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CONTINUUM in Mongolia

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The trip ended at "Bayan Gobi," a kind of hotel made of the traditional gers, sitting right at the edge of the desert, about 6000 feet above sea level. We were nearly 100 in all: 32 musicians from the US, Canada, Europe, Kirghizstan, India, Mexico, Vietnam, and Mongolia, plus about 50 music students from Ulaan Baatar, several administrators, and 10 non-musician guests from Germany and Switzerland, people with a love for new music and an interest in travel. The camp was simple but very comfortable: each ger housed four people; a large ger contained a decent restaurant; a third building had lavatory and wash facilities that were clean and comfortable, except for the day when the water failed. The food, as in the hotel in Ulaan Baatar, seemed more German than Mongolian, which had the advantage that there were vegetables in addition to the normal Mongolian diet of meat. Best of all was the scenery -- mountains in the distance on all sides, sand dunes and pastures, a little river, and incredible skies. We were cautioned not to poke under the stones of "Snake Rock" for obvious reasons, nor to climb the nearby mountain at night and risk disturbing the wolves. On that first night, Tuesday, we gave a concert in the restaurant ger, largely directed to the students, the other festival participants, and a few tourists who occupied the remaining space at the camp. Friendships were forming rapidly: for some, the partying went on until very late.

Wednesday was the most astonishing day of that week. In the morning some of the musicians gave workshops, which, although primarily intended for the Mongolian students, were attended by those performers who were not otherwise occupied. One of the most attractive, offered by a young Mongolian throat-singer, was attended by most of the Continuum performers, with Continuum's string players Tom and Alberto trying their hands at the singer's beautiful Mongolian horse-head fiddle, the Morin Khuur. At mid-day a mini-Nadaam (Mongolian sports festival) drew a large crowd from the nomadic residents of the area, some of whom rode for two or three hours to participate or watch. The nadaam included a horse race, in which the "jockeys" -- perhaps 75 -- were approximately six to sixteen years old, riding the small, fast, and incredibly beautiful Mongolian horses. In fact, the whole music festival had been timed to coincide with the mini-nadaam, which had attracted a crowd some of whom had ridden for hours to be there.

The festival concert was scheduled for 5 PM, when the sun was beginning to go low. It took place in a flat space between two enormous sand dunes (perhaps 60 feet high), one of which served as a spectacular backdrop against the brilliant blue sky, the other of which was to hold the audience. The presence of a loudspeaker system and the video cameras of Mongolian TV made the setting quite surreal. Around 4:30, while doing a sound-check, we looked up in astonishment as the audience began to arrive on horseback or on foot, until some 500 people, from babies to old people, were seated on the dune, some with their horses. (I was told that about 100 horses were parked beyond the dune.) It was indescribably moving to see these people, who live a harsh existence in a not very forgiving nature, listening attentively to a combination of Western contemporary music and Mongolian traditional music. Apart from an understandable tendency to chat now and then, they could not have been a better audience, and all of us came away having tossed aside our preconceptions about who can "understand" new music. (One should not romanticize the nomads' relationship with nature, however. Although they live in harmony with their environment, they have a distressing habit of chucking trash all over it. There were no trash receptacles anywhere, and the vendors of water at the nadaam looked mystified when we returned the empty plastic bottles to them.) Continuum's contribution to this concert was a group of piano four-hands pieces by Conlon Nancarrow, which we played on an old spinet trucked from Ulaan Baatar, carried in over the sand dunes, and missing ten hammers! But who could complain? After the concert everyone dispersed for dinner, reassembling at 10 PM when a shaman performed a magical-religious ceremony, after which the hundreds of local people vanished into the countryside.

Thursday, after another morning of workshops, a two-hour bus ride brought us to Erdene Zuu Monastery, near the site of Genghis Khan's ancient capital at Karakorum. The capital itself has long- since disappeared, and the magnificent monastery complex -- whose walls could easily contain all of Lincoln Center -- was reduced to a handful of structures when, in the late 1930s, the communist party ordered the destruction of nearly every monastery in the country and the extermination or exile of the monks. It was still quite a site for the outdoor concert, which was attended by about 500 local people. Continuum's David Gresham, playing Elliott Carter's clarinet solo Gra, found himself unexpectedly in a dialogue with a very vocal falcon perched at the top of the temple. On the way back to Bayan Gobi camp, we stopped for refreshments (sandwiches, cookies, tea, and fermented mares' milk) at a ger camp on the bank of a river at the foot of beautiful mountains, where we almost seemed to be in Switzerland or Colorado. A evening performance at Bayan Gobi was cancelled because of general exhaustion resulting from performing, travelling, and increasingly long and boisterous nights.

Friday's bus ride back to Ulaan Baatar took even longer than the one on Tuesday -- eight hours for 120 miles -- because one bus cracked a spring. On arrival we were happy to learn that our luggage had finally arrived, though I had to go to the airport to get it out of customs. There were two concerts, one at the Museum of Natural History, amid its spectacular dinosaur collection (temporarily missing its famous "fighting dinosaurs", which happened to be on exhibit in New York!), and another after dinner, at the hotel restaurant; both were extremely well attended. Finally, on Saturday, the festival concluded with a five and one-half hour concert at a discotheque, attended by several hundred, mostly young people who, despite numerous technical problems and delays, stayed for most of the long evening. Continuum performed works by Nancarrow, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (Azerbaijan), Chinary Ung (Cambodia/US), Paul Desenne (Venezuela), and Francis Schwartz (US). Schwartz's piece, "Cannibal-Caliban," was done in Mongolian, to the delight of the audience, which participated spiritedly in its conclusion.

Little sleep was had after the final party, which was just as well considering how much time everyone was to spend sitting on planes and trains the next day. Several Continuum players took advantage of the stop in Berlin to stay for two days and enjoy the nice weather and the rapidly growing German capital. The flights home were again marked by great delays from Amsterdam. MIAT emerged as the only on-time airline.

This report is a weak representation of the amazing experience, which was absolutely the opposite of what one might have expected in a poor, isolated country of north-central Asia. In addition, the excellent quality of the festival group -- warm, intelligent people who were first-class performers -- led to many new friendships and professional relationships. The whole thing was made possible by the enormous energy of the Mongolian and German organizers, and by the generous support of the Open Society Institute, Mongolia.

The defining moment came late Wednesday night, after the shaman ceremony, when one of the nomadic girls, who spoke a little English, told a musician that she had a three-hour horseback ride home, and, "by the way, would you give me your email address so we can stay in touch?"

---- by Joel Sachs

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