A Melody Heard in the Mongol Script
The region of Umbria stands at the center of Italy. On the peak of a mountain in the north of this region is an ancient castle. The rhythmic castle which is the memory of history, this ancient stage of Civitella, binds together five hundred years. The contemporary owners of Civitella do not want to preserve this place, this rhythm of culture and intellectual thought, as a museum. Twenty years ago, it was decided to establish workshops and to make a constant living and pulsing art from the recitation of poetry, the remembrance of music, and the rainbow colors of fine art. The visitors on this occasion to the Ranieri Foundation in Civitella, fourteen creative artists from Brazil, America, Iran, India, Thailand, France, Estonia, Latvia and Mongolia, have come together to form a close family. Special studios have been set up for our art, spaces in the castle which have preserved its ancient history. A library, a meeting room, a concert hall, parks, a cafeteria and a place to take the sun...a place has been made here for unwinding and relaxing, for contemplation, and we need to do nothing but listen to our spirits.
Among the misty clouds above the castle, I grasp onto the dawn's light. As the dawn brightens, the mists thin, and the rising of the sun spreads across the hollows. The days are sunny. The bluegreen forests loom up, and when the evening comes, the voices of frogs echo strangely like music. Fireflies move among the trees, soaring like spiritual protectors.
I wake to the sound of a songbird at dawn, in a chestnut tree below the west-facing window on the third storey of the castle. As I meditate then and listen to the world, I have the most pleasurable opportunity to gather together my creativity. After meditating, I go downstairs to walk in the grounds, and I notice some of us are in the library, some are in the meeting room, and others meditating beneath the branches of the trees. Meditation is a steed which guides us to the paradise of Shambhala, a call to the creative spirit of artists.
After dinner, we drink wine, we create a little commotion as we walk among the trees.One evening, the Brazilian composer Felipe Lara says,
“I'd like to see your studio.” Guessing that I doubted what other interesting things I had apart from a scattering of of papers, he said,
“Don't worry. I'd like to see your calligraphy.”
The following day, Felipe came to my studio and looked eagerly at the newly written calligraphy which I had posted on the wall, and while he took in the crowns and teeth and final strokes, I took my brush and ink and, when I wrote the word for music,“högjim,” I brought the final stroke of the letter “m” into a wheel shape, like the body of a guitar. He said that this was the first time he had seen Mongolian script.
“Amazing,” he whispered, and then, “Could you write my favorite words please? Fire and water?”
“Mongol bichig, the Mongol script, has an extraordinary rhythm, a direct melody,” his words sparked a fire of pride in my cultural heritage. I remained alone in my studio. It was lovely. I was thinking that I take from the script the embryo of resounding cultural heritage, I spread my chest as though I was growing wings. I have a memory from when I was young in the countryside, in an old sheepskin deel, when my father taught me the alphabet in the Mongol script on the packed snow which cloaked the feathergrass on the sheep pasture. It resounds through people such as L.Damdinjav, who placed a brush in my hand and introduced me to Mongolian script culture, the scholar Sadoo Shagj, who was shot in 1937 because of his advocacy of our Mongolian bichig, and Ch.Luvsanjav, who wore his legs out reviving the people's script in this new era. I took up my brush and inkstone, thinking about how to draw a sketch to reach the mind of my friend from Brazil, who had heard the melody from the script. I cut a piece of the golden paper which I had brought in Taiwan and laid it out. With red ink I made the word “gal,” or “fire,” blaze forth, and in black ink I had the word “us,” or “water,” flow. Perhaps my writing would please my friend, as a response to his fine words about the melody heard in Mongolian script. I waited a while little, and that evening I brought him into my studio, and I gave him a calligraphy of the Mongolian words for music, fire and water. My Brazilian friend's eyes slowly gazed at me and said, over and over and over, in a low voice,
“Great! Great! Great!...” And then he looked at me as though saying, “Should I give you a reward for making a calligraphy for me?” And I said,
“This is gift from my heart,” and I took his hand, and he left, a little surprised.
Two evenings a week, visitors to the castle take turns presenting their work. On this occasion, I read my poetry and, as I showed translations of my poems into English, Italian and Spanish on a screen, my Mongol bichig created an overflowing melody. I noticed how my friend Felipe Lara was listening with great attention to the melody of the poetry, and looking at his calligraphies. After the thirty minutes of reading, my Italian audience and all my artist friends spent a long time congratulating me, and I explained that I was proud of the euphony of the Mongol language, and of our Mongolian cultural tradition. Both Felipe and the Latvian composer Jānis Petraškevičs agreed.
