Brubeck, Subodai, and the Wine Dark Sea
Happy New Years, all. More on that later.
It's a bit incredible to think that I'm almost six months into This Tuvan Life. The last month or so hasn't seen too many new developments, though I feel that I am settling more and more comfortably into the Tuvan way of thinking, a process that shows its results in my music, language, and everyday outlook. It's kind of fun. I now know why there's such thing as a "turkologist" while we don't speak of "indo-europeanists" or "germanicists." It's not so much a way of life as a strange and fascinating rewiring of the brain. I've begun to dream in Tuvan, which I suppose is an important step and allows me to actually study in my sleep, though I don't know if the dreams are original Tuvan productions yet or still just cheap overdubs.
I think I wrote once about how Fedor Tau tried to teach me to sing borbangnadyr. The most effective lesson was when he got me to pretend I was riding a horse while singing. A similar thing is going on now in my igil playing as Sergei is teaching me different bowing techniques: the galloping horse, the walking horse, the walking camel (kind of like the walking horse, but slower). All the horse thinking helps to make sense out of the crazy time signatures that these songs are played in: 5/4, 7/4, 11/8. When I was first beginning to learn igil, I was reminded of the work of Dave Brubeck. You can imagine my delight, then, when I opened up the liner notes of the Columbia Brubeck collection and read a quote from the great man: "The first polyrhythms I thought about were when I was riding horseback . . ." I am more eager than ever to get back out onto the steppe, back into a yurt, and back onto a horse. If only it would warm up . . . There are certainly still good days and bad days with the igil --- days when those two strings sound like four and days when that knot forms in the back of the throat that you usually save for special occasions, like fifth-grade orchestra concerts or getting your toenails removed.
In singing xoomei I am also beginning to experience and experiment with new techniques --- half the fun is trying to figure out where these new sensations are coming from and then to believe that they are happening. The latest failed attempt to increase the resonance of my singing was to exhale with the lower half of my lungs while simultaneously trying to inhale with the upper part. Other than learning how to crack my sternum, I accomplished very little in this pursuit. Nevertheless, lessons are coming along well. Actually, I imagine that they're much like singing lessons are anywhere in the world --- just me and my teacher in a room singing the same passages over and over to get the intervals right --- only there's all these extra notes flying around. It's really cool.
One interesting example of the process of getting into the Tuvan mind has been learning how Tuvans orient themselves in space and time. In Europe and America, we orient ourselves as if looking downward at a map on a table, with North facing forward. To a Tuvan, the ideal orientation is to be on the south side of a mountain, standing with one's face to the south in front of a yurt that is also facing south. The mountain takes on the characteristic of the human form --- its head, shoulders, elbows, belly, and the hem of its robe correspond to that of the person standing on its front. On the back of the mountain grow the trees; on the front of the mountain is the sunlight and the good grazing land. It all smacks of geomancy and Feng Shui --- the geography-mind that has existed in this part of the world for millennia. It is no accident that a "proper" nomad camp is laid out in the same way as the great palaces of Imperial Japan. Furthermore, this orientation takes in the flow of time, which is also seen in a completely different way that what I am used to. The past spreads out before one --- it is the sum of all things that have happened and thus that can be seen. The future stretches towards the North, towards the shadowy valleys hidden by the mountain. The Tuvan phrase for "day before yesterday' literally means "the day to the south," while "the day after tomorrow is "the day to the north." Days before or after these are seen farther and farther to the south and north. Unlike the ambitious Westerner, who goes charging forward into the future, the Tuvan imagines time to wash over them, exposing new experiences to view.
While trying to wrap my head around this way of seeing the world, I've also been a little confused about the Tuvan words for various colors. Most puzzling has been how the word for "black" can be used to describe a pure, cold mountain stream or the lover that you left back at camp. Round about Christmas I was doing the local Christmas thing --- that is, nothing spectacular, just sitting at my desk turning a 2800-word Tuvan-Russian glossary into a 2800-word Tuvan-Russian-English glossary --- when I came across a word that means something like "to turn blue, or gray, or green, or maybe some other mid-tone color" It struck me that the concept of luminosity might be an inherent aspect of the Tuvan color vocabulary and that "kara," usually translated "black," might have the implication of "pure and gleaming." Thus "ongnuk," literally "colorful," can also mean "bright" --- like new snow in the sunlight. My immediate thoughts were of Homer (when in doubt, one's thoughts should always come back to Homer) and the idea that ancient Greeks saw color in terms of luminosity: thus the "black mountain spring" might just be the Tuvan equivalent of the "wine-dark sea". It's a bit like living in a world created by Monet --- I can't wait until I learn that trick
True to my former academic pursuits, learning a language spoken by 200,000 people in the world has proven to be altogether too practical for me and last week I began learning the Turkic language that the ancestors of modern Tuvans banged into stones over 1000 years ago. This means that, with the four languages I've begun studying in the past five years (and disregarding English, which is less a language than an acoustical patchwork of linguistic leftovers), I can communicate with all of about 200,000 people in the world. At this rate, it will take about an ice age and a half before I can communicate with everyone in the world. Some of you might say that I've merely realized a new level of linguistic folly; I prefer to think of it in the light that I am learning the language with which Genghis Khan exhorted his cavalry to storm across Asia. I feel like such a language cowboy. Actually, if the old G. Khan had used this language, he would have been laughed off the podium --- a bit like Dubbya giving the State of the Union in Shakespearean English. Besides, even after my time in Rome, I haven't had my fill of epigraphy (which is, after all, so much more than just a word with "pig" in it) and it's comforting to again be reading something set it stone . . . as they say.
