The Woman Who Made the Sun Go Up

I was looking at the rising sun. Is sunlight always so bright and clear? Does the sun always sparkle with such beauty, when she comes up and lights a dark place? I had forgotten it… Hearing N.Norovbanzad singing ‘The Sun over the Placid World’, I was gripped by such thoughts in spite of myself. The Mongolian ‘long song’ possesses the magic to make the sun rise before one’s eyes. Although I had heard and read about it many times, this was the first time I experienced this magic in reality. It was amazing. Norovbanzad really made the sun go up in front of that international audience of Americans, Japanese, and Russians. Listening to her song, we all sighed feeling the beauty of the rising sun. The audience knew nothing about Mongolian culture, they did not even understand the language, but they could feel the awakening nature in the melody flowing out of that woman. Making people feel that the sun suddenly has risen beautiful, big, and red, that a mirage is hovering to deceive the eyes with something out of a fairytale, that birds are twittering and rivers flowing… this is the magic of the long song, this was the magic of Norovbanzad. The long song is a phenomenon among the arts of the world, but Norovbanzad was a phenomenon in the world of the long song, a bright ray of light that flashed and vanished. But we shall never forget her, we shall keep her in our memory forever, just like the sunlight she evoked.

The Mongolian long song was born in the steppes. It is a work of nature come to life in the Mongolian grassland. This unique creation has grown up close to nature, nurtured by human feelings and thoughts that have incorporated all the beauty nature has to offer. It is perfect. The long song is the melody of the sky, and the Mongolians have been worshipping the ‘Eternal Blue Sky’ from times immemorial. Only from this people that has had no other gods, the melody of the sky is coming forth. Listening to a long song, one cannot help feeling proud with a pride plain and simple, which no one can really capture and express. As art historian Dr. N.Jantsannorov once summed it up, ‘The Mongolians believe in the “Eternal Blue Sky”. They worship their sky. They measure their life by the sun rising and the moon shining in the sky. They read their own destiny in the stars of the sky. They talk about the “King of Heaven”, the “Son of Heaven”, the “Steed of Heaven”, or the “Heavenly Man”. The artistic mentality of the nomad conversing in his thoughts with the sky above him actually resulted in an exceptional sense of space. This “art of space and sky”, which finds open expression in such things as time measurement, led to the creation of certain forms of music and the perfection of their structure. The characteristic quality of the Mongolian long song, distinguishing it from the music of any other nation, lies in the fact that it is actually rooted in a very developed sense of space’. If anything can explain the mystery of the long song it is this.

In 1992, the Japanese English-language newspaper Mainichi Daily News praised her with the following words, ‘Her silvery voice begins low, and immediately the sky appears, a hovering picture beautiful with bowing, twittering, and swaying. The compass of her voice reminds one of the Japanese minyou singers, who consider their own voices to have kubushi properties. The power or her voice is incomparable. Her singing rings in the ears like the breaking of crystal glasses… The compass of this extraordinary Mongolian singer’s voice can only be measured by the sky’. And the Russian Orientalist scholar S.Kondratiev says, ‘The time has come to study the Mongolian long song. The field is waiting for its researchers. And the effort will be worth the while. But as it is very difficult to draw deep conclusions about any great phenomenon in art, it will not be such an easy piece of work’. Among the arts of the world, the Mongolian long song constitutes a realm that cannot be ignored. A scholar who could fathom its depth, however, is not yet in sight. Since its study is, as Kondratiev says, not an easy piece of work, an in-depth research of the Mongolian long song is not to be expected in the near future. Maybe the discovery of what lies behind an art that developed in an era when people lived amazingly close to nature is something which just cannot be done in our modern times, when mankind has become estranged from its original environment.

Norovbanzad is a singer from the Borjigin region, and the Borjigid are the clan of Genghis Khan. Once Dorjdagva, another famous singer of long songs, asked the academician Rinchen, ‘Why are the feasts of the Borjigid so splendid? Why are the songs of the Borjigid so elegant?’ ‘How could they be otherwise,’ the grey-haired scholar replied, ‘The splendour of the imperial feasts has been preserved only by the Borjigid’. In his answer, he was referring to a very ancient tradition. Norovbanzad is thus a singer from the region where the songs of the imperial feasts had been preserved. Borjigin melodies are the foundation of Norovbanzad’s art, but the songs in the manner of the Borjigid, music experts ascertain, are very limited in their coloratura. At the beginning of her singing career, she performed these songs exactly in the Borjigin way. The song she sang at the World Festival of Youth and Students, too, had before been interpreted by her based on the Borjigin songs with their limited coloratura. At last, however, she learned from her teachers the wide-ranging, slow melodies from the Khentii Aimak, known as ‘Black Mane’. One of those who helped her in acquiring the new technique is Dorjdagva. Having been cantor in a monastery, he came to Urga – present-day Ulaanbaatar – as a young man in 1927 and became a student of the great singers from the eastern Aimaks. He was handed down the great songs from Eastern and Central Khalkha, created after those of the Borjigid, and passed them on to Norovbanzad. Experts claim that Dorjdagva and Norovbanzad are the only two singers adhering to those principles that have perfected the art of the long song.

