Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute

Dina Nurpeisova & Zhambyl Zhabayev (1946)



Negotiating “Free Meter” in Kazakh Folk Song
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Please join the Harriman Institute for a Director’s Seminar with Knar Abrahamyan. Moderated by Valentina Izmirlieva.

After Kazakhstan’s forced integration into the USSR in 1920, the Soviet state sponsored publications of folk music to celebrate the so-called “the friendship of the peoples.” The Russian-born ethnographer Aleksander Zatayevich (1869–1936) was the first to extensively collect and publish Kazakh songs. Among challenges in transcription Zatayevich mentioned that “the majority of songs allowed great liberty to free meter.” He further ascribed “irregularity,” “non-squaredeness,” and “variability” of meter to biological inferiority.

This lecture examines approaches to meter in Kazakh vocal and instrumental folk music to show that negotiation of free meter was far more than a neutral artistic or scholarly endeavor. By tracing the afterlives of Zatayevich’s transcriptions, I argue that references to Kazakh free meter by Russocentric musicians, including Boris Erzakovich and Nikolai Tiftikidi, illuminate the glaring presence of racialization in the USSR. I place the discourse on free meter alongside nineteenth-century Russian anthropological writings that highlighted Kazakh people’s presumed backwardness and inferiority. As an alternative to evolutionistic approaches to free meter, I turn to Kazakh theorists—such as Asiia Baigaskina and Il’ias Kozhabekov—who link metro-rhythmic foundations of Kazakh music to the structure of language and prosody. Ultimately, I show that the Soviet state’s utopian claims about communism’s defeat of racism and colonialism was nothing but propaganda that aimed to conceal the polarized socio-cultural reality within the multiethnic Soviet empire.

Knar Abrahamyan is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Race at Columbia University’s Department of Music. Knar’s work examines the historical and political entanglements of cultural production. Her forthcoming book, Opera as Statecraft in Soviet Armenia and Kazakhstan, re-envisions Soviet music history by analyzing the power dynamics between the state and its ethnic and racial Others. It explores opera as a contested imperial space through which the Soviet state pursued colonial subjugation under the guise of cultural modernization. Her work on Soviet music and politics was published in the DSCH Journal and a collected volume, Analytical Approaches to 20th-Century Russian Music. Knar is a recipient of the Fulbright Research Fellowship in Moscow, a Metropolitan Opera Education Department Fellowship, and the American Research Institute of the South Caucasus Research Fellowship (funded by the US Department of State Bureau).

Image: Abram Cherkassky, Dina Nurpeisova & Zhambyl Zhabayev (1946)