The Orphic Dimension of Mongolian Music – Alain Desjacques 

From cahiers de musiques traditionnelles 3/1990 .basic English translation Michael Ormiston (apologies for any errors) 
 Return to Various Papers on Mongolian Khöömii page
In memory of T.Chimiddorj. The Orphic Dimension of Mongolian Music – Alain Desjacques 
From cahiers de musiques traditionnelles 3/1990 

“In ordinary life among peace-loving people, behave like two-year-old calves, in quarrels attack like vultures; during feasts and entertainments be like young stallions, but in the fight with enemies attack, rush like hungry hawks on their prey; …on a clear day be vigilant like a hardened wolf; on a dark night, cautious as the crow…”    Chinggis Khan

In Mongolian, music is called khögjim, a nominal derivation of khög (“tone” or “melody”) (1), on which the word khögjil (“development”) was formed. The term khögjim, being in a close linguistic neighbourhood with khögjil, could suggest that music is perceived, among the Mongols, as a duration, the temporal process of a sound event. In reality, popular musicians maintain a more concrete relationship with the natural and geographical environment in the development of their musical genres, as illustrated by this remark, tinged with poetry, by S. Süren:

“The length and slowness of our long songs (urtyn duu) reflect the vastness of the steppe and the large intervals were inspired by the height and configuration of the peaks of Altai” (2).

1 In Kazakh, küü comes from the Chinese ch’ü, and from the Middle Chinese k’iok, “song”, adds Rémy Dor who kindly re-read this text. We would also like to thank Professors Ernst Emsheimer, Tràn Van Khê, Denise Hemmerdinger and Roberte Hamayon for their pertinent remarks.

2 From an interview with Sodovyn Süren, 74, Mongol Uriangkhai from Duut Province in Khovd Region, October 21, 1984.
Morin Khuur
Morin Khuur
Fig. 1 and 2: The morin-khuur (horse fiddle) has become the national instrument of the Mongolian People’s Republic. The body of the instrument, trapezoidal in shape, is traditionally covered with often richly decorated goatskin. The morin-khuur held between the legs in a seated position mainly accompanies  “long song” urtyn duu in its melodic developments, and in the movements of the bii or biyelgee dance. Photos: Alain Desjacques.

This choice of “length and slowness” characterizes this type of singing well. Its rhythmic pulse appears largely subordinated to the development of the melody whose ornamental improvisation, supported by particular vocal techniques, gives the impression of a melodic stretching of the song almost over every syllable.

This almost immediate relationship to the nomadic shepherd’s daily environment is also clearly reflected in the popular instrumental repertoire, which places great emphasis on the imitation of the sounds of nature, bird song   and the behaviour of the animals observed. It is likely that, in very remote times, these were above all reproductions of animal cries during specific activities, such as hunting, where bird calls must have been one of the most faithful instruments. It would be tempting to think that imitation is, if not subsequent to sound reproduction, at least an artistic form of it. These imitations are, of course, not free from social and related functions (3) as in hunting rites or in shamanic sessions during which the shaman’s skill in imitation, not only sonorous, is an undeniable element of his art. Et Dodds (1959: 151) writes of Orpheus:

“Like certain legendary shamans of Siberia, he can, through his music, summon beasts and birds to make himself heard”.

3. In particular the rites of hunting the bear and eating its flesh in a feast during which, among the Yakuts and the Tungus, the croaking of the crow was imitated to make the bear believe that they are not men but birds that are eating it (cf. Harva 1959: 296-97).

It may well be that the essence of popular Mongolian instrumental music is a music of nature, an animal music related with the religious system of shamanism. The legendary origin of the morin khuur and its repertoire offer, from this point of view, a very interesting contribution. (4).

4. The most widespread version of the legend about the origin of the morin-khuur fiddle was recently edited by Sampildendev and Cerensodnom (1984, legend No. 79). It begins as follows: “Long ago there lived in the far east of Mongolia a brave man named khökhöö Namjil, a singer of great regional reputation. But he was mobilized by the army, which sent him to the West” (that is, to the Altai massif).

From the beginning of the legend, the hero-singer is given the nickname of khökhöö, the word for cuckoo in Mongolian. Indeed, even today in Mongolia, it is not uncommon to attribute the honorific nickname of khökhöö to an excellent singer, thus emphasizing the relationship between the perfection of one’s art and singing to that of a bird. This Mongolian saying is often used to qualify a particularly beautiful song:

Nuurand öndöglösöm 
Nugasny duu gargaad 
Xulsan öndöglösön 
Xungijn duu gargaad. 

