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CONTINUUM in Mongolia

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ontinuum is known for its unorthodox repertory and its tours to unusual places. From June 10 to 18, 2000, our travels took us to what must be one of the most unusual locations for contemporary music -- the Republic of Mongolia, where we were among the 35 musicians in the second "Roaring Hooves" festival of contemporary music. The Continuum performers were Martha Elliott, soprano; Ulla Suokko, flute; David Gresham, clarinet; Tom Chiu, violin; Alberto Parrini, cello; Cheryl Seltzer, pianist, and Joel Sachs, pianist and conductor.

"Mongolia" is a familiar name; thirteenth-century Mongolians, led by Genghis Khan, conquered most of Asia and some of Europe. But it is surprising to discover how few people even know where Mongolia is located. Actually, Mongolians who live in Asia are divided among the Republic ("Outer Mongolia"), an oval about twice the size of France, and its northern and southern neighbors, China (which contains "Inner Mongolia") and Siberian Russia. Sparsely populated, the Republic of Mongolia's vast lands largely are used for cattle, sheep, and goat grazing and some wheat farming; much of the territory is the northern section of the Gobi desert. Mongolia's rural inhabitants, largely nomadic herders, live in gers (better known by their Russian name "yurt"), round tent-like structures whose walls, a sandwich of felt and canvas, form an excellent insulator against the extremes of temperature, which can range from as low as -80F to well over 100F. The main city is the capital, Ulaan Baatar ("Red City"), a not overly attractive city that shows many signs of having been built during the communist period. On the face of it, this would not seem like the location for an 8-concert international contemporary music festival.

The story of our visit began in April, 1999, when a music editor of Mongolian Radio-TV heard Continuum's performances in Uzbekistan and proposed inviting the ensemble to her country. By an odd coincidence, I soon received, from a different source, a program for the 1999 "Roaring Hooves Festival." Surmising that it was the festival to which she had referred, I became determined to make the trip happen. Although it proved difficult to make contact with the correct people, we ultimately received an official invitation, and secured travel grants from Arts International and the Trust for Mutual Understanding that assured our participation.

The process of selecting our repertory revealed, however, that this would be no ordinary festival. The programs, organized by the German percussionist and conductor Bernhard Wulff, a man of remarkable imagination and energy, had a peculiar feature: each concert would contain performances by many of those participating. No performer or ensemble would have its own program. And some of the participants would be Mongolian traditional throat-singers and instrumentalists. Moreover, half the festival would take place in the north Gobi desert, two of them out-of-doors -- a prospect that seemed out of the ordinary, to say the least. There it was not possible to play quiet compositions: sand absorbs sound, and, furthermore, there would be noises of the horses.

The festival organizers had arranged a group fare for the 40-odd festival participants, flying from Berlin June 11 on Mongolian airways (MIAT). Although traveling on a Mongolian plane seemed a little more exotic that desirable, there was no alternative. Furthermore, flying by way of Berlin involves an extra change of planes because there still are no direct flights to the German capital. Timing was of the essence: we needed a considerable margin to change planes somewhere for the short hop to Berlin, and then ample time to change for the MIAT flight. The best option was by way of Amsterdam, though a shortage of seats required two Continuum players and the cello to go through Paris. They were the lucky ones. Because of a very delayed departure from New York, those of us going through Amsterdam very nearly missed our connection to Berlin. Since the next MIAT flight did not leave until five days later, this would have been a disaster. In fact, our luggage did not make the connection. We now know that shopping for clothing in Berlin's Tegel Airport is an excellent way to lighten the wallet! Our irritation greatly diminished, however, when Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, the distinguished Azerbaijani composer and a great friend of Continuum, unexpectedly arrived at the airport to keep us company. continued...

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Click the image to see our Mongolian album.

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