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From the Silk Road to the Big Apple

Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian country of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic history, whose musical traditions are as varied, rich and vibrant as the land and people who gave them life. Out of this diverse ethnic milieu comes Aza Sydykov, possibly the country’s most gifted and successful classical pianist to date, whose fate was intertwined with the establishment of his homeland’s independence. While Kyrgyzstan was formally annexed to Russia in 1876, the Kyrgyz people staged a major revolt against the Tsarist Empire in 1916 in which almost one-sixth of the Kyrgyz population was killed. Kyrgyzstan became a Soviet republic in 1936 and only achieved independence in 1991, when the USSR dissolved.

The first President of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akaev played a unique role in Aza’s destiny when he gave his full support to the young musician early on after noticing his budding talent. Over the next twelve years Aza accompanied the President during state visits, performing in front of many heads of state, working to conserve and develop the rich musical traditions of his country and promoting classical music and western culture throughout Kyrgystan. Despite mixed popular feelings towards the former President of Kyrgyzstan, Aza has always openly expressed his respect and gratitude to Dr. Askar Akaev.

Aza's work as a cultural ambassador has often played a positive role during the difficult moments of his country. In 2010 he returned to Kyrgyzstan with American conductor Joel Spiegelman to give a series of charity concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra to support the families of the victims massacred by then current President Kurmanbek Bakiev during the April 7, 2010 overthrow of Bakiev’s regime. In June 2010, soon after the spring revolution, there was a bloody inter-ethnic skirmish, which resulted in hundreds of deaths. Aza requested support from the U.S. government for a project to organize a musical symposium of peace in the conflict-torn city of Osh. With this support, he journeyed to Osh again with the Kyrgyz State Symphony Orchestra, where, to great success, he organized and performed a benefit concert bringing together people from the two conflicting ethnic groups.

Since moving to America in 2011 from Moscow, where he holds degrees from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Aza has developed a growing interest in introducing Kyrgyz music and composers to the west. He and I met for the first time in the summer of 2013 in Reno, Nevada, while performing under the auspices of Nevada Opera for Reno is Artown Festival. Having many of the same ideas about art and it’s place and importance in the world, we struck up a fast and lasting friendship. It was through Aza that I learned about the wealth of culture and unique musical traditions of Kyrgyzstan, which led, throughout the course of our work together, to founding Kyrgyz American Foundation. But that is a story for another day!

In the summer of 2015, Sing for Hope, a non-profit organization dedicated to reaching the NYC community through accessible and uplifting art of all kinds, launched their second Sing for Hope Pianos project, where they place 50 vibrantly colored pianos throughout NYC’s parks and public spaces for anyone and everyone to play. For two weeks, the pianos — each a unique art piece created by a different artist or designer — inspire impromptu concerts by professionals and amateurs alike in an open festival of music for all of New York City.

I found it to be the perfect setting to film a music video of one of the most iconic Kyrgyz tunes, Mash Botoi (Horse Race). It was originally written for the komuz, an ancient fretless string instrument used in Central Asian music. Virtuosos frequently play the komuz in a variety of different positions; over the shoulder, between the knees and upside down. Mash Botoi consists of a simple tune repeated many times, each with a new stroke, as a test of the performer’s skill and creativity. The names of parts of the komuz itself are often allusions to body parts, particularly of horses. The neck of the instrument is called [mojun] "neck", the tuning pegs are called [qulɑq], or "ear"s. The Kyrgyz word кыл/qyl means "string of an instrument" or "horse's hair". Some fantastical myths also exist about the komuz. One tells that the hunter, Kambarkan, was wandering in the forest when he heard a beautiful sound. He looked for the source and found the intestine of a squirrel tied between two tree branches, which he took and fashioned into a musical instrument. It is also said that the nightingale learned to sing by copying the komuz. The name is believed to have been derived from the ancient Turkic words "gop" meaning height and "uz" meaning voice, or magic music sound.

Mash Botoi was written by Atay Ogonbaev (1900 – 1949), a Kyrgyz Soviet composer, folk singer, and virtuoso komuz player. The arrangement which Aza plays in the video is by Kyrgyz-Israeli composer and pianist, Mikhail Burshtin.

Of the many beautifully decorated pianos we got to see while filming, perhaps the most special was conceived by Marc Evan, a Brooklyn-based artist who works in a variety of mediums and disciplines, with a focus on large scale murals, contemporary fine art, and illustration. He happened to be visiting his instrument in Brooklyn Heights while we were there and we got to meet him and talk a bit about his story. His ethereally beautiful piano’s name was Star Child 113. What follows is his touching description of the instrument’s design and it’s inspiration.

“The Star Child 113 is a reinterpretation of a painting I made shortly after losing my son Luke. He was four months old. Luke was an incredible baby, who even at such a young age, loved to look at art and listen to music. The original painting was one of the first things I felt compelled to work on when I started trying to express myself again. This painting became an important part of my healing process. It includes many symbols of things he knew and loved. Manifestations of things that are symbolic of Luke, his friends, and our path towards being happy, healthy, and present. I treat painting as a deep meditation and painting this piano with a new version of my Star Child, continued the healing process for me.

Aza Sydykov with Marc Evan

The number 113 is also seen in the artwork. This is the number of days I got to spend with Luke. Its a number that symbolizes intense love. It has come to be a symbol of all the love, creativity, and kindness that Luke has inspired. It is embedded within all my art now. A crew of my friends and family joined me and my wife to get 113 tattoos after Luke had died. I now see these numbers everywhere, a constant reminder of how he inspired us to be more patient, more kind, more loving, and more creative. And the day after finishing painting this piano, my daughter Lucy was born, at 1:13 am.

I am so honored and happy to know that this piano will bring

music, art, and 113, to the streets of New York City and beyond. People from around the world will get to feel the healing power of the arts through this piano. While they play the keys of this special instrument, they can lock eyes with my beautiful Star Child. My wish is that this piano will spark people’s imagination, inspiring creativity and love in all who see it.”

I conceived the video to show not only the juxtaposition of New York life and the tranquility and elegance of Kyrgyz culture, but the similarities between our two countries. The beginning and part of the middle is shot at Pyramid Lake in Nevada, a place with striking similarities in climate and topography to parts of Kyrgyzstan. This combined with the “horse race” of New York City life seemed to fit the theme quite well!

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