The sounds of Eurasia

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A concert entitled "Sounds of Eurasia", held in a church, by a youth orchestra I'd never heard of from somewhere in the -stans region of Central Asia, admission being free and unticketed. It didn't sound too great. But I saw a flyer for it at local shopping center on Saturday, and the event was scheduled for that very evening. I showed the flyer to my friend Carol and we decided (since we could hardly complain about the price) that we would be adventurous and risk it. I wasn't confident; I stressed that in the worst-case scenario we might be in for a a slow and painful lesson teaching us only that Central Asian music was a cacophony of strange whiny-sounding horns and out-of-tune one-stringed bowed instruments and was not for us. "Doesn't matter; you can stand almost anything for an hour or so," she said, gamely insisting we should go.

Boy, did we ever misunderestimate. The Youth Chamber Orchestra of TÜRKSOY is stunningly good. It was an amazing evening.

The church was packed (a good sign?), but we were lucky and found decent seats. After a ten-minute delay (a bad sign?), the 16 young members of the orchestra suddenly strode out from the back of the church carrying their instruments, and walked at a brisk pace down a side aisle to the front, looking straight ahead, dressed in formal clothes, black patent leather shoes clacking firmly on the church floorboards. They took their places (oddly, under a huge illuminated crucifix) in the familiar layout of a Western classical orchestra: first violins on the left at the front, second violins and violas spread out behind them, cellos at the front right, and the two double basses on the right wing at the back.

There were a few inaudible diplomatic words from an official representing the TÜRKSOY organization, which I had never heard of, and then a conductor stepped up, greeted the lead first violinist, raised his baton, and the orchestra (whose instruments had not yet made a single tuning-up sound) hit the opening notes of Edward Grieg's Holberg Suite with such energy, accuracy, and exuberance that Carol and I glanced at each other in wide-eyed amazement. When you hear an orchestra of truly international caliber, you often know it from the first note. It was instantly clear that this would have been worth fifty-dollar tickets.

I was struck not only by the power and attack of the playing but by the amazing degree of racial diversity among the orchestra members. Some looked as if they could have been Chinese or Mongolian; others might have been Persian or Afghan; and some had blonde hair and could have been from Western Europe. But I might have expected such diversity if I had known that (as the program booklet revealed) the orchestra is recruited from across the member states of TÜRKSOY, the International Organization of Turkic Culture, including the nations of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and more recently Northern Cyprus, the Moldovan autonomous territory of Gagauzia, and the Russian Federation states of Altai, Bashkortostan, Khakassia, Sakha Yakutia, Tartarstan, and Tuva. Spread from the Mediterranean and Caspian seas through to the far east of Siberia and the borders of China and Mongolia, these countries and regions are linked primarily by the fact that they speak Turkic languages.

But the vast distances and differences separating them apparently count for nothing once the musicians pick up their bows. They work together as a highly disciplined, first-class, professional ensemble.

They have excellent soloists too: the violinists Ramina Mukusheva, Talantbek Moldokanov, Aydan Salamova, and Ilayda Zeynep Koksal were all brilliant, and so was violist Aliya Mashkeyeva. They all played with fire in their eyes and grins of deep enjoyment, and the more the evening went on, the more fun they seemed to be having. They played Grieg and Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky and Schnittke and Respighi, and music by less well known composers from Turkic-speaking countries: Gara Garayev and Akshin Alizadeh from Azerbaijan, Mansur Sagatov from Kazakhstan, Muratbek Begaliyev from Kyrgyzstan, Sukhan Tuiliyev from Turkmenistan, Ulvi Cemal Erkin from Turkey. They got standing ovations.

The first conductor was Anvar Akbarov, born in Almaty in Kazakhstan, who is the first ethnic Uighur ever to become a professional first violinist and orchestral conductor. The second conductor, who took over half-way through, was a dapper and charismatic Azerbaijani in a superbly cut suit: Mustafa Mehmandarov. He needed no baton, conducting instead with his hands and eyes and expressively smiling face. (This is how cool Mehmandarov is: if you could watch Barack Obama conducting a really good chamber orchestra, and truly enjoying himself, it would be like watching Mehmandarov work.)

Both conductors drew wonderful performances out of the orchestra. After two hours and three encores Carol and I walked away from the concert feeling inspired and delighted. I don't think I've ever attended such an enjoyable classical concert, at any price.

And why was this a freebie in a church? Why didn't we have to pay a hefty fee for tickets? How could an event of this quality be on offer for nothing on a random Saturday night in Greyfriars Kirk? Well, extraordinary cultural events do happen in Edinburgh, especially now that the Festival season is here; but it is really expensive to bring 16 musicians and their instruments all the way from Central Asia to Scotland, so there had to be more to it. And there is: TÜRKSOY appears to have received funding by several governments and international organizations to pay for a world tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of the year when Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan gained their independence as the Soviet Union melted away. In Britain they played just Oxford, London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. I'm really glad I didn't miss them.

