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Finding the Musical ‘Meeting Point’ Our Students Seek
Sergio Escalera, pianist; Cofounder, La Sociedad Boliviana de Música de Cámara; Global Leaders Program alumnus
“The best way to ‘know’ a thing is in the context of another discipline.” — L. Bernstein
In recent months, a former student of mine, Nûrshîn, sent me a text message asking me for advice. I was glad to hear from her. I had met her in southeastern Turkey in 2016, and had given her piano lessons, accompanied for her violin and kemancheh lessons, and coached her as she took up singing. She was Kurdish and had recently gone back to her native town in northern Syria.
She followed up her first text with an incredibly insightful reflection on the aesthetics of music as perceived by a Kurdish music student. In particular, she addressed a pressing difficulty: keeping up her classical music training at home while at the same time pursuing a strong need to assert her identity through Kurdish traditional music. She was searching for a meeting point where the music she was told was “universal”—that is, Western classical music—could connect with the feeling, mood, and sounds that are characteristic of her land and her roots.
The questions put forth by my inquisitive former student were very broad, and could only be answered by posing even more questions to her and to myself. This is a time when many people across the globe are asking questions regarding the present and future of classical music as we know it.
For the peoples of the Middle East, especially, this is a crucial time to question the hegemony of Western classical music and to reassert their own musical traditions. During the last five years, I’ve been able to observe the way this has played out in the historical regions of the Armenian Highlands and Mesopotamia, where both Armenian and Kurdish musical traditions—two traditions with a common root—are indigenous. I remember Nûrshîn singing Kurdish folk melodies even before we started having music lessons; many of the tunes she sang were familiar to me from the time I lived in Armenia. Numerous songs, melodies, poems, and recitations are exactly the same in the Kurdish and Armenian traditions, born of hundreds of years of living side by side and sharing common aspects of daily life. I have even heard many folk singers in Armenia sing their traditional songs with lyrics in Kurmanjî—the Kurdish language spoken mainly in Turkey and Northern Syria, and also by the Yazidis in Armenia— as a testimony of their shared musical legacy.
Why did the common tradition split into different paths? There are numerous reasons, and 20th-century political developments played a big role. After the Armenian Genocide of 1915, Armenia became part of the Soviet Union and was much influenced by its strong western classical-oriented institutions: music schools opened, the Yerevan Opera Theater was inaugurated, the first ballets were performed, and conservatories and other institutions flourished. In contrast, Kurdish music stayed oriented to longtime traditions largely associated with those of modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, where most of the Kurdish population live. As a result, the shared musical tradition diverged. An example is the popular tune “Desmala Min,” which is sung and played by many Kurds using folk ornaments, quarter-tones, and modal harmony. The same piece (with a different name, “Al Aylughs”), when played by Armenians, is often played in a diatonic scale, with a more “classical” or “Western” taste in the way it is arranged, harmonized, and phrased by Armenian musicians.
There is much to reflect on here—especially because culture is such a vital way for threatened populations to advocate for their unique identities. One might wonder what possible sound worlds could be created if a wider array of sources contributed to Kurdish music and population to create symphonies, sonatas, various ensemble music, or ballets. On the other hand, one wonders if the Armenian connection to the sounds of the Middle East has been weakened in favor of an artistic identity that appeals to Europe and Russia.
The question of integrating western classical music with students’ strong pull toward Indigenous folk music resonates throughout music education in many different parts of the world. One possible answer points toward deconstructing the established practices that prevent classical musicians from connecting to larger audiences or larger social strata. Taking care to adapt lesson/concert formats, or to curate conservatory curricula, so that they are more resonant and meaningful within local musical contexts, are practices becoming common among many music education projects. But perhaps we could also address even more basic aspects of music teaching and learning. For example, after discussing and experimenting with Kurdish folk music on the violin, Nûrshîn started to question the fundamental principles of violin tuning and ornamentation in Western classical music, paving the way towards a more informed understanding of both sound worlds. There is invaluable richness in Indigenous musical traditions that have not undergone the process of equal temperament or other practices that standardized music-making in Europe and elsewhere.
Creating our own material for a student’s first contact with written music is also an idea worth exploring, especially if such material can build a bridge between their Indigenous music and western technique and notation. There is much to learn from the innate connection a child has with local music and sounds, and also from the permeability of neighboring musical cultures like those of the Armenians and the Kurds.
Going back to Nûrshîn’s questions: she is surely not demanding the emergence of a piece, a genre, or a composer that could soften the edges of musical manifestations that seem to have little connection with one another. She is essentially asking herself the question of how she can best connect with the music she hears, she feels, and she plays, regardless of its origin.
It is a question worth asking. As is the question of how to musically express an authentic universality for one nation, for one region of the world, or for oneself, in this highly turbulent moment of our existence.