Valentina Suzukei: Why the drone string? (part 1)

   Chimiza Lamajaa, Center of Asia No.32, 2009
7 September 2009

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Valentina SuzukeiIt can be very easy, or very complicated, to write about talented, creative, multifaceted people.

It is possible to write a long biography, a rich characterization. But this can make the task more complicated: how to pick the main, the most important things, how to keep from drowning in epithets, titles, and accomplishments.

The scholarly regalia of the musicologist, worker of the Tuvan Institute of Humanitarian research, candidate of art science, Doctor of culturology, the list of the works of Valentina Yurievna Suzukei – all these are well known facts in Tuva and beyond its borders.

I pondered for a long time how to pick what is the most important about her. Then I decided: really, it must be that she is a very positive person.

Valentina Yurievna is a completely self-sufficient researcher, open to the exchange of ideas and experiences. She knows exactly what she wants, is not distracted by unnecessary subjects, and does not waste time in empty talk. She is not envious of anybody, does not judge or condemn anyone – she simply has no time for that.

Her life is filled with creative ideas which she collected over many years of expeditions, analysis and thinking. The ideas force her every morning to get to the computer as early as possible. Then it all spills out in the form of a scientific monograph, article, text of a lecture, review, translation, commentary, booklet, reference book, or album.

As a consequence of such productivity, there are new contacts, ever widening research connections, new orders, grants, invitations, trips, meetings.

She enjoys sharing her knowledge, communicating with colleagues, with all those who are interested in understanding the elements of Tuvan music, including those from foreign countries; she can do that very well because of her knowledge of the English language.

The proposed interview had to be squeezed into this busy schedule, and we will spend several hours in an absorbing conversation about music and culture.

We are in Valentina Yurievna’s apartment, sitting in her room next to the desk with a notebook on it. There are shelves filled with massive rows of books, the sounds of summer Kyzyl are outside of the window, with the shining roof of the new building of the National Museum.

I have personally met Valentina Yurievna only recently, but is seems like I have known her for a long time, and that she has always been like this: sociable, charming, enthusiastic.

In front of me is a woman who has found her calling, an authoritative expert, frequently quoted scholar, mother of two sons, grandmother. She seems to be completely happy.

As we were discussing her research interests, my companion’s beautiful eyes shone and sparkled with delight, she spoke vivaciously with active gestures, laughing.

But a few times notes of pain appeared in her voice, and deeply hidden suffering welled up in her eyes. A portrait and diplomas of her husband hang on the walls – a journalist and defender of justice, Vyacheslav Salchak, who left this life quite recently, in 2006.

Valentina Yurievna does not speak of her grief; she mentions her husband, and the plans which they did not get to realize together, only rarely.

Her husband died barely a month before she was due to defend her doctoral dissertation. At that time, she refused to proceed with the defense. But her colleagues insisted, supported her. Such a refusal would have turned to nothing all the years and decades of intensive work, would have rendered worthless all the sacrifices of the whole family of the seeker of the high scholarly degree. She agreed, she succeeded, she endured it.

But we will avoid this subject. We will discuss the work that she lives for, that makes her happy.

Valentina Suzukei admitted that even though she has been researching Tuvan folk music for many years, she only now is getting closer to solving the secret, the astonishing phenomenon.

How did all this begin?

Tuvan “Beatles”

Valentina Suzuke tried herself out in dancing (first row, second from the left)– school of arts, 1976.— Valentina Yurievna, who taught you, and where did you study?

— My parents were my teachers. My mother, Ondar Kalzanovna Suzukei, was born in Sut-Khol, my father, Yuri Irgekovich Suzukei, was from Bai-Taiga. They both started work as elementary school teachers of first classes in Bai-Taiga. That is where they got married. I was the middle child in the family. My younger brother died a long time ago from disease. My older sister, Bailakmaa Yurievna Ochur, became a physician. Currently she works as a head of the day hospital of the republican district dispensary. We lived in Teeli, then for some time in sovkhoz “Elegest”. When I was in 5th grade, we moved to Kyzyl. Here I went to School No.2.

During those times in the 1960-1970’s, ensembles of song and dance were very popular in USSR, both military and civilian. There would be a choir on the back of the stage, and a dance group would be performing in the front.

In this way, ensemble “Chechek” was first made up from the students of the Kyzyl School of Arts. It was thunderously popular in the republic. Later, ensemble “Sayany” was created on its basis, and “Chechek” itself was constantly renewed and replenished in the school. Other groups also became popular, for example ensemble “Arbai Khoor”, something like Tuvan “Beatles”. We all loved it, and flocked running to the concerts.

We students from School No.2 did not even have to run anywhere. The art school was just across the street. When the windows of the classrooms first opened in May, we could hear the sounds of all the instruments and voices of the choir from Lenin Street.

So that is where I was planning to go after 8th grade.

— Was that your decision? Or was it your parents’ idea?