What is the linguistic angle to all this? (For I hear you cry: "This is Language Log, not Turcophone International Cultural Affairs Log!) Well, I found myself wondering how you do the actual interaction — the auditions and rehearsals and tour planning that must go on — when you are dealing with speakers of a whole slew of languages like Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkish, Turkmen, and perhaps others. These are historically related languages, yes, but only as a very broad family — the way Romanian, French, Italian, Spanish, and Latin are related. They aren't mutually intelligible. In what language does a Kazakh Uighur conductor explain what he wants to an array of performers who speak Azeri and Kyrgyz and Turkish?

I'm really curious to know, but I didn't get a chance to ask. I don't think it would be Turkish, despite its historical importance in the linguistic family as the imperial language of the Ottoman empire. I guess the three top contenders would be English, the global language of arts, culture, business, diplomacy, news, and academia; Russian, once the language of government for half a dozen of the relevant states and regions; or possibly but less plausibly the vaunted international language of music itself.

[Postscript: Victor Mair got me some authoritative answers from Peter Golden, the distinguished Turkic and Eurasian history and philology specialist at Rutgers (see this comment below). —GKP]


  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 5:58 pm

    (3) can perhaps be unpacked a bit further, into (3a) the music itself, (3b) the international technical vocabulary of classical music, derived from Italian, and (3c) the gestural language employed by conductors to communicate with musicians during performance.

    I don't know to what extent (3c) is formally taught. In ballet, which I'm more familiar with, teachers communicate dance steps to students using a combination of formal technical vocabulary (French in this case) and informal gestural language. As far as I can tell the gestural language is not taught explicitly but is simply absorbed unconsciously by the students, who echo it back when mentally rehearsing ("marking") the combination before actually dancing it.

    I find this dual-language teaching process fascinating and wonder if it's ever been studied by linguists.

  2. Liz said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 6:26 pm

    I just saw them in Oxford and really enjoyed it, especially Mehmendarov's conducting which was like a beautiful intimate conversation with the orchestra! Often funny too.

  3. Rubrick said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 7:01 pm

    A concert entitled "Sounds of Eurasia", held in a church, by a youth orchestra I'd never heard of, admission being free and unticketed. It didn't sound too great.

    I at first completely misinterpreted that second sentence, and became very confused when, after saying right off that the orchestra didn't sound too great, you went on to describe how great it sounded.

    [I love that. It was unintended, but I did want to convey the fact that (in my ignorance) I initially thought the orchestra might turn out to be dreadful, and then I was blown away by their dynamic professionalism. So I'm going to leave that second sentence, reconceptualizing the ambiguity as a feature rather than a bug! —GKP]

  4. Rebecca said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

    Thanks to this post, I just spent a terrific half hour reading about the orchestra and listening to them on YouTube. According to their website, the students are selected from conservatories. Perhaps the conservatories already narrow the working language down.

  5. Levantine said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 8:44 pm

    "I don't think it would be Turkish, despite its historical importance in the linguistic family as the imperial language of the Ottoman empire."

    Ottoman Turkish wasn't held in particularly high esteem by Turkic-speakers beyond the empire. Chaghatai was probably the most revered of the Turkic languages, even among the Ottomans, who (correctly) believed it to be closer to what their Central Asian forebears spoke.

  6. Richard Cobbe said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 9:20 pm


    I'm a serious amateur choral singer, and I used to play the violin in school orchestras — though I'm sure with nowhere near the level of skill as the orchestra that Prof. Pullum was able to hear!

    Other than a few basics, I don't recall ever having been taught conductors' gestures explicitly (though it's been a while, so I could be wrong). You generally just pick it up as you go along — it doesn't take most people too many iterations of, "no, no, no, I want this section to be much more legato" before they learn to associate "legato" with smooth, flowing gestures.

    I do believe that a certain amount of explicit training in these gestures is generally part of studying to become a conductor. Most conductors I've worked with have had significant performance experience, so they know the gestures well from that perspective, but I believe that many of them benefit from training in how to make those gestures as clearly as possible.

    In any case, neither conductors' gestures nor a smattering of Italian is sufficient to say things like, "remember that tomorrow night's rehearsal starts at 7pm, not at 7:30, and we'll be at the concert venue, not in our normal rehearsal space."

  7. Mark Meckes said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 9:28 pm

    Not too many decades ago, professional North American orchestras were full of musicians from many European countries, and were often led by European conductors who didn't necessarily speak English. I've been curious about the same issue for those ensembles, but haven't ever looked into it.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 10:23 pm

    Richard: Thanks for the reply.

    To add another data point, I have a dancer friend, trained in the US, with little to no conversational French, who recently auditioned for Paris Opera Ballet — the audition of course conducted entirely in French. Based on dance vocabulary and gestures, she muddled through well enough to be offered a contract.

  9. Alyssa said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 4:44 am

    Rubrick: I had the same confusion!

    Gregory Kusnick: The Paris Opera Ballet? Congratulations to your friend, that's very impressive!

    I've done a few ballet classes in other languages, and it works out alright – the steps and the structure of class is very standardised. I have also, on the other hand, encountered teachers whose "gestural language" was different than mine, and that particular language barrier created far more problems!