“It’s the song of a duck
Who laid eggs at the edge of the lake, 
It is that of the swan.
Who laid eggs in the reeds.”
But above all, the onomatopoeia khökhöö designating the cuckoo does not result from an arbitrary linguistic choice. It seems that, by sound similarity, the Mongols brought the cuckoo song closer to the word khökh (“blue”), nation denomination of “sky” in Mongolian, which gives the cuckoo a very important role in Mongolian mythology, for, as we shall see, it is not only a bird but also a messenger from heaven.

The word khökh designates the sky, that is to say the god of the sky: “What is curious is that the Mongols were able, in their adoration, to call the god of the sky ‘Blue Sky’ “, a surprised Harva (1959:103) who further gives this information:

“In a drawing representing the ascent of the shaman into the heavens, we see, next to the supreme god and “his messenger”, the representations of three other celestial beings. According to an explanation attached to this drawing and which probably comes from the sŏrs, we recognize Bogdigan and also Bobyrgan, a legendary being; the third figure represents the kökyš” (1959:112).

Unfortunately, Harva does not expand further on the kökys. We think it’s the cuckoo. Indeed, Ulgen is the “good” god; its antagonist is called Erlig, god of the underworld. Each of these gods is surrounded by “assistants” and “sons” who intervene in the divine struggle. That kôkys is an ally of Erlig would not be surprising. The cuckoo is an ominous bird. “

The raven, the crow, and the cuckoo are ominous [sic] birds”, and: “for the Yakuts, death is announced by the cuckoo” (Roux 1966: 391,73). (5) It is therefore an extremely dangerous bird that the shaman must defeat in his celestial ascent, and Harva confirms this by quoting a manuscript in which “a shaman at the beginning of the seance invokes the aid of a son of Ulgen named Karšit”.

5. When the soul of Tarvaa, the legendary bard of Mongolia, returns from Erlig (god of the underworld), she finds that the eyes of her body left behind had been pecked by a crow, causing her blindness (on this legend and the connection of Tarvaa with Homer, see Doulam 1987: 36-7).

It is undoubtedly a bird of prey and, perhaps more precisely, karsit is a linguistic variant of xarsyga in Kazakh and kharsaga (Hawk in Bawden’s Dictionary M.O.) or kharsagaj in Mongolian for the northern goshawk (accipiter gentilis). Indeed, the trained bird of prey can turn out to be formidable for the cuckoo, as shown by the continuation of the manuscript where “a black bird”, Karakus (“eagle”), is a servant of the shaman: “it is said that the shaman, on his arrival in the fourth heaven, shows how Karakus takes a cuckoo” (Harva 1959:113). The shaman will also try to monopolize the cuckoo’s power: “the cuckoo’s bones are used to make charms and talismans” (Roux 1966:164).

During the time of his service in the army, he got to know a very beautiful princess who gave him a gift of a magic horse called Jonon Khar. It was represented as follows:

“While by his speed he loosens brushwood from its roots, Breaks the rocks to pieces,
Let him scatter the heaps of stones, Let him tear the seam of the rider’s garment.

He does not slip on the rock, He trots without stumbling through the thickets,
He has nothing to envy to the birds, (6) He is not comparable to an ordinary horse,

In the herd he is the only one, He looks like a racehorse,
In the moment of danger he flies singing,
At rest he goes with a trotting gait, When his master rides him.
He takes pains, He is the friend of man, He’s a good horse.”
6. That is to say, it is winged.

Such a horse is also found in mongol tales or epic songs (cf. Doulam 1987). However, the horse occupies an important place in Altaic mythology which retains the theme of the winged horse to justify the mythical origin of the horse. The winged horse is also one of the shaman’s mounts, because:

“[…] man cannot rise in the air unless he sees someone who knows how to fly come running to his aid: first the bird or, failing that, any animal that does not has not forgotten how one acquired wings. This is the theme of Pegasus that we often encounter” (Roux 1966: 65).

But above all, the horse has often been identified with the sun. In the astrological system of the Chinese calendar of the twelve animals, borrowed by the Mongols, the month of June, that is to say that of the summer solstice, is the month of the horse; and noon, the time when the sun reaches the zenith in its daily course, is called the hour of the horse. (7) No wonder then that the horse is “an animal essential in the ceremonies of sacrifice to heaven” (Roux 1966: 78). For us, it appears that the horse, as well as the cuckoo, which is on the road of the shaman in his celestial ascent, are two different zoomorphic aspects of the same reality, the sun, which is reminiscent of the myth of Icarus. The rest of the legend shows khökhöö Namjil riding his horse Jonon Xar, at nightfall, to find his princess in the west of the country and returning at dawn to the east. The legend therefore makes the return of the horse coincide with the appearance of the sun in the east.