—I wanted to do that. But the principal of the school, Dandynchap, told me brutally: “Specifically you will not get the documents for this from me. You will have to finish 10th grade and go study physics and mathematics!”

Compositions – that is so hard!

— So you had abilities in physics and mathematics?

Yes. I liked all physics, from acoustics to electricity. And math was not difficult for me at all. The solution to any problem was right there in the description of the terms. You simply take the numbers and imagine what has to be done with them. You do not have to add anything of your own!

Everybody says that it is much easier in the humanities, that it is easier to write a dictation or composition. Dictation – yes, I agree with that. But compositions – that is very difficult, because you have to struggle and write something out of your own mind.

— That sounds funny from the mouth of a humanitarian – doctor of culturology, author of a multitude of articles and monographs.

— Somehow I managed to arrange things in such a way that I never had to write compositions in my life. When I went to school, we did not have to write compositions through 8th grade. After the 8th grade graduates went to specialty school, they wrote only dictations, compositions were for those who went on to 10th grade. And after entering the specialty school, we again wrote only dictations.

And when I entered the institute in Moscow, graduates from national schools again wrote only dictations.

So that is how it worked out: never in my life did I have to write compositions as school assignments.

— Regardless of love of mathematics and physics, you chose art. Why?

— I don’t think that it is possible to describe this as love. The exact sciences were simply easy for me. The principal of the school, who himself was a physics and math teacher, saw this. He did not want my abilities in exact sciences to go to waste.

After his announcement, I came home in tears, and told my mother about it. The next day she went to school with me to speak to the principal.

That means that she supported your choice?

Yes; at first she went into his office by herself. Then he opened the door and snarled: “Come inside.” The documents were in a safe in his office. The principal got the packet of certificates, found mine, and handed it to me with displeasure: “Take it.”

So that is how I got into the art school. I was fifteen years old.

To Moscow, to Moscow!

Big delegation of Tuvan artists during Days of Tuva in Moscow. Valentina is standing in the center.. 1974, 30th anniversary of Tuva entering the system of USSR.— Which specialty did you pick?

— At that time, we – yesterday’s schoolkids - did not understand very well what we wanted. I did not enter any specific department. I took dancing, choir, orchestra. We also had individual lessons. I was learning to play the bayan (accordion). Aleksandr Pavlovich Oskin was my teacher. I also played the dombra.

Which of the subjects did you like best?

It is hard to say. At that time, very interesting specialists worked there: Ivan Grigorievich Minin, Robert Nikolaevich Lesnikov, his wife Elmira Fedorovna Zhimulyayeva, Anatoli Kuzmich Ognev. They gave a tremendous lot by their enthusiasm and professionalism.

And the continued schooling in Moscow – was that your idea or did the teachers have a hand in it?

It was my idea. In 1970’s, we participated in Days of Tuvan Culture and Art, and a whole delegation would be sent to the capital. We were crazy about Moscow. On top of that, before we were due to graduate, two or three people got into the State Institute of Culture. I and my classmates knew that we also would go there. Two of us eventually went on – myself and Lyuba Khurakai.

What did you get from the study at the institute of culture?

— We had the same specialties like in the conservatory: choir, orchestra and others, but the institutes of culture prepared specialists for cultural institutions. There was methodology of work in teams, in clubs. There was a special emphasis on music, on notations.

— What instruments did you play during all this time of study?

Aside from the bayan and dombra I also learned a small repertoire of fortepiano, that was compulsory. But I never planned to be an instrumentalist, the talent for a solo instrumentalist manifests at a very early age.

I was more interested not in performance, but in learning everything that had to do with music. So I was able to discern the general, and to see what it consisted of.

Not Knowing the Alphabet

With her conducting teacher, Aleksei Matveyevich Kovalev. May 1977.That means that you understood that you are – an analyst?

— I suspect that nature gave me analytic abilities.

It is difficult to see how anybody could influence it in any way. To bring up an analyst, a researcher, without any inborn predilections, is impossible.

I also read a lot since childhood. Nobody influenced me, nobody made me do it.

Reading in our family was a natural activity. My mother was capable of spending the last money for books. Now I hear many people say that they can’t get their children to read. Correspondingly, the growing generation does not know the alphabet, and therefore can’t work with dictionaries or catalogs of libraries. But all this should start with a natural, ordinary activity in the family! My sons Valentin and Aldar also read since childhood, they can deal with reference books, and are great at finding things out on the Internet. Currently both of them work with computers.

To the Bolshoi Theater – Through the Service Entrance.

— Did you do any research during your student years?

— The institutes of culture were not strongly oriented towards scientific work by the students. Mostly, it was playing in orchestra, work with the choir, and dance groups, that was more interesting for the students. But I personally developed an interest in science and research. I will tell you about my pedagogue in conducting, Aleksei Matveyevich Kovalev, a friend of the distinguished Soviet composed and conductor Nikolai Semyonovich Golovanov.

