaijani music, and its unorthodox use by pop stars in these two compositions sparked intense debates. In this article, I discuss how the deep significance and instrumentality that qəzəl poetry holds in the post-Soviet context explains the powerful impact of the two pieces. I show how interpretation and imagination of qəzəl meanings in muğam, especially the theme of the beyond, is a way to make social and political realities and articulate post-Soviet subjectivities that emerge through the narrative of loss and in relation to beliefs about the Soviet past.
Affective Hermeneutics: Love, Mugham and Post-Soviet Azerbaijani Subjectivities
Abstract: Learning mugham in post-Soviet Azerbaijan often led to intimate conversations about eşq or irresistible desire for a beloved—the central meaning of sung ghazal poetry and a form of intensity experienced during performances of mugham. In this article, I present an approach I call “affective hermeneutics” that shows how the interpretation of love turns into an affective force that moves beyond the boundaries of the mugham musical model found in standard pedagogy. Moreover, it is my contention that affect in mugham performances becomes a tool to forge post-Soviet subjectivities, characterized by paradox and liminality, and best expressed in sounds at the edges of the mugham model.
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.