“Mongol bichig has a very special rhythm. And so does the melody of the language. It's not that I am a poet who reads his poetry so artfully. It's the magic of the Mongolian language.”
The following week, we were introduced to Felipe Lara's work. He teaches at New York University, and has invited an American flautist named Claire Chase to perform his suite for flute called “Parabolas na Caverna.” It's called a suite because about ten flutes of various sizes are played together, it's amazing how she plays while switching between instruments. Sometimes, the form is revealed like a melody produced in Ms Chase's playing. Felipe also plays in the piece, producing a rainbow melody by stroking the rim of a crystal wine-glass. At the end of their performance, he said,
Now I have a special present for you all,” and he talked about his visit to my studio.
“This is the first time that my new piece, 'Meditation and Calligraphy' is being heard,” he added.
“I've written this piece for the Mongolian poet Mend-Ooyo,” and he presented me with the score. He had signed the score and on it had written, “Dedicated to G.Mend-Ooyo. 2014.5.23. Civitella Ranieri, Umbria, Italy.” That evening, I felt a great joy and pride. I got the artists who had come that evening and the Italian audience write in their notebooks using Mongol bichig.
“What a beautiful script!”
“It's your first attempt!” I shouted my encouragement. At the end of the evening, Felipe Lara grabbed hold of my hand, he said, “Mongol calligraphy has really hypnotized me,” and he had me stroke the rim of his wine-glass.
After I had come back from Civitella, we were Facebook friends. I was looking once at a picture which Felipe had posted of his study at home, and on the wall next to his piano he had hung my two calligraphies - “music” and “fire and water” - in elegant frames. Everything had been incomplete. Through the beneficence of the electronic network, I read some fascinating comments about my Mongol script. There was a continual flow of news about Felipe's east-coast tour of America with Claire Chase, and there was news of the performance of the piece which he had dedicated to me, “Meditation and Calligraphy.”
The Editor of the New York Flute Club Newsletter, Katherine Saenger, in a “Gala Concert Postscript,” wrote to her readers, “It is interesting that I have not shared the story behind 'Meditation and Calligraphy' with you,” and then she included the composer's own account, written for a program note for a concert in Boston. Felipe Lara wrote:
“From April to June I was fortunate to take part in a residency at Civitella Ranieri, a 15th Century castle turned foundation and residency in Umbria, Italy. One former fellow, G. Mend-Ooyo, a Mongolian poet and calligrapher particularly called my attention. He was born and raised by a nomadic herding family, in the Mongolian steppe; his work has been translated in forty languages.
“I ask him to show me some of his work and he invited me for visit his studio in order to see the work he had produced during the residency at Civitella. Mend-Ooyo’s calligraphy particularly impressed me. The bold gestures, elemental lyricism, and minute details were astounding to me. The following afternoon Mend-Ooyo presented me with two wonderful calligraphies, both in black, red, pencil, over a yellow and gold paper; one with the Mongolian symbol for music, the other with fire and water symbols. I asked Mend-Ooyo:
“How do you create such incredible calligraphies?” He replied, “Meditation, meditation, meditation for a very long time…then calligraphy with one quick gesture.” I found the approach extremely poetic.
“The following week Claire Chase arrived at the castle to work with me on Parábolas na Caverna and play a solo concert. I decided to present Mend-Ooyo with a small piece, as a gesture of my gratitude. I decided that I would “meditate” or imagine the general character of a solo bass flute work for an entire evening, then wake up and write it in less than 30 minutes.
“The work uses the letters of G. Mend-Ooyo’s name as a starting point for the pitch material: G (sol), Me (E flat, from solfege), D (re), Do (C) The vowel sounds from his name are also used to modulate the flute when singing and playing simultaneously is required.”
The journalist mentioned something else in her article. She said that, in the audience that evening, was a translator named Mary Rossabi, who, with her husband, the eminent historian Morris Rossabi, a good friend of mine, had many times visited Mongolia. As Ms Saenger wrote at the end of her piece, it's a small world!
When I think about how my two calligraphies of the three words - “högjim,” “gal us” - written in the ancient Mongol script, have traveled the world, what coms from my heart does not grow smaller, but the world grows bigger in these two small texts, in these two brief melodies, in these two short steps.
And when I think about how the melody of my Mongol script is heard throughout the world, I am happy to have had the good fortune of being born on this earth. More than that, I am inordinately proud of our vertical Mongol script, descending as the earth does from the sky, like a serpent descending.
26 September 2015
This essay was published in "Gol us tungalagshig tsag" 2016 and "Ongon" 2018.