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[music for an unknown instrument]

Work no. 225

The music presented in the PDF below was collected in Baranikha, Chukotka, in the late 1960s. The manuscript was completed by V. K., a Moscow-based architect and art collector who was, from 2012 to 2019, the principal collector of paintings by my former spouse ( The account, as related to me by V. K. in late 2013, is as follows.

In the late 1960s V. K. and a group of friends and colleagues set out on a summer expedition to Chukotka to see the then newly discovered Pegtymel petroglyphs. One of the members of the group had family in Pevek, which facilitated the journey. During the group’s stay in Baranikha (a settlement that has since disappeared), they met two older men, “Chukchas” according to V. K., who the locals described as shamans. During Soviet times and after the dissolution of the USSR especially, the word Chukcha was used in a derogatory manner to refer to any number of ethnic groups of the region; I doubt that the men were Chuckchas. The term “shaman” was quite probably misapplied in the same manner.

Although V. K. was aware of the “[frame] drums with drawings” shamans used, the older men had no such instruments. Instead, one of them played a string instrument with several sound boxes and a multitude of short metal strings. The pieces of music (if that’s what they were) the man performed were very short, contained extremely high-pitched sounds executed on very short strings, and V. K. was fascinated by them enough to attempt a transcription. He enlisted the help of Pavel N., a friend and former classmate in a Soviet state-run music school, who unlike V. K. had perfect pitch.

The transcription process was arduous. Language barrier (the performer spoke no Russian, while nobody in V. K.’s group spoke any language other than Russian, or rudimentary English) prevented the researchers from understanding the origin or the intent of the pieces, or sometimes whether or not a piece was separate from the preceding one or a continuation of it. Although the high-pitched sounds would decay quickly, the performer would frequently make a point of muting an already silent string long after the sound died. And although the performer would happily repeat a piece over and over for the benefit of the transcribers, there was apparently a limit to the number of repeats of each particular piece per day – and although the performer would concede to playing the pieces again the next day, there was one piece V. K. and Pavel only heard three times on the second day of work, after which the performer apparently refused to play it completely.

The instrument itself was, from V. K.’s description, constructed from several sound boxes of various shapes and sizes, glued together into an instrument slightly larger than a guitar. It was decorated with textiles and pieces of leather, some with hair intact. The performer had a supply of strings, and on at least two occasions V. K. observed him replacing the strings, and on day three one of the sound boxes was removed and replaced by a different one.

V. K. made several attempts to publish the music, but was unable to find an interested party. He allowed me to make photographs, typeset, and publish the music. More information on the manuscript, the peculiarities of the transcriptions, and the editorial choices I had to make, are available in the PDF linked below. For convenience and ease of listening, I have chosen a piano sound set to make the MIDI versions. A more authentic version would probably involve a guitar or two, and extensive usage of harmonics.


    [music for an unknown instrument] – PDF score

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