The Music of Mongolia

New narratives from the steppes: The ensembles Egschiglen and Khusugtun.

No Central Asian musical culture has become as well-known in Europe as that of Mongolia. Mongolian ensembles began to perform in European concert halls and pedestrian precincts nearly 30 years ago, and the fascination with the sounds of overtone singing and the horsehead fiddle has remained alive in our part of the world to this day. Partly thanks to contact with Western musicians, Mongolian music has developed many stylistic subtleties. The formations Egschiglen and Khusugtun are prime examples of the great diversity of their country's music.

The sound of the steppes

Landscape influences music, and a region's topography is reflected in its music: this applies in particular to Mongolia with its immense expanses of steppe and desert and its mighty mountain ranges. The unique horizon, the raw elements and the sounds made by the animals have found their way into the music of the nomadic cowherds. The very peaceful and melancholy long songs known as Urtiin Duu give expression to this sense of life, and the observations of nature are sometimes transposed to the philosophical and spiritual plane, showing connections with the animistic or Buddhist view of the world.

Khöömei :Mit Obertönen singen

The vocal technique called Khöömei is quite unique: it enables Mongolian singers to lift specific overtones out of the root tone and make them into melodies. Use is often made of the Khargyraa technique, where the first undertone comes to the fore. The overtones, wich have a »whistling« character, can be heard over a considerable distance. Another special feature of Mongolian music and of that of the surrounding region is the morin khuur, a fiddle with carvings of horse's heads that reproduces the neighing of horses in its melodies and their gallop in its rhythms.

None © Egschiglen
Janlav Tumursaikhan


None © Egschiglen
None © Khusugtun
None © Khusugtun
None © Khusugtun

The Artists: Egschiglen

In April 2020, the ensembles Egschiglen and Khusugtun were to present music from their native Mongolia in the Elbphilharmonie. Unfortunately, the concert had to be cancelled, but their music is well worth hearing.

With their innovative style of playing, the members of Egschiglen (the name means »lovely melody«) can be seen as the fathers of modern Mongolian music. The ensemble was founded by friends who were studying together at the college of music in Ulan-Bator. They joined forces in the early 90s with the aim of performing contemporary Mongolian music well removed from folk music clichés. In Egschiglen's arrangements, the long songs, as well as the epic Tuuli pieces and the Magtaal songs of praise (e.g. the one praising Genghis Khan), achieve a new level of polish and refinement that is reminiscent of classical chamber music. The simultaneous use of several horsehead fiddles produces textures that may remind us of Western string quartets. Egschiglen are open to cooperation with DJs or rock musicians, and they have already coupled folk songs from their new home in Franconia's Altmühltal with overtone singing and morin khuur (the horsehead fiddle).

Egschiglen at the Hide & Seek Festival in Brussels

Trio Egschiglen
Trio Egschiglen © Habere Poche

The Artists: Khusugtun

»The miracle of overtone singing is that one person can produce two tones at the same time – a melody in the high register and a deep bass.«

Ensemble Khusugtun

The musical language of the next generation of Mongolian musicians is reflected in the sextet Khusugtun (the literal meaning is »chariot«), which describes its style as »ethnic ballad«. The young members of the group impress the listener with the compact layering of the vocal technique Khöömei (see below for explanation) and with songs that pay tribute to the sublimity of nature. Some of their pieces have a drive almost redolent of rock music, and it's a fact that they met with an enthusiastic response in the young talent show »Voice of Asia«. The arrangements are enriched by the singer Amarbayasgalan Chovjoo, who provides a bright contrast to the Khöömei with her limbe flute and more rarely-played curved zither yatga.

Khusugtun: concert excerpt

© Khusugtun

Text: Stefan Franzen, Stand: 8.4.2020

  • The horsehead fiddle (morin khuur)

    The horsehead fiddle is the epitome of Mongolian culture. Its trapeziform soundbox used to be strung with camelskin, goatskin or sheepskin, but nowadays it is made entirely of wood, and has two f-shaped sound holes. It produces a sound reminiscent of the cello. The melody lines often imitate the neighing of horses, while the rhythms of the faster pieces remind one of a gallop.

  • The Chinese zither (yatga)

    One of the most important Chinese instruments is the curved zither known as the guzheng, which can look back on a history of some 2,500 years. The almost identical Mongolian yatga is derived from it. The yatga has 21 pentatonically tuned strings that are plucked with the fingernails of the right hand, while the left hand varies the pitch by shortening the strings.

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