7.In Kazakh, kök designates both the color blue and the sky, kökek the cuckoo and the month of June.

But, in this legend, a woman jealous of the camp (8) discovered the secret and clipped the wings of the horse, which died on the spot. When khökhöö Namjil later witnessed the death of his horse, he sank into deep sadness. It was then that he began to sculpt his horse’s head from a long piece of wood which he fixed on a wooden bowl; he covered it with the skin of his horse. From his beautiful silky tail he took horsehair which he stretched over the instrument and which he coated with dry pitch. khökhöö Namjil thus imitated the neighing of Jonon Xar, his pace and the different aspects of his gait. Another version of legend says that it was the very skull of the horse that served as a sounding board.

8. In another version, it is the hero’s own wife (cf. the story collected by Haslund-Christensen in Emsheimer 1943: 35-7).

Thus, in the legend, an instrument is created, the morin-khuur, for a specific repertoire, made up of imitations of the whinny of the horse, its gait, and sound interpretations of its behaviour and character. Even today, such imitations appear in the instrumental playing of the musician khuurch who sings in honour of a horse, as in the “Praise of the beautiful brown horse”, the “Praise of the chestnut at the white frontal star, originating in the land of the Khotgojd”, but also in dance music with, for example, “The black courier”, “The pacing horse”, “The sound of the horse’s hooves”, “The black horse of three years”, and “The gait of the horse” (10). But the legend does not give an explanation of the origin of the word khuur, of the expression morin-khuur (literally “horse violin”). For E. Haenish (1939: 73), the term khuur, in ancient Mongolian qugur,

“[…] always designates a plucked or bowed string instrument. Phonetically it seems to derive from the Old Turkish qopuz with different variants in the languages of many ethnic groups, which means ‘stringed instrument’ ”

It then becomes more difficult to understand why the Mongols use the same term for the jews-harp aman-khuur, with the variants khulsan khuur if it is made of bamboo and tömör khuur if it is made of iron”. (11) However, the translation of “mouth fiddle” is not satisfactory. Moreover, as if to clear up a misunderstanding, the Mongols use the term tovshuur, which designates the two-stringed lute in western Mongolia, for the jews-harp. And, indeed, to play the jews-harp, you have to pluck (tovshikh) the tongue, and also pluck the strings of the lute. In fact, qugur or qagur in Mongolian (12) originally means “whistle of the wind”, which became khuur or khuguur with the introduction of the Cyrillic alphabet, with a verbal derivation khuugikh: “to whistle” (for the wind).

9. According to information from Doržbalam, 66 years old, distinguished painter, originally from southern Mongolia, Dundgov region, September 1986.

10 The Mongolian titles of these pieces, respectively: Khöörkhön zeerd moriny magtaal, Kkotgoj- dyn ündesnij Khongor Khalsan mor’ magtaal, Žalamxar, Demen khar, Morin tövörgöön, Gunan khar, and Moriny javdal.

11 Temür komus in Kazakh.

12 According to information from Amsgalan, distinguished painter of žaxčin origin from western Mongolia, September 1986.

The relationship between the whistling of the wind, the friction of the bow on the strings and the sound of the jew’s harp then becomes more evident. A Mongolian onomatopoeia translates the friction of the bow by ilme žilme (13) that is to say by a hiss, with the fricative ž, which is a possible descriptive element of the sound of the jews-harp and the noise of the wind, because it would seem although, for the Mongols, the wind hisses, while for us, it whistles.

13 “It is to the sound of deilmežilme that you rub the strings of the fiddle ekil”: verse of a song entitled “You told me that…”, collected by Doulam (1987: 45).
Fig. 3: The bard Avirmed, with an expressive face of astonishing inner concentration, still sings the epic tuul’ in a guttural style called khailakh, “forging the epic”. It is accompanied by a two-string tovshuur lute, typical of the Altai region. Painting by S. Bold, 1986. Photo: Alain Desjacques.
Fig. 4: The flow of a mountain spring, the song of a bird and the subtle murmur of nature inspire the shepherd to answer them to the sound of his Tsuur flute. 
P. Narantsgogt, painted by S. Elbegdorz, 1986. Photo: Alain Desjacques.
On the other hand, among the Altaic peoples, the hissing of the wind is associated at the mountain :

“The Yakuts say that the winds “sleep” on the mountain from where they can be called in case of need and whistling. The Golds believe that the winds come out of the mountain gorges where they are kept by the spirit of the wind. The Mongols call stormy weather “running days”, in the belief that mountain spirits then run from mountain to mountain. (Harva 1959:158).”

