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Bulletproof Punk

String Quartet and Contemporary Azerbaijani Composer Sucker-Punch Revivalist American Idiots

By Bob Massey | Posted 3/9/2005

Mugam sounds nothing like punk—neither the word nor the music. Especially when reinterpreted by the Kronos Quartet on Mugam Sayagi. This indigenous Azerbaijani art music opens with a lone, gentle, ruminative cello figure soon joined by a fluttering viola. Tentative violins break like dawn over desert. Pizzicato flurries interrupt. Then the long string lines return, restrained and tense. Suddenly, a violent barrage of octaves shatters the peace, evoking the war that raged nearby when the composer penned her score. The pace picks up, faster, faster. The metallic, martial shudder of a gong washes past. Then a high, searching violin figure comes in over an Eastern drone. A dancelike rhythm breaks down into the opening cello figure, as if the timeless landscape itself refused to acknowledge these little human skirmishes. The scene is alien, but the sentiment is common. Like punk, this mugam is tough and beautiful, angry and hopeful.

But modern punks are wusses by comparison. Try growing up in Azerbaijan under Soviet control. As a musician, you’re instructed to write patriotic anthems incorporating local folk-music traditions. That’s right: be Toby Keith or face arrest, beatdown, and permanent exile to an Arctic gulag where you break rocks.

You could speed your exile by playing degenerate, bourgeois, modernist Western music like John Cage, George Crumb, or Olivier Messiaen. You might as well fly an American flag in Red Square as publicly play avant-garde music. But music, like love, knows no borders, and one young Azerbaijani pianist named Franghiz Ali-Zadeh fell in love with Cage and his “decadent” cronies anyway.

Pre-glasnost, she could not have foreseen that the punkest of Western string quartets, the Kronos Quartet, would take up her cause circa 2005 by recording her compositions on Mugam Sayagi: Music of Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (Nonesuch). Nor could she have predicted that her own musical journey into dangerous modernism would lead her around to that place Soviet authorities wanted her to go—a homegrown sound inflected with indigenous themes. Rather, Ali-Zadeh struggled to pursue her vision, and to stay on the payroll and out of the work camps, as even her world-famous Soviet predecessors had struggled for 60 years.

Discussions of Soviet composition usually find their way back to Dimitri Shostakovich, a fascinating and cautionary case study. In the late 1920s, he was the young shining star who repeatedly got the high-modernist stuffing kicked out of him by Communist Party watchdogs. Anything perceived “bourgeois” practically begged for a one-way ticket to Siberia. So Shostakovich retreated into patriotically titled anthems.

Nowadays, historians and musicologists shriek like punk teenagers at this—“sellout” from one side, “closeted dissident” from the other. The truer picture shows two competing schools of composers—Shostakovich’s elite modernists vs. proletarian musicians who favored folk songs, marches, and propaganda—both in a race to kiss the most beloved revolutionary ass. The proles took an early lead in 1929, gaining authority under Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan. But within three years they had overreached and the modernists were back from exile, albeit emasculated by severe stylistic restrictions. The verdict from on high: Music had to be “accessible” for purposes of social engineering. Shostakovich, the greatest Russian composer of the 20th century, made lemonade.

“Social engineering” is a topic Azeris under Soviet rule learned a bit about. South of embattled Chechnya (what social engineering will get you), north of Iran: that’s Azerbaijan, on the shore of the Caspian Sea. The country is largely Muslim, and it’s got coveted oil reserves. Not quite Europe, nor Russia, nor Middle East, yet always caught in the middle of their disputes, Azerbaijan is where rock meets hard place.

Ali-Zadeh’s melding of mugam with modernism began as an accident, as many innovations do. Her father played the tar, a traditional lutelike instrument. But wary of dubious historical attempts to shoehorn folk themes into classical pieces—see “social engineering,” above—Ali-Zadeh decided Azerbaijan’s folk tradition didn’t need her help. However, the late-’70s resurgence of the more complex mugam form caught her ear. So did an Italian cellist who persuaded Ali-Zadeh to write him a piece to re-create the sounds of traditional Azeri instruments such as the kemancheh (a vertical fiddle) and the tar.

