WHAT IS MUGHAM?
Mugham is difficult to define. It is ensemble music; it is improvisation; it is a framework for improvisation; it is a scale; a mode; a system of modes, of phrases, of musical development and composition; it is a whole suite of songs; it is a specific sentiment; it is a spiritual expression or journey. Difficulty in understanding the mugham also lies in inconsistent use of musical terminology and, as a living cultural expression, variations and alterations that challenge the canon are inevitable. (Most of the information on mugham comes from either Song from the Land of Fire (Naroditskaya 2003) or the “Azerbaijan” entry in Encyclopedia of World Music’s, by Tamila Djani-Zade (2001).)
Mugham is the classical music of Azerbaijan which dates to Iranian urban traditions of the Sasian era (224-651 CE). As Iranian-urban influenced, it shares broad features of musical form and structure with the Central Asian art song suites known as shash maqam (six maqams) and is similar to the Persian classical repertory, dastgah. Perhaps most importantly, it embodies the Islam aesthetic of journeying towards a heightened spiritual state. This manifests musically with how the the pitch of the melodies and the ornamentations develops/increases over the course of a performance.
The typical mugham ensemble features 1 or 2 string instruments – the tar (a lute considered to be Azerbaijan’s national instrument) and kamancha (spiked fiddle) – plus a xanada (singer) who also plays the frame drum (daf/def/gavel). Except for the hand drum, the role of all of these instruments is melodic – not chordal. As accompaniment, they echo or repeat short melodic fragments derived from the soloist’s line, or they play or drone (sustained or rhythmic) on one of the tonal centres.
The mugham as mode can be noted on western staves as in the two images below. These represent 2 versions of the 6 main mughams but these are just skeletal in nature. Naroditskaya’s list of mughams is more simplistic while Djani-Zade’s highlights more of the complexity in the Azeri 17-tone scale derived from the tar’s frets. Djani-Zade’s also denotes the different branches or shobes of the mugham. (Click on image to magnify.)
Below: mugham scales notated by Naroditkaya and Djani-Zade
The mugham melody is based on stepwise motion of a relatively narrow tonal range, most often within a single tetrachord, melodically highlighting the first and last degree. Any mugham is identified by a gushe, a canonic short thematic statement, which once played gets repeated, modified, and ornamented countless times. (There are a number of standard gushes associated for each mugham.) The maye is the central tone but the mugham melody will travel through different tonal centres as it progresses up higher shobes (branches) of the mugham.
Dastgah is the name for a mugham suite. Such a performance can last from 15 minutes up to 2 hours or more. As suggested above, mugham development occurs through variation and ornamentation of short stepwise melodies. These are unmetered improvisations, which are contrasted with instrumental song/dance sections that bridge the transition to the next tetrachord or the next branch of the mugham. Closer to the end of the piece, higher in the range, is a section called Zarbi, where the instruments no longer accompany with unmetered melodic phrases or tones, but keep a regular beat behind the unmetered improvisation of the soloist. The singer uses snippets of text drawn from a sophisticated body of poetry but as the piece progresses, the poetic text gets less and less while the ornamentation and melismatic development increases. Close to the end, the piece climaxes with elaborate improvisations in the highest register which is most often followed by a quick ascent back to the maye and the originating branche/shobe of the mugham.
There are 3 major schools of mugham Shusha, Shemakha and Baku though even within a single school there is variation of approaches, from the structure of the dastgah to the improvisation of gushes or the ornamentations.
There is no escaping the need for much listening in order to understand mugham as a musical form. Indeed, students of mugham do not study technical modal concepts from books and paper but learn through the oral-aural practice and memorization of a stock of etude-like pieces for each mode.
EX 1. Excerpt of Mugam Shur, performed by Bahram Mansurov 1992 recording (AUVIDIS label) on tar.
The first minute or 2 focuses on the maye (G) and shur shanaz (C). Note how the first 17 seconds is based on 3 notes, 7s of which features only a single note. As you listen to other examples from the posts on Azerbaijan, or as you study Azeri music, note how this slow, stepwise development of the phrase seems to be echoed in both ashiq and folk musics.
EX 2. Mugham Zaric-Segah performed by Sevinc Seriyeva on YouTube.
After the metered instrumental introduction (the first of a suite is supposed to introduce the range and melodic character of the mugham) note how the focus is immediately on the maye (Bb) and the next two minutes, whether it be the xananda singing or the tar playing, only involves 3 notes. (Side note: In comparison to how Djani-Zade notates Zaric-Segah mugham (see image above), my western-trained ears hear B-flats, C-flats and D-flats, though they are clearly not equal-tempered versions of these notes.) This 3-note focus caries on for another 5 1/2 minutes, after which the shikaste-i fars (D) becomes the new focus.
To best understand how mugham develops within dastgah, I highly recommend Chapter 4 “The Sound of Traditional Mugham” in Narodiskaya’s book which analyzes a 1995 recorded performance of Bayati Shiraz mugham as performed by Alim Gasimov’s trio.