And recently we learned from P. Narantsogt, Mongol Uriankhai from Altai, that:

“[…] the fundamental melody (Khiigin ayalguu) of the vertical flute Tsuur, a shepherd’s instrument, certainly comes from someone who, finding himself alone on a mountain, looking at the landscape, listening to the hiss of the wind and has the idea of answering him like an “overtone song” of the mountains. (14).

14. Information collected by Doulam (1987: 43). But editing my translated text resulted in an erroneous correction of “overtone singing” to “echo”. For P. Narantsogt, this metaphor of “mountain overtone song” (uulyn Khöömii) is an illustration of what he thinks is a simultaneous diphony, constituted by the melodic playing of the Tsuur flute and the uninterrupted whistling of the wind on the mountain peaks.

In the previous legend, the hero khökhöö Namjil went to the West of Mongolia, that is, in the mountainous Altai region, and then returned to his native country in the East where he then created the morin-khuur.

The hissing of the wind, (15) but also the rustle of tall grass, the lapping of the river, the song of birds and the cries of animals are all sources of inspiration for the hunter or the shepherd in the mountainous regions. Narantsogt’s repertoire is eloquent in this respect.

15. Moreover, the animal world is not insensitive to the whistling of the wind: “The swan […] breaks the silence when it hears Apollo touch the lyre, and the nightingale is drawn out of the caves towards the sun when the zephyr makes hear his song” (Photius, codex 114, edited by Henri 1971).

Using his thumb or his index finger, or even a simple small flat stone picked up from the ground and placed between his teeth, Narantsogt is able to imitate the adult cuckoo, the young cuckoo, two cuckoos that respond to each other, the common hoopoe, the wood pigeon, the capercaillie, and with his Tsuur flute, the black grouse, among many others, imitating both men and animals. Of course, these imitations are currently stripped of any shamanic connotation. However, there is no denying the important place of the cuckoo in the mythology of the Mongols and other Altaic peoples. But what is the importance of these imitations in Mongolian music? And what are the retained aspects of the original sound source? Indeed, it is almost never an exact reproduction of birdsong or nature noises, but more generally an imitation based on one or more characteristic features of the sound source. In the cuckoo song, for example, what is important for Narantsogt is the vocalized bi-toneality of the song of this bird which will be interpreted vocally using a small flat stone in the interval between a minor third sol -mi (or si -sol# ), starting with the upper degree with variations in key and rhythm (16) . The cuckoo’s song is not always the same. In the imitation of the wood pigeon and the ordinary hoopoe, it is the particular type of “consonantal” vocal emission of these birds that is retained. These short imitations are the subject of small musical works, such as “The song of the black grouse”, played on the Tsuur flute with a vocal drone.

16. An African cuckoo begins with the lower degree, informs us Claude Chapuis, ornithologist, who adds that the examples of birds reported here have a low register of vocalization (interview of January 19, 1987). The Mongolian musicologist J. Badraa claims that the overtone vocal emission khöömii (‘pharynx’) probably comes from the imitation of the black crane’s call kharkhiraa, because of the guttural sounds (1986:18). Kargyraa is also the name given by the Tuvans to a specific type of vocal emission using a particularly low register.

The simple observation of an animal, its gait and its behaviour, can inspire musical imitations. It would take too long to list the pieces referring to the horse, whose gait and gaits have largely contributed to composing the palette of rhythms used, not only in Mongolia, but throughout the universe of nomadic pastoralism in Central Asia. Among other rhythmic themes of this region, that of the lame gait of the wild animal wounded by the hunter, or of the hobbled domestic animal by the breeder, is very important in the formation of Altai music aksak (17) rhythms.