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 9:16 am

    From Erika Gilson:

    I am familiar with the organization’s work in several fields.
    As to how they communicate: I agree with English/Russian – or the language of music. . .

  11. cameron said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    I've heard anecdotal accounts from native Azeri speakers that they have little difficulty communicating with Turkish speakers from Anatolia, or with Turkmen or Uzbeks from Central Asia (i.e. with other speakers of Oghuz languages). It's just a question of people slowing down a bit and they can all make themselves understood. I think that the mutual intelligibility of those languages does not extend to Kazakh, Uyghur, and Kyrgyz.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 10:23 am

    From Peter Golden:

    For those from Moldova (the Gagauz), Azerbaijan and Central Asia, Russian would be the lingua franca – it is still widely spoken and used in scholarly publications. For the Yakuts/Sakha and Chuvash, Russian would be the only possible means of communication.
    Russian would be a problem for those who are solely speakers of Turkish (the Turkish of Turkey/Türkiye Türkçesi and Cyprus). The Gagauz, who speak what is essentially a dialect of Turkey Turkish, could, I suppose, translate. However, Turkey Turkish has become widely known thanks to institutions of higher education that have been established by Turkey in Central Asia that teach in Turkish. In the past (nearly 50 years ago), have witnessed Uzbeks, Türkmen and Qazaqs communicating together in a kind of Mischsprache in which Türkmen served as the basis (for Uzbeks from the old Khwarazm region this is easy as the local language is rather more Oğuzic than northeastern Türkî). The Qazaqs had the greater problem. I conduct all my correspondence and personal communications with Qazaq colleagues in Russian. Offers to send them books in Turkey Turkish are usually politely declined with the explanation “I don’t read Turkish.” There have been studies done on the degree of mutual intelligibility between Turkic speakers (again excluding Chuvash and Yakut/Sakha) and they vary, as one would expect, between the different subgroupings: Oğuz/southwestern, Qıpchaq/northwestern, Türkî/northeastern, Siberian (more complicated internal picture). Much also depends on the level of education of the speakers (and being a Turkologist would be a great help :) )

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 10:58 am

    I have been told by my Turkic-speaking friends (an Azeri from Iran, a Turk and an Uzbek) that they generally understand languages of the family, from Uyghur to Turkish. The reason seems to be that, unlike Romance, Germanic and Slavic, the vowels remain essentially the same, including vowel harmony, so that cognate words don't sound all that different; the difficulty is only with non-cognates such as loanwords. Compare that with eau/acqua, two/zwei and so on.

  14. maidhc said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 2:39 am

    Musicians already have a common language. Even if they don't share a common spoken language, communication about musical topics would not be a major problem. I've had some pretty technical discussions with musicians without speaking the same language. So while my Russian vocabulary is rather small, I know the word for "artificial harmonics" (although not how to spell it).

    My wife once took part in a master class in France with an English-speaking instructor. I don't know if this is a common thing there, but there was a fairly large audience, which must have been rather intimidating to the 6 or 7 performers who were up there on the stage getting critiqued. (Other master classes I have been to have usually been more private affairs.)

    The organizers provided a translator, but whatever her skills in general, she knew very little about music. So there was considerable discussion back and forth in both French and English, with most of the translation being provided by the audience. Since the point of the event was to help the performers improve their performance technique, the conversation took a fairly specialist tone right away. Eventually the translator gave up, since members of the audience knew a lot more about the subject in both languages than she did. I felt a little bad for her, but really she was not the right person to hire for this event.

    Had the audience not been there, I think the students would have been all right without a translator, since the maestro had a smattering of French and was good with gestures and body language.

    As far as the orchestra is concerned, I think the biggest problem would have been explaining travel arrangements, hotel bookings and so on, but others have addressed this issue.

  15. Levantine said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 1:30 am

    Coby Lubliner, Turkic-speakers are wont to exaggerate the mutual intelligibility of their various languages. Speakers of Turkish, for example, cannot understand more than the bare bones of Uighur, and even Azeri, which is much closer, is at times unintelligible. Vowels and vowel harmony are certainly not consistent across the languages, and words derived from Turkic roots often display greater variation than Arabic and Persian loanwords.

  16. hatice kerimgil said,

    August 10, 2016 @ 5:26 am

    I am really happy that you have managed to catch a performance and have therefore learned about TÜRKSOY

    I have been presenting the TÜRKSOY OPERA DAYS held in thr TURKISH REPUBLIC OF NORTH CYPRUS ,this year the event will be end of September start of October, though dates are still to be announced.

    The organısation hold many cultural events all over the world, they were in America for the NEVRUZ ( spring festivities) recently.

    As has been mentioned Turkish, Russian and English are the main languages spoken . Details of flights, hotel etc are passed onto the performers by a co ordinator who speaks all 3 languages.

    When it comes to learning Turkish all the turkic countries are being supported by Turkey and slowly the number of people speaking Turkish is increasing

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