Zulan: 'Every true Mongolian is a musician'

Before the world premiere of her composition for Germany's National Youth Orchestra, Mongolian composer Zulan told DW what makes Mongolian music so unique - and how Beethoven inspired her.

You compose and make music with your ensemble Mongolism. What are the elements you combine in your music?

Music | 04.09.2015

Zulan: Our band combines music from Mongolian culture with modern Western composition techniques to create a new form of music.

Are the musicians in your band also from Mongolia?

Except for the cellist, all musicians in the band are from Inner Mongolia.

Music | 04.09.2015

Which aspects of Mongolian music do you find particularly interesting?

To start out with, Mongolian music offers its own forms of acoustic expression. Some pieces are played with Mongolian instruments, such as the morin khuur, also known as the horse-head fiddle, or other Mongolian string and wind instruments, as well as percussion instruments.

A second feature is the singing techniques. There are the traditional long songs, or urtyn duu, and many other forms of Mongolian throat singing. But no matter its form, Mongolian music has a distinctive feature: The emphasis is put on harmony. Take, for example, Mongolian throat singing: The performer generates two voices simultaneously - the root of the song and its overtones - thus building harmonies. The morin khuur also accompanies other instruments according to harmonic principles.

How do people in China react to the fact that Mongolian culture is so strongly represented in your music?

It's an academic form of music, and people realize that this is something completely different. And they like that. They find it special and strange, because they cannot dance and sing to this music. They can only feel what we offer them. Our audience in China finds this music beautiful and very powerful. But it's not the kind of entertainment music you can just listen to and hum on your way home.

Now you are working with the German National Youth Orchestra as part of the Campus Project at the Beethovenfest. You have written a composition commissioned by DW for a full orchestra. What does this collaboration between China and Germany mean to you?

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It was a new step and challenge in my musical career to compose a piece for the German National Youth Orchestra. Just the thought of having a full orchestra playing Mongolian music makes it louder in my imagination. It suddenly gives me more opportunities to realize my ideas.

Your composition is called "Amila" and that's also the name of your son. What does this name mean?

This piece is actually related to my son. My perspective and role in life changed a lot when he was born. That's why I wanted to compose a piece dedicated to him. In Mongolian, "Amila" means "gives life." I find this word very meaningful. Our cooperation with the orchestra is also a new phase of creation, so the name fits well for this reason, too.

China Zulan Komponistin

The composition will be performed at the Beethovenfest in Bonn, Beethoven's birthplace. You went to Bonn last January. How did this visit influence you?

When I was visited the house [where he was born], it brought me closer to Beethoven. I got to feel his lust for life. In my mind, he was a small and weak man who went through many hardships. I could see how he changed by looking at the portraits of him at different stages of his life - especially after he became deaf. But his pieces always remained very alive - and I want to highlight this vitality in my own compositions, too.

I personally really like Beethoven, the strength in his music and his direct style of expression. He would select direct and powerful sounds to create an atmosphere. And, depending on what I'm trying to achieve, I also prefer to express strong feelings and passion.

In addition to the work commissioned for the National Youth Orchestra, you will also be performing with your ensemble without the orchestra. What can be expected?

Our band, Mongolism, will be giving a concert in Berlin. It will be very direct and powerful, just like Beethoven. We play Mongolian music, but we combine it with modern Western music techniques.

You emphasize the powerful aspects of Mongolian music. Was it a challenge for you as a woman to find your way in what is known in Europe as a male-dominated scene?

It is special for any Mongolian to become a composer. But all true Mongolians are musicians. They can spontaneously use any object as a musical instrument. As soon as they open their mouths, they can already sing. Mongolians like to show strength and wit. Strength and wit are very important, not just for composers but also for nomads. Their habitat is difficult, so they need so be strong, physically and internally. It's the only way to survive in this environment.

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