Dorjdagva used to criticize Norovbanzad in one respect. ‘This woman has a tendency to sing too loud,’ he said, ‘Someone who shouts cannot be called a good singer’. On the one hand, he is right, but on the other hand, musical theorists are coming to Norovbanzad’s aid. In the old times, long songs used to be sung only in Mongolian yurts or at feasts. The only way, however, to perform them in front of a large audience is to sing at the top of one’s voice. This method of using the strength of one’s voice in order to make one’s singing carry even to the distant listener is one of the principles of European music. Norovbanzad applied this method to the Mongolian long song. In this sense, she was the first singer who brought the long song to the concert hall. Only by mastering this method did she manage to perform on international stages. Her method brought the long song of Mongolia to the world.

Norovbanzad was a Mongolian singer who studied Western music. She became accomplished in singing with a Western opera voice. Each morning, she used to do exercises in the manner of an opera singer. But when she performed, she sang just like one sings a Mongolian long song. One of her great achievements was to unite those two methods so completely different, different in principle, the European way of enlarging the chest cavity and the Mongolian way of pressing the air through the windpipe. It is something out of the ordinary that one person in her time mastered those two different techniques, unifying them into a whole, which for centuries had been developing in their own respective styles in the East and in the West, reaching their own levels of perfection. In 2001, Norovbanzad sang for one hour and forty minutes in the famous Carnegie Hall of New York. American music experts came to hear her, and concluded after the concert, ‘She is a real scholar, and she has developed a unique physical strength, the maximum possible for a human voice’.

Thus, one must agree with what Jantsannorov said, ‘More extraordinary than Norovbanzad’s musical skill and talent are her erudition, her research, her experiments, and her unique schooling’. And one remembers Russian art historian V.Kondako sighing, ‘Her singing transcends human possibilities. One has the impression that there is not only one woman singing on the stage, but that there are several’.

It must be hard to work so much, to strain oneself so much in order to reach such a level. Most singers today always take breath before singing a falsetto passage. It is as if their physical strength would not suffice. But Mrs Norovbanzad sings a double falsetto without taking breath, even before the second one. One must change the level of variation without losing the hight of one’s voice. Or otherwise, one must change the force of one’s voice without losing the level of variation. This is a very delicate technical problem. An ordinary singer cannot do it. Only after much experimenting can one master it. As Jantsannorov reminisces, ‘I remember when she did three falsettos in “Delight of Safety and Soundness”, and she sang all three of them without taking breath’.

Her song ‘The Beautiful, Cool Khangai’ that she sang at the Asian Music Festival of 1973 has been admitted into the UNESCO fund. She was also awarded the world-renowned Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize. Thus the world honoured the woman who had brought the amazing art of the Mongolian long song to the attention of the world. In Mongolia, she was awarded the State Prize as one of only two singers.

It was as if she had a hidden power. One could feel it when one heard her sing, even if one did not see her in person. ‘Our woman seemed to have a religious faith in her songs. There was something in her approaching to the “sixth sense”. In socialist times, of course, she had to sing the songs that she was told to sing. In the end, however, when she had been together with her songs for so many years, she must have internalized their system, thinking “this song is not sung on such a day, at such a time.” This is how I understood the situation. That huge energy reservoir of melodies inside her must have made her different from us ordinary people who just listen to a song now and then. Her constant melody repetitions must have reached a level where they synchronized human life and the human body’. This reminiscence by an art historian is still clinging to my mind. ‘Okay, let’s see’, she must have felt, ‘Today is not the right day to sing “The Gently Fluttering Wind”. The weather is bad. I’m not in the mood, either. Let’s rather sing “The Forest on the Mountain Back. That’s the right tune for today’. There are some singers who can, by listening to nature, ‘feel’ their songs and their audience to a high degree.

She was not just a singer, she was someone who brought alive the songs she sang, who re-created them. No one can sing ‘The Beautiful, Cool Khangai’ like her. In addition, she never sang one song in exactly the same way. Each of her renderings of ‘Beautiful, Cool Khangai’ was different, like the works of a handicraft master that are unique in their make. Each time she sang a song, she brought it to life in another manner. Every time she brought a song alive it had a different melody, its own delicate melody just for the occasion. It was unique. She interpreted the songs she had chosen in accordance to the power of her own voice, lengthening and refining them. She must have regarded her songs wholly as a science, as a philosophy. A perfect work of art cannot be changed. One may interpret and develop it, but one can never recreate it in complete identity. A perfect work of art can never be changed. Just like Norovbanzad’s singing.



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