Fri, Sep 14, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Sounds of the steppes

The Mongolian State Morin Khuur Ensemble revives the musical legacies of Genghis Khan's nomadic culture

By Ho Yi  /  Staff Reporter

Mongolian State Morin Khuur Ensemble has mined its national heritage to take the sonorous and resonating tunes of the steppes to audiences worldwide.
Photos: courtesy of New Aspect Cultural and Educational Foundation

When Genghis Khan's army ravaged Eurasia eight centuries ago, the formidable Mongolian worriers brought along not only swords and spears, but also chants and musical instruments. The morin khuur, a Mongolian horse-headed fiddle, has been one of the country's most adored folk-music instruments, playing out the sounds of the steppe even before the time of Khan. Now, this culturally significant instrument has been revived by the Mongolian State Morin Khuur Ensemble (蒙古國家馬頭琴大樂團), which will stage three performances in Taipei and Kaohsiung starting Thursday.

Identified by UNESCO as a masterpiece of oral heritage, the morin khuur has only two strings made of horsetail hairs. Despite this, its musical spectrum is wide enough to mimic everything from a soft breeze in the grasslands to horses galloping on the steppe. Playing it involves nimble manipulation of the finger pads, fingernails and the backs of the fingers. Its register is somewhere between a viola and cello.

Yet, unlike the mellow sounds produced by the Western arched instruments, the square sound box lends the music a feeling of hollowness. "The sound of the morin khuur has a sense of vastness and expansiveness, like going through all the vicissitudes of time but still holding pride and dignity,"said Hsu Po-yun (許博允) of the New Aspect Cultural and Educational Foundation (新象文教基金會), who has spent years studying and collecting ancient musical artifacts from Central Asia and has taken up the mission to introduce the sonic marvels from the little-known culture to local audiences.

For its Taiwan debut, the 30-member Mongolian ensemble will be joined by renowned vocalists of urtiin duu (folk long-song) and khoomii (overtone, throat singing), which are also native to Mongolia. Other artists will enrich the sonic portrait of mountains, rivers, animals and everything that is part of the nomadic way of life.

Performance Notes:

What: Mongolian State Morin Khuur Ensemble (蒙古國家馬頭琴大樂團)

Where and When: Thursday and Sept. 21 at 7:30pm at the National Concert Hall (國家音樂廳); Sept. 22 at 5pm at the outdoor square of Kaohsiung Music Hall (高雄音樂館戶外廣場)

Tickets: NT$400 to NT$2,000 for Taipei concerts, available at NTCH ticket outlets or through www.artsticket.com.tw


Commonly accompanied by morin khuur, urtiin duu is sung in verses, employing a wide vocal range, while khoomii features bi-tonal chanting soaring from penetrating low droning hums to sonorous high-pitched whistles.

Consisting of a morin khuur quartet, yatga, a Mongolian-zither quartet and percussion group, the ensemble will perform folk music and compositions by Natsagiin Jantsannorov.

Jantsannorov was a Mongolian cultural minister noted for his ingenious fusion of traditional Mongolian sounds with contemporary music. The author of the music to several films, Jantsannorov has more than 200 compositions to his name, many of which have traveled across the world with the ensemble that has performed in world-famous theaters such as the Bolshoi Theater of Russia, Carnegie Hall in the US and the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. Lauded as Mongolia's Mozart, Jantsannorov will hold a lecture on Mongolian music Tuesday at the National Recital Hall (國家演奏廳).

Apart from yatga, which was traditionally played for the pleasure of royal families, other Mongolian treasures will make their first appearances in Taiwan today, according to Hsu. These include the Tobshuur, or two-stringed lute, and an ancient harp-like instrument used to play melodies in the same style as "throat singing." Both instruments are a common feature of the tribal music of Central Asia and South America.

For their second performance in Taipei, the Mongolian ensemble will team up with the Youth Orchestra of the Taipei Chinese Orchestra (台北市立國樂團青年國樂團) to perform contemporary Han-Chinese and Taiwanese tunes, which have been adapted to the sounds of the morin khuur and yatga.

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