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The Lost Sounds of Maqom

A small band in Uzbekistan is trying to wrest a traditional musical form from its contemporary, Westernized version.

by Dengiz Uralov 7 May 2014

Maqom, one of Uzbekistan’s oldest musical traditions, does not sound the way it once did. Under the influence of European forms, its ancestral tunes have been erased from memory, its trademark improvisation left behind in favor of written melodies.


Traditional Uzbek maqom has become the province of only a few enthusiasts, who are trying to reconstruct how it sounded before it was steamrollered by modernity.


Maqom, as it's called in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – it goes by different names in different countries – is a system of harmonies indigenous to Arabic, Persian, and Turkic music. The original Arabic name is maqam, meaning “a place for something.” All its traditions fall under the umbrella term maqomat.


Dzhakhongir Shukurov explains the principles of his progressive maqom notation to students and musicians. Photo by Sukhrob Nazimov.


Traditionally, maqom squeezed 17 notes into an octave, five more than in European musical notation, creating sounds that can be difficult for Westerners to identify. Its practitioners improvised their way through cycles of musical poems (maqoms), each of which contained 20 to 40 instrumental and vocal parts. Maqoms tend to have a melancholy air.


But maqom is more than music, according to Uzbek composer Dzhakhongir Shukurov, curator of the Maqomat project, which seeks to explore the traditions of the form and to bring a forgotten musical theory back to performance.


Maqom combines philosophy, astronomy, psychology, poetry, mathematics, music, and medicine,” Shukurov said. “When a musician touches a string, it divides into several parts, and each of these parts begins to vibrate. These vibrations create sound waves, which affect certain points in the human body.”


That view of maqom goes back at least as far as the 11th-century Persian thinker and medical pioneer Avicenna, or Ibn Sina, who used to prescribe visits to musicians so that patients could have certain combinations of notes played for them, Shukurov said. Each disease had its own combination, called parda.


Shukurov said he recently discovered “amazing mathematical symmetry” in a maqom titled Rost, well-known in parts of Central Asia, Iran, and Turkey.


But what a modern listener hears in a maqom is very different from what audiences in the 17th and 18th centuries would have heard.



Only a few theoretical papers describing ancient maqoms have survived. Those we hear now are the result of a gradual erasure of traditions. Musicians no longer fill maqom modes with their own melodies, instead playing and singing from sheet music – written using the European 12-note system, which can’t transmit all the information stored in a maqom.


That happened when maqoms started to be recorded, first on paper, then with early recording devices. Those improvised compositions became canonical: teachers passed them on to their students, while the theory of maqom was forgotten.


“Perhaps due to the canonization of melodies, maqom survived to our times, but it lost itself, with all the musicians now just playing standard tunes,” Shukurov said.


Even the tanbur, a string instrument used for performing maqoms, is built for improvisation, Shukurov explained: instead of fixed frets it has ropes that can be moved up and down the neck. This was done so that musicians could untie frets and move them every time, rearranging the tanbur to a specific maqom mode,” he said.


Contemporary musicians don’t give much thought to such things, he said.


That cultural amnesia was abetted when Europeans came to Central Asia in the 20th century and started recording maqom in their own 12-note notation.


In the early 1920s Russian composer Viktor Uspensky was treated to a performance of a maqom by the best musicians of the court of the Emir of Bukhara, in what is now a province of Uzbekistan, Shukurov said. Uspensky wrote down the piece using European notation and putting question marks over notes that he could not identify in the 12-note range.


“But when his book Six Musical Poems was published in 1924, these ‘ghost notes’ appeared without question marks. And 17-note music became 12-note music,” he said. “Modern Uzbek musicians still consider that book canonical. They don’t care that there are 12 notes and not 17. Musical schools teach maqoms with this notation – and what makes you a professional is knowing more tunes than others, not knowing the theory.”


But Shavkat Matyakubov, a well-known maqom singer, tells a different story about the disappearance of the old form, which he believes was no accident. Rather, he said, tradition gave way to a drive to stamp out improvisation and create the “perfect Soviet maqom.”



“Our teachers were forced to rethink and rewrite their maqoms using a European note system; otherwise maqom as a genre would have been destroyed,” Matyakubov said. “So in that way, it was a plus – only with help of that wave was maqom recorded and managed to survive through time. It was a kind of sacrifice.”


Now, he said, “we are trying to use notes and ornaments from the ancient traditions” that are preserved in the works of a few classical musicians, some living, some dead.


Matyakubov, who learned to play maqoms in European notation, said the work of Shukurov’s Maqomat project was a revelation to him.


In addition to reviving the lost theory of the form, Maqomat aims to get musicians and composers interested in traditional maqoms and to create a new notation system to capture all the nuances of maqom. Enthusiasts pore over ancient treatises and confer with musicians, collecting and comparing the surviving scraps of information.


The new notation system under development allows musicians to record microtonal (17-note) ornaments and melodies and musicologists to study the form, Shukurov said.


But despite being supported by the Omnibus Ensemble, a well-known performance and educational organization in Tashkent, those on the Maqomat project labor in relative obscurity. Shukurov said most musicians in Uzbekistan believe their way of playing maqom is the only right way.


Matyakubov said veteran maqom musicians cannot accept that they have for years used an inaccurate notation system, for fear of losing their authority in the field. But the reformers say a few young ensembles in Uzbekistan are moving in the same direction as Maqomat and are eager to learn more about the ancient traditions.


Matyakubov lamented that maqom is appreciated only by a small elite in Uzbekistan.


"Maqom is a complex music, and in ancient times it was almost only aristocrats listening to it,” he said. Ordinary people preferred dastans, or musical epic poems. 


“And today people want to have fun, and our sad maqoms aren’t suitable for weddings and celebrations,” Matyakubov said. “In essence, it's all the same to people if there are 17 or 12 notes in an octave. There are fewer masters of maqom remaining in the country than the number of notes.”

Dengiz Uralov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Tashkent.
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