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Review: Mongolian Film Music

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Current research on Mongolian music and arts is still limited, and so the addition of Lucy Rees’s new book on Mongolian film music is especially welcome. Rees’s work is based on numerous interviews with contemporary film producers, composers, film technicians and film researchers in Mongolia, as well as on her own archive works. Her book provides not only a historical overview of the development of Mongolian film music and film production since the 1921 revolution, but also an account of how Western art music and composers have entered the mainstream of Mongolia’s musical scene.

The text is presented chronologically, and is divided into sections dealing with general information on Mongolian traditional music and a brief history of Mongolia (Chapters 1 and 2), with Mongolian film music during the Soviet period (Chapters 3–5), and with the development of the film industry in the years prior to and following the democratic revolution of 1989/90 (Chapters 6 and 7). This schema allows for an account, not only of the processes by which Mongolia gained experience with the medium of film, but also of the changing approach to traditional Mongolian music and the Western-style art music which imitated the work of Soviet film composers. Rees also discusses the careers of some leading composers during the second half of the Soviet era, and the post-Soviet era.

While the first two chapters rehearse material which has already been discussed by previous music scholars (Carole Pegg, 1991, 1992, 1995, 2001; Peter Marsh, 2006, 2009), it is in the middle section that Rees’s book establishes itself on firmer ground. Her discussion of rarely-addressed topics such as the overall development of Mongolia’s film industry, state censorship, radio, and television broadcasts of films, as well as the early development of musical and cultural experiences of music teachers and composers sponsored by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, vividly transports the reader into Mongolia’s cultural scene during the period between the founding of the film industry in 1935 and the late 1980s, while also presenting the important political transitions as they related to Soviet cultural policy.

In discussing the beginnings of the film industry, Rees considers the film Tsogt Taij (1945), narrating the powerful expression of propaganda through music and plot, while through an analysis of The Clear River Tamir (Tungalag Tamir, 1970-3) she illustrates the development of film music as a genre, and how the composers’ training affected the political and psychological aspects of film. She describes this film as “in many ways, exemplary of the [State film studio’s] output of the 1970s in terms of cinematic style, ideological content and soundtrack” (p. 75), and her description, not only of the musical elements – cues and underscoring – but also of plot and characterization, is noteworthy for the way in which it examines the fluctuation of the protagonist Erdene’s mind through the psychological effects of the composer Tsegmediin Namsraijav’s score, as well as how these effects contribute to the ideological underpinning of the drama. The last film Rees analyzes is Mandukhai the Wise Queen (Mandukhai Tsetsen Khatan, 1988), showing how, towards the end of the Soviet period, at the same time as perestroika was bringing transition to the Soviet Union, in Mongolia newly-trained younger composers, such as Natsagiin Jantsannorov in his score for this film, were able to return to nationalistic themes. In her final chapter, the author illustrates how the form of film music developed during the late 1980s and 1990s. This development, while not limited to the hybrid nature of Mongolian traditional music and Western symphonic music which appears in the book’s previous chapters, illustrates the influence of popular music and the further utilization of symbols of Mongolian nationalism such as Genghis Khan, in the films made after 1990.

Although, given its subtitle, Tradition, Revolution and Propaganda, this book’s theme appears to be focused more on the Soviet period, the author in fact attempts a far broader history of Mongolian film, bringing the genre into the 21st century. Her discussion in Chapter 7 of film and the music used in the films show the more contemporary musical landscape in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, not only from films made by Mongolians but also from films about made by foreign companies. Although she provides good analysis of more recent, post-Soviet Mongol films – such as Whirlpool, Khadak, Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan, and The Story of the Weeping Camel – it would have been more effective, given the fact that the entire chapter treats of this post-Soviet period, had she chosen just one post-1990 film and given it the same in-depth treatment that she gives to The Clear River Tamir. That said, Rees’s analysis of film and film music are easy to understand even for non-music specialists; while they are perhaps more descriptive than analytical, they bring valuable insights to understanding the songs and historical moments related to the stories portrayed in these films, and benefit considerably from the author’s broad knowledge of film music in other regions.

Rees’s book presents a lot of historical information concerning Mongolian music. It would have been difficult, in a work of some 200 pages, to provide more in-depth analysis of the specific issues and characteristics of more selected important Mongolian films, their history and their music, and Rees’s particular achievement is to have provided a good starting-point for further scholarship. There is no doubt that Mongolian Film Music is an important and exciting contribution to the study of modern Mongolia and its culture. Her diligent research is especially valuable, given that research into Mongolia’s nomadic oral culture has to be based on interviews, and so often suffers from a lack of historical materials. Rees’s book contains material unavailable elsewhere in English, and addresses issues necessary for the understanding of Mongolia’s recent development, and I am sure that, like me, anybody who is interested in film music, as well as in Mongolian cultural studies, will thoroughly enjoy reading it.

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