Hop audiences regularly experience the births of brand-new work, and March 1 was a particularly fine example: the world premiere of Qyrq Qyz (Turkic for “Forty Girls” or “Forty Maidens”), a multimedia retelling of an ancient epic Central Asian poem about courageous young female warriors. Developed with the support of the Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI) and co-commissioners that included the Hop, Qyrq Qyz seamlessly combines live music performance and projected video, as well as both ancient and contemporary music. After other New England performances, the show will be performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 23 and 24.
A cutting-edge collaboration between two of Uzbekistan’s greatest contemporary artists—filmmaker Saodat Ismailova and composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky—Qyrq Qyz tells the story of 40 women warriors who defend their land against Persian invaders and establish a rule of justice and compassion. Against a backdrop of projected images that transport us to the wind-scoured steppes of Central Asia, seven virtuosic young female bards from that region sing, recite and play traditional instruments to share an ancient oral epic of female courage and empowerment.
Making this show a reality required courage as well. Before the March 1 premiere at the Hop, Ismailova sat down with Dartmouth musicologist and AKMI consultant Theodore Levin to discuss her own epic journey to bring this tale to a wider, contemporary audience. We filmed their conversation, before an audience in the Top of the Hop,
Ismailova is one of the most internationally visible and accomplished representatives of a new generation of artists from Central Asia who came of age in the post-Soviet era and have established cosmopolitan artistic lives while remaining deeply engaged with their native region as a source of creative inspiration.
Her Qyrq Qyz production is based on the epic story of Gulayim, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Allayar, a ruler of the semi-nomadic Karakalpak people, who lives in the fortress of Sarkop. Gulayim receives a gift of land from her father on the island of Miueli, where a fort is built for Gulayim and her forty female companions—young women whom she trains in the art of war to defend their lands against invaders. Sarkop is invaded by the Kalmyk khan Surtaishi; Gulayim’s father is killed in battle, and many Sarkopians are led away into captivity. Hearing of the invasion, Gulayim and her 40 companions vanquish Surtaishi and the Kalmyks, liberate the captive Sarkopians, and demand that the Kalmyk invaders offer compensation for the destruction they wreaked upon the Karakalpaks. Before the battle, Aryslan, a knight from the neighboring kingdom of Khorezm, seeks the love of Gulayim, and Gulayim invites him to join her not in love, but in war. Following their victory, Gulayim and Aryslan join their lands, uniting peoples from different tribes and ethnicities, and build a society founded on peace and compassion.
In Ismailova’s luminous reimagining of the story, video filmed in the wind-scoured Karakalpak steppe and other locations in Uzbekistan is woven together with a musical score by Yanov-Yanovsky that merges ambient sounds of the steppe and live percussion with onstage performance by a group of intrepid young female bards—living embodiments of Gulayim and her forty companions. These bards perform songs and instrumental music drawn from the traditional styles and genres of epic reciters, shamanic healers, improvising oral poets, virtuoso solo instrumentalists, and singers of female love songs.
Among Central Asian nomadic peoples, poetic verse, singing, and musical instruments were believed to have therapeutic powers—in particular, the power to heal the psyche, and, by extension, to bring about social equilibrium and harmony. In Central Asian Turkic languages, terms for “epic reciter” and “traditional healer” or “shaman” are often cognate—for example, among the Karakalpaks, a baqsy is an epic singer whereas among the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, a baqsy (or bakshy) is a traditional healer— evidence that both professions developed from the same cultural practice. Qyrq Qyz filters the panoramic landscape and soundscape of the Central Asian epic world captured by Saodat Ismailova through the prism of Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s lambent compositional imagination, providing a modernistic gloss on an ancient tale. This is appropriate, for the story of Gulayim and the Forty Girls is at once primordial, universal, and urgently contemporary.
For Ismailova, Qyrq Qyz continues her commitment to telling the stories of the women she grew up among. Her debut feature film 40 Days of Silence, a poignant depiction of four generations of Tajik women living in the complete absence of men, was nominated for best debut film at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, and thereafter was screened in more than two dozen prestigious festivals around the world. Her video installation Zukhra was featured in the Central Asian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and her documentary film Aral: Fishing in an Invisible Sea won Best Documentary at the 2004 Turin Film Festival. Among many other works are nine music documentaries for the CD-DVD anthology Music of Central Asia, co-produced by the Aga Khan Music Initiative and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Ismailova resides in Tashkent and Paris, and is affiliated with Le Fresnoy, France’s National Studio of Contemporary Arts.