Around the same time, in California, the Kronos Quartet was strapping on Chuck Taylors and new-wave-y duds with the outlandish notion of casting its edgy 20th-century repertoire as a kind of adjunct postpunk. It worked, thanks to some highly unclassical choices, such as works by Jimi Hendrix and John Zorn. Kronos rapidly became the one string quartet every hipster had to have in the record collection. It was a brilliant stroke of reverse-engineering.

Since inception, Kronos has commissioned similar strokes of reverse-engineering. Ali-Zadeh’s earliest quartet for Kronos is Mugam Sayagi. It’s a wartime quartet, written in 1993 during a Russian-engineered fight between Armenian Christians and Azeri Muslims over disputed territory. The term “mugam” refers to a complex form of art music (as opposed to folk music) based on specific scales that to the Western ear sound like exotic, Persian minor keys. But an Azeri ear hears in the two parts of Mugam Sayagi first a deep melancholy and then a fierce aggression. In part, it’s the sound of someone threatened and depressed by distant meddling bureaucrats sending her friends to die over some theoretical policy concern. But also, like all mugams, it expresses a yearning to ascend from a lower level of awareness to a new transcendence. In a sense, one could say all war quartets—including those by Ali-Zadeh’s heroes: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in a German labor camp, and George Crumb’s withering Black Angels, composed in response to the Vietnam War—are mugams.

The current folk musics of America—country, punk, hip-hop—offer little to compare; hard bop-era jazz offers the closest musical parallel. Perhaps the closest emotional equivalent to a Soviet Azeri provincial melding modernism with mugam would be a quartet of D.C. kids ditching jazz for punk. The virtuosic alien blasts and unapologetic Negritude of Bad Brains defied ethnic expectations by absorbing the most invigorating music within reach, injecting a homegrown spiritual element, then publicly flaunting the idea until a distorted guitar is American blackness. They wrote mugams. Likewise, muscular modernist music is Azeri, because a badass Azeri forcefully says so.

Thankfully, Ali-Zadeh’s mugams bear little aural resemblance to the tired, inbred sound of “punk” present. Oasis (1998), Ali-Zadeh’s second quartet for Kronos, opens with the drip of water, echoed by the pluck of a string. High harmonics evoke the arid distance. But soaring melodies gradually emerge as anticipation grows. Men’s voices bark. Prayers are sent up. The oasis, however, is an illusion. The scene remains arid, closing with the same sad drip. You draw near, but that place—or person—can offer no rest. The alienation here keeps ringing in your ears.

The Aspheron Quintet (2000) is at once less familiar, more lush, and yet every bit as tough as blues-inflected jazz or riffy hardcore. The piano’s deep, rumbling tone clusters hit you in the sternum. The wailing strings could be sirens or anguished shrieks. Somehow raw and refined at once, it’s easy to believe that had this creature of Ali-Zadeh’s imagination been unleashed on the ears of Soviet watchdogs, they would have had to beat it off with their biggest stick.

Notice: In 2005 this constitutes an actual victory over actual oppression. Young American countercultural ennui, on the other hand, found its highest expression in the grumbly aftermath of the ’90s dot-com wipeout. Bummer. All along, the Kronos Quartet’s Chuck Taylors symbolized a sort of spiritual sucker-punch. Without warning, it roped the cool kids into its corner where it administered the real musical juice. And it keeps coming. Thank God it wasn’t just a pose: 30 years on, while pop suffers the second coming of new wave and punk has lapsed into retro caricatures such as Good Charlotte and Blink-182, Kronos continues to push the sonic envelope with composers who really did manage to take on the world. Perhaps punk is not dead after all.

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