[More on Azerbaijani music]

Mugam is one of the many musical traditions of Azerbaijan. It is a highly complex form of art music (as opposed to folk music) with specific systems and concepts of musical expression that demand of its performers a very high standard of professionalism.[1] Mugam belongs to the system of modal music and has close ties to the Persian and Arabian musical tradition. It is therefore meta-ethnical, because it is not restricted to one particular region but covers a wide area of the Middle and Far East. The Uighurs in Xinjian (Sinkiang) call this musical development “Muqam,” the Uzbeks and Tadjiks call it “Maqom” (also “Shasmaqom”), while the Arabs, Persians and Turks call it “Maqam.” In Azerbaijan the word is Mugam. It is based on many different modes and tonal scales where different relations between notes and scales are envisaged and developed.

The meta-ethnicity (and dazzling complexity) of this music also becomes apparent in the fact that terms such as “mugam,” “maqam,” or “dastgah,” omnipresent in oriental music, can mean one thing in the Turkish tradition, while the same term in the music of Uzbekistan takes on quite another meaning, and yet another in the classical Arabian tradition. So, in one culture “mugam” may be related to a strictly fixed melodic type, while in another it is only the cadences, i. e. the melody endings that are associated with it. In a third culture it may only correspond to a specific type of tone scales.

It is therefore not surprising that reference works give insufficient information (if any at all) about the concept, since it is not easy to define: “[M]usicologists mutter something incomprehensible (because, with a few exceptions, they don’t know either), and the Azeri people explain it in such a roundabout manner that it is impossible to work it out.” (Skans).

Part of the confusion arises from the fact that the term itself can have two different, if related meanings. The famous Azeri composer Kara Karayev has the following explanation: “The expression ‘Mugam’ is used in two senses in the folk music of Azerbaijan. On the one hand the word ‘Mugam’ describes the same thing as the term ‘lad’ [Russian for key, mode, scale]. An analysis of Azeri songs, dances and other folk-music forms show that they are always constructed according to one [of these] modes. On the other hand the term ‘Mugam’ refers to an individual, multi-movement form. This form combines elements of a suite and a rhapsody, is symphonic in nature, and has its own set of structural rules. In particular one should observe that the ‘Suite-Rhapsody-Mugam’ is constructed according to one particular ‘Mode-Mugam’ and is subject to all of the particular requirements of this mode.” (Sovietskaya Muzkya 1949:3).

“Mugam,” describe a specific type of musical composition and performance, which is hard to grasp with western concepts of music in another respect: for one, Mugam composition is improvisational in nature. At the same time it follows exact rules. Furthermore, in the case of a “Suite-Rhapsody-Mugam” the concept of improvisation is not really an accurate one, since the artistic imagination of the performers is based on a strict foundation of principles determined by the respective mode. The performance of mugams does therefore not present an amorphous and spontaneous, impulsive improvisation.[2] 

The songs are often based on the ancient poetry of Azerbaijan, and although love is a common topic in these poems, to the uninitiated ear many of the intricacies and allusions are lost. For one, the poems do not primarily deal with worldly love but with the mystical love for god. Yet, strictly speaking, this is still secular music/poetry, as opposed to, say, Sufism. Nevertheless, mugam composition is designed very similarly to Sufism in that it seeks to achieve ascension from a lower level of awareness to a transcendental union with god. It is a spiritual search for god. 

[1] This is not to say that traditional folk music is any less demanding in terms of skills or values! — Azerbaijan also has a great tradition of composers and musicians of western classical music. Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) was the first Azeri composer of classical music to write mugams for symphony orchestras. Such works are obviously very different from traditional mugam formations but in fact incorporate many mugam idioms. On the level of musicians there remains a strict separation between classical and “traditional” music in terms of training. Even if the musicians are educated at one and the same conservatory they stick to one camp.

[2] With respect to the concept of improvisation, Mugam music is often put in relation to jazz, a comparison that is accurate to a certain point only. Although Mugam does allow for a wide margin of interpretation, an equation with jazz is oversimplified, since it fails to account for the different kinds of improvisation for different Mugam modes. The performance of a certain Mugam may last for hours. (For the uninitiated listener it is close to impossible to know whether a musician is actually improvising or playing a prearranged composition.) Furthermore, as Karayev stresses, Mugam music has a symphonic character.