17. Aksak means “lame” in Turkish and Kazakh. This type of rhythm was analyzed above all by Constantin Brâiloiu, who drew up a complete picture of it (1973).
In summary, we have seen that sound imitation was not gratuitous but was once part of a whole set of shamanic representations. Today, sound imitation only seems to retain its playful side, and it is thought of as such by Mongolian musicians. Imitation is never a perfect reproduction of the sound source, but a sometimes very fine interpretation of it. The musician will retain, depending on the case, the melodic or tonal aspect, or a vocalism, or even a rhythm, in his elaboration of an imitation of a sound. But imitation can also be inspired by a visual observation of a movement or a static form of relief; the following table shows the different theoretical aspects of sound imitation:
So many combinations are possible.

It is doubtless also under this aspect of the relationship between music and the natural and animal environment that it is possible to think of the originality of the overtone vocal emissions of the Mongols, or of the abundant use of glottal stops executed especially in the “long songs” whose degrees, although they implement a constant pentatonic scale, are not always well stabilized. Not because the singer sings “out of tune”, but because this type of singing also has a direct relationship with the calls of the shepherd in the natural environment of the nomadic shepherd (cf. Smirnov 1969: 238).

It was not a question here of approaching the origin of Mongolian music, but of trying to highlight a particular aspect of this characteristic music of Central Asia, which retains its singular face.
AUBERT Laurent
1986     «Regards sur les musiques d’Asie centrale: La vièle-cheval et le luth-singe». Bulletin annuel du Musée d’ethnographie de la Ville de Genève 26: 27-51. 
1986 «L’art xöömii». Les Nouvelles de Mongolie 9: 18-19. 
BRAILOIU Constantin
1973 «Lerythmeaksak»[1951],In:Problèmesd’ethnomusicologie.Genève:Minkoff Reprints: 301-340. 
DODDS Eric Robertson 
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DOULAM Sendenzavyn
1987 «Conte, chant et instruments de musique – quelques légendes d’origine mongole -. Etudes mongoles et  sibériennes 18: 33-47. (Traduit du mongol par A. Desjacques, revu et corrigé par M.L. Beffa et F.Aubin). 
1943 «Preliminary remarks on Mongolian Music and instruments». In: The Music of the Mon­ gols, Part I:    Eastern Mongolia: 69-100. Stockholm: Tryekeri Aktiebolaget Thule. (Report from the Scientific Expedition to the Northwestern Provinces of China under the leader­ ship of Dc Sven Hedin. The Sino-    Swedish Expedition, Publication 21-VIII: Etnography, vol. 4)  1964 « Singing Contests in Central Asia». Studia Ethnomusicologica Eurasiatica (Stockholm) : 86-90. 
1935-39 Wörterbuch zu Manghal un niuca tobca’an, Die Geheime Geschichte der Mongolen. Teil 1:  «Text aus der chinesischen Transkription im mongolischen Wortlaut wiederhergestellt». Teil 2: «Wörterbuch dazu». Leipzig. 
1959 Les représentations religieuses des peuples altaïques. Traduit de l’allemand par J. L. Perret. Paris: Gallimard (Coll. «L’espèce humaine», N° 15). 
1982 « Atomisme et pythagorisme phéniciens aux origines des théories et des notations de la musique». In: Le  livre et le Liban jusqu’à 1900. Paris: UNESCO, p. 47-57.
1984 «Aspects méconnus des théories et notations antiques et de leur transmission». In: Musicologie  médiévale. Notations et séquences. Table ronde de paléographie musicale, Orléans, CNRS-IRHT, 6-7  septembre 1982. Paris: Editions du CNRS, p. 67-99. 
1971 La Bibliothèque de Photius, tome VI, codex 243. Paris: Éd. Les Belles Lettres. 
1953 Les rites de chasse chez les peuples sibériens. Paris: Gallimard (Coll. «L’espèce humaine», N° 9). ROUX  Jean-Paul 1966 Faune et flore sacrées dans les sociétés altaïques. Paris : Adrien-Maisonneuve. 
1984 Mongol Domog (Légendes mongoles). Oulan Bator: Académie des Sciences, Section de littérature. 
1968 Origine des instruments de musique. Introduction ethnologique à l’histoire de la musique instrumentale.  Paris/La Haye : Mouton. 
1960 «Le rôle de la musique dans la mythologie et les rites des civilisations non européennes». In: Histoire de   la musique, vol. 1 (publiée sous la direction de Roland Manuel). Paris: Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, p. 131-214. 
1969 «O melose Mongol’skoj Narodnoj Pesni, v Muzyka Narodov Azij i Afriki; kniga 1 ; izdat». Sovietskij     Kompozitor (Moskva): 236-49 
Rough Translation Michael Ormiston March 12th 2022