Mongolian Sound Worlds

PDF Mongolian Sound Worlds April 12, 2022

Book author
  1. Charlotte D'Evelyn
  2. Jennifer C. Post
  3. Sunmin Yoon
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Music cultures today in rural and urban Mongolia and Inner Mongolia emerge from centuries-old pastoralist practices that were reshaped by political movements in the twentieth century. Mongolian Sound Worlds investigates the unique sonic elements, fluid genres, social and spatial performativity, and sounding objects behind new forms of Mongolian music--forms that reflect the nation’s past while looking towards its globalized future. Drawing on fieldwork in locations across the Inner Asian region, the contributors report on Mongolia’s genres and musical landscapes; instruments like the morin khuur, tovshuur, and Kazakh dombyra; combined fusion band culture; and urban popular music. Their broad range of concerns include nomadic herders’ music and instrument building, ethnic boundaries, heritage-making, ideological influences, nationalism, and global circulation.
A merger of expert scholarship and eyewitness experience, Mongolian Sound Worlds illuminates a diverse and ever-changing musical culture.

Contributors: Bayarsaikhan Badamsuren, Otgonbaayar Chuulunbaatar, Andrew Colwell, Johanni Curtet, Charlotte D’Evelyn, Tamir Hargana, Peter K. Marsh, K. Oktyabr, Rebekah Plueckhahn, Jennifer C. Post, D. Tserendavaa, and Sunmin Yoon.


Mongolia is a sounding land, its history rooted in pre-revolutionary times (before 1921) and shaped during the Soviet-inspired socialist period (1921– 1990). Today it resonates with the effects of its rapidly changing contemporary society. Mongols, along with other ethnic groups, find themselves surrounded by sound in their daily lives as a part of their nomadic lifeways in rural regions and in urban centers such as Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar or the capital of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot (Höhhot, Khökhkhot). The physical territory of the Mongols once stretched over great distances under the Mongol Empire but is now situated within modern geographical borders and administrative and political divisions. Their cultures have moved across these boundaries, and they have also been preserved, diversified, shared, and assimilated with neighboring Turkic peoples and nations. In the western part of the Mongolian territories, close contact with Kazakhs, Tuvans, and other Oirad ethnic groups on the border between Bayan-Ölgii and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China has produced unique and distinctive cultural forms. On the other hand, the people at the far eastern and northern borders of Mongolia, such as the Buriad1 and Kalmyk, have merged their customs more generally with Mongolia’s cultural landscape, and the stories of survival and adaptation that have characterized the cultural diversity of Inner Mongolia add further dimensions to this complex picture. Regardless of how all these microcultural features have been historically processed, one thing remains clear in their myriad cultural practices and identities: Mongolians have lived their lives in constant dialogue with musicking and sounding.

Mongolian in this volume is rather broadly defined. Mongolness and Mongolian culture are not simply built upon a monolithic and homogenous unity, but they have rather been strengthened through a constant process of exchange and mixing among neighboring cultures. On a single trip in Uvs aimag (province), I saw how Mongol singers who are pursuing professional work in nearby Khovd aimag also “commuted” to work in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its impact on Soviet Central Asia has complicated the Mongolian Kazakhs’ recent migration and counter-migration, and this has affected their cultural practices as well as their expressions of identity. Taking into consideration these dynamic exchanges, and the fluidity of national and cultural boundaries, the term Mongol here indicates the ethnically Mongol peoples of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, while Mongolian indicates all people living in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, including the Mongolian Kazakhs and the Mongolian Tuvans who hold citizenship in the country of Mongolia.

During the socialist period in Mongolia, and over the course of sinicization in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China, Mongolian traditional nomadic culture and widely varying musical practices became ideologized and remade according to more formulaic music-making processes. Despite these changes, they survived, both implicitly and explicitly, as part of a new twentieth-century cultural identity. As more Western musical genres were imported, traditional musical practices came to be seen as more professional and less connected to nomadic pastoralism, and in this way they became the basis of the current traditional music scene. Mongolian culture in the twenty-first century is thus being built upon two powerful frameworks of the past: the nomadic traditions maintained for centuries in rural regions, and the modernized remnants left behind by the twentieth century’s political transitions in both Mongolia and China. This has left Mongolians with the task of creating a much more complex amalgam of different forms of musicking through unique sonic elements, fluid genres, social and spatial performativity, and sounding objects. Some music-making processes have stayed in tune with the powerful ideologies of communism and socialism, while others are still tied tightly to their deep past. At the same time, they look toward a future, impacted by modernity and the global world.

With all these dynamics in mind, Mongolian Sound Worlds embraces the complex predicament of early twenty-first century Mongolian sonic cultures, understood through the unique perspectives, positioning, and approaches offered by all the contributors to its chapters and interludes. The aim is to share information on a broad range of genres and musical landscapes in present-day Mongolian culture, from vocal traditions such as throat-singing (khöömii), long-song (urtyn duu), other folk song genres (zokhiolyn duu, bogino duu), and epic practices (tuul’), instruments such as tovshuur, dombyra, and morin khuur, combined fusion band culture (khamtlag), and urban popular music. The thematic framework likewise ranges from remote rural herders’ nomadic music-making and instrumentbuilding to the politics of ethnic boundaries and heritage-making, ideological influence, nationalism, and global circulation.

Each contributor to this volume carries stories from geographically different locations, engages with distinct communities as well as musical materials, and captures unique musical moments. Whether studying in Inner Mongolia, the western, central, or southern regions of Mongolia, one place through which most researchers pass on their journey is Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital. While visitors may imagine that their first sight in Mongolia will be a seemingly endless steppe in the countryside, and their first sound the unique styles of Mongolian folk music, a bustling city filled with traffic and people is in fact what visitors first encounter. Ulaanbaatar encapsulates historical and contemporary, local and global, disappearing and emerging musical forms, styles, and social scenes along with a vibrant mix of hybrid musical forms, as well as an established Western classical musical scene.

So it is in Ulaanbaatar that I start, drawing from my own experience in the city. In a series of three musical snapshots, I explain how these urban music scenes reveal Mongolia’s complex musical history, from Mongolian Western art music scenes to the traditional and folk musical landscapes in order also to shed light on some of the musical practices that are mentioned throughout the text. I first show how one of the most respected classically trained composers in contemporary Mongolia reflects in his works not only the European values of his training but the traditional values of Mongolia’s embodied nomadic life learned in his homeland. I then share the historical journey of Mongolia’s staged performance, traced from the country’s first opera and the continuing legacy of its opera singers on the world stage in the decades since. Finally, I discuss Mongolia’s constantly changing musical culture seen in the vibrant fluidity of Ulaanbaatar’s cityscapes experienced by visitors attending the performances of the national folk ensemble in the state theater.
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