By Anne E. Johnson
BROOKLYN – Given that it’s Women’s History Month, March 23 was the perfect time for Qyrq Qyz (Forty Girls) to come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This amalgam of film, movement, and live music is a tribute to a popular ancient epic of Central Asia dating back some 2,000 years in which a teenaged girl gathers an army of her female friends to defend her village after her father is killed by the enemy.
Qyrq Qyz centers around video footage by Uzbek filmmaker Saodat Ismailova, credited as the project’s director. Rather than tell the story of the epic visually, she chose to film the natural and archeological world of the Karakalpak steppes, the region where the legend takes place. Breathtaking images of rock formations, sand- and scrub-covered landscapes, and buildings so old and wind-carved that they seem to grow out of the jutting stones are juxtaposed with vignettes of local women recreating ritualized actions: A woman strings huge beads to make a ceremonial necklace; the hennaed fingers of female villagers lift a round loaf of bread whose center cavity is filled with salt; someone slowly rakes a carved horn comb through her hair.
As the film rolled, the stage was filled constantly with music and poetry. Nine women, trained in traditional Central Asian musical techniques by the project’s co-producing Aga Khan Music Initiative, sang and played an array of regional instruments under the direction of Raushan Orazbaeva.
Mostly they played strings. There were two-stringed bowed lutes made from hollowed out nut-tree wood (qobyz, kyl-kiyak), a spike-ended fretless fiddle played on the knee (girjek), a small harp (chang), and two types of plucked lute (dutar and dombyra). Some tunes were delicate, some filled with longing, some as rambunctious as a hoe-down.
About half of the women took turns singing songs characterized by plaintive melodies and exquisite ornamentation, perfectly controlling their clear, expressive voices. Sadly, because no translations or even lists of the songs were provided in the program, there was no way for most of the audience to know what the women were singing about.
These moments of traditional tunes and songs were thrilling; I would have been happy simply to watch and listen to an ensemble of excellent musicians share ancient sounds from their homeland. However, that was not Ismailova’s vision. Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky was asked to create additional material in the form of short numbers and connective phrases. The arrangements of some of the traditional pieces seemed to bear his touch, too.
Yanov-Yanovsky’s music used a different harmonic and rhythmic language from the traditional music. It was more tonal and chord-based and more metrically crafted rather than based organically on the sound of the text, but it did complement the folk idiom well. For example, the first ensemble section, a rich polyphony for four a cappella voices, sounded newly composed, yet it slid seamlessly into an apparently traditional song arranged for solo voice, one of the plucked lutes, and girjek. (How it would have helped to have a translation! Were either the four singers or the soloist telling us about the legendary forty girls?)
Because there were no details in the program about particular numbers, the audience was left guessing what was old and what was new. Maybe that was part of the point: that there’s an unbroken musical lineage from the past to the present. But I feel confident giving Yanov-Yanovsky credit for a moving passage during the last section of Qyrq Qyz, played on four bowed lutes. It had the effect of turning the traditional Karakalpak timbres into a string quartet.
Although Alibek Kabdurakhmanov was listed as “conductor” in the program, his role during the performance was as percussionist. The armory of instruments in his back corner of the stage allowed him to contribute sounds both timeless (a bell or hand cymbal struck to mark the end of a vocal line) and contemporary (dissonant passages on the xylophone). His precise and complex playing was all the more remarkable for the fact that it was done without lighting and entirely by memory.
Many of the vocalists also recited poetry; thankfully, much of that was translated with subtitles over the film. Some verses seemed to be taken from the diverse versions of the Qyrq Qyz epic, but in general the text was less narration than ambience. Part of the poetry’s function was to delineate the four sections of the work. As Ismailova explained in an interview on BAM’s blog, “The structure of the whole performance is inspired by Zoroastrian cosmology and its four essential elements: earth, air, water, and fire.” While the poetry at the beginning of each section mentioned the element in question (a line about breath and wind at the start of “Air,” for example), the movements were difficult to distinguish in terms of their tone.
The presentation on the BAM Harvey Theater stage bolstered the sense of sameness. Séverine Rième provided both lighting design and choreography; the former was always dark and the latter always slow and ritualistic. The black stage (scenography and costumes by Kamilla Kurmanbekova) held no scenery except a mountain of hand-sewn traditional mats, called kurpachas, black-side up. At two points, some mats were flipped over to reveal intensely colored silk, but if that symbolism was integrated with musical changes, it was too subtle to understand on first viewing.
The traditional music covered many emotional states and, I would guess based on other folk traditions, originally functioned in various ways: as entertainment, education, dance music, or a pulse to work by. This staging gave no sense of that variety. Only the final section, “Fire,” finally broke through the slow solemnity. This is, after all, an epic about warrior girls, so it was satisfying to see imagery symbolic of war (those hennaed fingers now raising a dagger instead of a loaf of bread) and hear rousing music not softened by long-noted arrangements.
Qyrq Qyz is an interesting experiment and a rare chance for audiences to experience the traditional music of Central Asia. The concept of courageous young women banding together to protect their future could not be more relevant today. More translation, more information, and a wider range of expressive colors in the production would have given this inspiring story and these highly accomplished musicians a greater chance to shine.
Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.
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