Actually, I chose to learn Ancient Turkish for a few very good reasons. Linguistically, it's quite close to Tuvan and it has already confirmed many of my speculations about Tuvan morphology and etymology. More importantly, though, the runic script is far more suitable for portraying the full range of Tuvan phonemes. One of the worst things that has happened to Tuvan, in my opinion, has been it's confinement to the Cyrillic script. The Tuvan alphabet as it stands now recognizes the difference between soft and hard vowels, but it doesn't recognize the variations that these vowels cause in their neighboring consonants. (for instance, the difference in the "k" sounds of the words karam and kelir --- go ahead, say them out loud and feel where the "k" comes from. This is how I spend my time.) The runic alphabet, on the other hand, has one letter to represent the sound "k" when used with soft vowels and another when used with hard vowels. The same is true for t, r, d, and several other letters. Those consonants which remain unchanged regardless of the vowels used are represented by only a single character. Such are m, z, and a few others. Since the performance of xoomei relies on the proper formation of vowels, I'm hoping to learn and understand the subtle differences in Tuvan pronunciation that come intuitively to a native speaker but must be force-fed to tall awkward foreigners. I've had three lessons so far, which means I know most of the grammar there is to know and I can settle down and spend my evenings reading inscriptions about people named Tonyukuk and Isvara Tamgan Chor Yavgu. The Turkic people who spoke this language, by the way, having not yet adopted the orientation of their Mongolian and Chinese neighbors, built their yurts facing east and thus, as their inscriptions say, traveled "forward to the sunrise' and "back to the sunset." I've already had one dream in Tuvan with runic subtitles, but I can't say if the translation was any good.
Life in Kyzyl at the beginning of the year has been progressing by fits and starts --- what with a three-day week after New Years followed by another short week for the Orthodox Christmas. In the week before the New Year, a series of ice towns appeared all over the city. Apparently there's some sort of competition and each neighborhood tries to build the most spectacular complex of slides, animals, and mazes. On New Years Eve, our neighborhood ice town was packed with kids and parents riding the ice animals, sliding down the slides, and shooting Roman candles into the yolka tree. After hearing stories about how wild the Russian New Year celebrations are, I was quite surprised when, at 11 PM on the 31st there wasn't any sign to suggest that it wasn't just another night of the year. At 11:15, though, I was called into my neighbors" apartment for champagne, vodka, Putin's New Year speech to the nation on the TV, and a huge meal. Afterwards, we went outside, where the kids were playing in the ice town, and met up with some friends of my neighbors'. Then the celebrations began as we started making rounds to everyone's houses for more food and toasts. At the first house we visited, there was a bottle of Laphroaig Scotch Whisky, and I, as the Westerner, became the official taster to tell them whether it was real or just a Russian bootleg. Having never tasted Laphroaig before, my decision that it was genuine was based almost as much on the fact that the English on the label was too correct to be a bootleg as it was on the flavor, which was also more than I would credit any hack job with. I called it an early evening --- heading back to my apartment around 3. The rest promised to keep partying until 5 in the evening.
The days are already noticeably longer than they were three weeks ago --- which makes me think (perhaps foolishly) that it should start warming up soon. Actually, since I last wrote, we haven't had another really cold snap --- the weather has been hovering around -20, though the past days have seemed a bit threatening --- as if Siberia is winding up to sock it to us again. My Oberlin education continues to pay off in unexpected ways during these winter weeks, as I get to practice all those skills I learned in Ohio --- like how to walk on ice and how to breathe into your hand to warm up your nose without fogging your glasses. Kudos this month go to my Grandparents Stromseth, who are even able to get a Christmas card to Tuva to arrive on time to the day. I'm sure that was all Grandpa's doing, wasn't it?
Last night I had dinner with my neighbors and some of their family and friends at the new Chinese restaurant in town to celebrate my "host brother" Amir's 15th birthday. In a land where the food situation is, as the Lonely Planet guide says, "abysmal", the restaurant is a shining light of hope. When you consider that there's even descent Chinese food in rural Ohio, though, the only thing strange about this restaurant is that it's taken so long to appear here, just across the desert from China. Also, since the restaurant has been built into the side of the Musical Drama Theater, which is the only structure of any architectural interest in town (and a beauty, at that), the entire building has become a bit of a refuge for many of my aesthetic tastes, which have been put in the deep freeze (as it were) since coming out here.
I've been told by one of you that my spelling is starting to go out. If so, I would apologize, except that I've come to realize that spelling is way too overrated in English, where the written and spoken languages don't seem to correspond at all. When I explain to people that we actually have contests and give away lots of money to little kids who can spell well, it always draws a laugh. As I continue to help translate Zoya Kyrgys' book, I find that it is taking longer and longer to think up English synonyms and my daily journal is beginning to see some incredibly awkward sentences. After six more months, who knows what trash I'll be jabbering under the guise of my "native language." Until then, I can only promise more stories as I think them up.