JOSEPH LERANGIS: ‘Melody of soul’ by B.Sharav led me to stay in Mongolia

JOSEPH LERANGIS: ‘Melody of soul’ by B.Sharav led me to stay in Mongolia

  • By Dashmaa   -   Jul 03,2023
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I talked to Joseph Lerangis from America, who loves Mongolian music, and therefore, studied it, and got his degree on the Mongolian music; he speaks and writes well in Mongolian. He was born and raised in New York City. He returned to his home after living in Mongolia for six years. Currently, he works as an associate professor and chief choirmaster at Cornell University. A few days ago, he came to Mongolia to follow up on the work to perform the works of Mongolian composers in America. 

Where and what you study?

I have three majors such as Chinese language, culture research, and music. I studied symphony orchestra and choir conducting at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. I received my master’s degree there and then received my doctorate at Yale University on the subject of “The Works of B.Sharav, one of the prominent Mongolian composers”.

Wow, that is very specific and interesting. 

Yes. The research was based on three of his musical compositions: “Zambuutiviin Naran” written in 1981, Symphony No. 2 composed in 1987, and “Chinggis Khaan bat orshig”. These were analyzed and worked on by music theory.

How did you come to Mongolia in the first place? 

On my birthday in 2010, my brother gave me an album with throat singing. My brother is a musician. I didn’t even hear about Asian culture. Hardly ever left New York. What was he thinking that of giving me such a gift? After listening to that album for almost a year, I liked throat singing. Every time I listened to it, I thought about what a strange sound, melody, and world it was. Since then, I have become interested in the Mongolian language, culture, and music. As a result, I was able to participate in the Fulbright Fellowship Program to study and research in this field. I spent almost a whole year preparing, sending the materials, and almost praying while waiting. “This is my only chance to go to Mongolia,” I thought of it. And that worked. Then, I came to Mongolia. The fellowship recipients must teach English in their country for a certain period. So I was teaching 20 hours a week at the Mongolian National University of Medical Sciences (MNUMS). At the same time, I started learning morin khuur, or horse-head fiddle, at the Egshiglen training center. I also was taught Mongolian language two to three times a week.

It seems like you were so busy. How old were you then?

I came to Mongolia when I was 21.

What did you think of Mongolia before coming here? 

When I came here, a Mongolian friend of mine asked, “Do you need to go to Mongolia? It’s very cold. Life in Ulaanbaatar is difficult. There are a lot of pickpockets everywhere. Maybe they will beat you. Are you sure you will go?” I just heard it at the time when I was going to leave my country. However, less than a week after I arrived, I lost my belongings, just as my friend told me. Also, in winter, I was beaten and my face and eyes were swollen. At night, when I raised my hand to get a ride from the road, four to five drunk guys got out of the car and beat me for no reason. The first year was difficult like this. I wanted to go home. However, after coming through the fellowship program, I didn’t want to go back, and I had to put up with everything. While living in such difficult conditions, I continued to learn the Mongolian language and morin khuur. Sometimes I think about these drunken youths. “Mongolia is a world of human culture. Why are guys like this? A foreigner has come to study their culture. But people here are like that.” But now, I am relieved.

Soon I was happily walking the streets of Ulaanbaatar. I find it interesting how people from different ethnic groups and foreigners of Mongolia live together in Ulaanbaatar. After teaching English to MNUMS students for one year, I worked as a music teacher at the American School of Ulaanbaatar. I taught middle and high school students. The school had ordered various musical instruments from abroad to implement the music curriculum of a secondary school in a Canadian province. It is very useful for students to play the instrument they chose in elementary school until they graduate from high school and when they enter the next level, university. Playing in a band at a college or university helps improve teamwork and be positive about things in general. This goal of the American School course was in line with my thoughts, so I worked very enthusiastically and actively. First, a wind instrument band was created. Later, a string ensemble was formed, consisting of a violin and a cello, even with a chorus. It was encouraging that the children enjoyed learning. Mongolian children learn music quickly and get used to things quickly.

Please tell me a little bit more about your degree. After analyzing the compositions of the composer B.Sharav, what conclusions did you draw?

I tried to bring out how the style of composing music by B.Sharav changed during the society change. A difference was observed. At the beginning of his career, the composer used to write in a very modern way, but after 2000, as can be seen from his eulogy “Chinggis Khaan Bat Orshig”, he saw that it was necessary to reflect the characteristics of the society in which he lives. It’s like he asked himself, “What do people want to hear in this day and age?” and thought that pentatonic or Mongolian style should be produced. I just read his latest autobiography. It was written in the sense that B.Sharav is not in a hurry, he thinks for long-term and takes action after seeing the main point. That’s exactly the kind of rhythm that is missing now. Nowadays, everything has become very fast all over the world. A social regime which supports working too hard, trying hard to be pretty and then working hard again, has been established. In such a time, on the contrary, B.Sharav’s slowing down rhythm, which has been meditated well, is being missed. If you look at his music from a social perspective, you will find something like this. B.Sharav said that when he wrote his first symphony, the audience did not accept it well. At that time, he thought that something had not happened, looked for the reason within himself, and finally thought that he was raw, so he traveled around Mongolia and studied. He took a leave of absence from the school he was studying in Russia. As a result, he produced very different works from each other. It is like three different composers wrote those pieces. Here, I saw that the composer at every step was learning from life, people, and heritage. It seems like he was always wondering what to learn next. This quality of his musical pieces is a great lesson and an example everywhere. Because he is such a person, he probably composed the most beautiful music and created the modern classical music style of Mongolia. He is very talented. I actually can’t find a suitable word for him. 

The first piece I learned to play the morin khuur was his “Setgeliin Egshig” or “Melody of the Soul”. When I was depressed the first year I came to Mongolia and struggled to return, what made me stay was the morin khuur and music, especially the work “Melody of the Soul''. When I was sad, I played the morin khuur. Then I would forget everything bad and feel relaxed. Maybe B.Sharav’s charming music made me want to stay in Mongolia. It was 2017. It all happened so fast. I returned home, studied, graduated, and flew to Mongolia again two years later. In 2019, I came to find out about the topic of my thesis. While meeting and talking with the musicians, I met N.Dashbyamba, the chief choirmaster of the State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet. He told me about what I should search for. As he said, I was surprised to see the works of Mr. B.Sharav. When I opened the note, it was much better than I expected. Even though it is small and simple, very detailed, well-thought-out methods and operations were seen. A whole new world seemed to open before me. I dived into the music. I thought, “What scale was used here? Is there a long tone, what is it? Is it whoop?”By doing so, in other words, I found what to study.

Which musical piece was that?

It is called “Zambuutivin Naran”. Interestingly, this work is taken as inspired by the Mongolian folk song, and there is no tune or melody of the song of that name. It seems that B.Sharav did not think to use the melody that may have taken the idea and theme from that long song. Maybe he didn’t think to make a personal work with the people’s song.

It seems like you are obsessed with B.Sharav.

There is a need to expand scientific work. Since I started to study the works of B.Sharav, I wanted it to deepen further. Analyzes and research works will be published. I intend to publish a book on “Sharav Studies”. I also want to run a concert project of Mongolian and American artists in America and Mongolia. In this project, I will work with pianist E.Munkhshur, who lives in America.

Dashmaa D