He gave me much more, wider and deeper knowledge in all the musical subjects than was required by the program of the culture institute. Individual lessons normally, according to plan, took 45 minutes. With him, the lessons sometimes took 2-3 hours. Instrumentation is a whole science in itself, real analytic work. There are masses of questions to solve. For example: how can you write one simple melody for the whole orchestra, so that it would sound in all the voices? Kovalev took every nuance apart thoroughly and in an interesting way, he would tell stories about composers, conductors, performers.

He told us about his work in the Bolshoi Theater, about productions. He often took us, his students, into the Bolshoi Theater through the service entrance.

We watched the shows, and then he would play through the whole production, show us the instrumentation, explained a lot in an interesting way. That way he introduced us to the atmosphere of great art, taught us to have a creative approach to it.

My Element

Happy mother with 6-month old younger son Aldar, 1983.— But after the institute, you started your professional life as a pedagogue, teaching in the school of arts, without doing research.

— Yes, I came back to work in the art school, I was teaching conducting and other subjects. I worked like tat for eight years, and for the last year and a half, I was a substitute for the director after the teaching work. But after that, I went to TNIIYaLI.

Isn’t the art school the center for creative work by definition? Or were you not able to express there everything that your teacher taught you?

All the same, teaching work is mostly a lot of routine. The students come, you prepare them, then they graduate and you get new ones. Like that – in cycles, repeating every four years. For the students it is all new, but for the teacher the program becomes worn out, predictable, and often it does not change at all for many years. Routine sets in, and creativity is finished.

So, one day, Zoya Kyrgysovna Kyrgys, also a musicologist and my colleague showed up. She said: “ Wouldn’t you like to transfer to our institute?” She was working at the TNIIYaLI at the time. The institute formed a new sector of culture, and, in her words, they needed one more musicologist. At the time, the head of that sector was Anton Kavaayevich Kalzan, and the director of the institute was Yurii Luduzhanovich Aranchin. The team had many very strong scientists: Dorug-ool Aldyn-oolovich Mongush, Boris Isaakovich Tatarintsev, Mongush Khurgul-oolovich Manai-ool, Nikolai Alekseyevich Serdobov, and also Kalzan and Aranchin themselves. Of course, musicology was not a high-profile subject for an institute of language, literature and history. Ethnographers, archeologists and linguists were considered their “own” specialists. But I think that this showed Aranchin’s far-sightedness, and also the very intelligent Kalzan’s influence. They decided to bring in musicologists, and it turned out to be for the best for the institute. Tuvan musicology now has a very strong status in Sayan-Altai region, in Siberia, and in Russia in general. We were, of course very lucky that we were given a good start by Aleksei Nikolayevich Aksenov – the first researcher of Tuvan music, the author of the magnificent work “Tuvinskaya narodnaya muzika” (Tuvan national music), which was published in Moscow in 1964. In his time, he described practically all the genres. Even if only a little bit, but everything was described. And after that, based on his work, we started to deepen and widen the ideas.

Zoya Kyrgysovna Kyrgys’ candidate work, for example, was dedicated to Tuvan vocal tradition. Aksenov classifies the genres of songs into two kinds: “yrlar” and “kozhamyk”. In a later monograph by Zoya Kyrgys, based on her dissertation, it is more precise: “uzun yrlar”, “kyska yrlar” and “kozhamyktar”. I emphasize that we are not criticizing our precursor, it is not even possible to criticize him. We are simply grateful that he set such a tone. With additions and increased precision, we get a fuller picture of Tuvan musical culture.

— So you found your calling with the transfer to TNIIYaLI?

Husband Vyacheslav Salchak with sons Valentin and Aldar, 1985.— Yes, I felt that somehow finally I got to my right place. This is the kind of work, the sphere of activity, where I feel comfortable, which I like, and where I can actually accomplish something. This is my element.

I came to work at TNIIYaLI in September 1985. In November, there was to be a conference in Novosibirsk, and I was expected to present my theses there. I wrote them. Kalzan read them.

In TNIIYaLI there was a widespread practice of strict control over the texts of all the scientists, starting from the theses, ending with monographs. All our works went through the hands of multiple levels of supervisors, science secretary, and the director himself. They went through the manuscript and corrected mistakes, inaccuracies, “smoothed out” the texts. The manuscript was improved by it, all in all, it was very useful for the work. Now, unfortunately, this tradition has been lost.

Anton Kavaayevich, having read my theses, said: “Yes, you can work.” Usually Aranchin hired people and gave them a probation period. During this period, the new worker was expected to write a certain number of theses and articles. The senior colleagues would evaluate them and come up with a decision, whether or not this worker can do science or not.

So I stayed at TNIIYaLI.

Would not speak for a long time

And when did you learn English?

— I learned late and I would hesitate to describe the level of my proficiency as “free”. At school I had a late start, because I started the classes at School No.2 halfway through the school year, and out in the district we had no English lessons. At the art school, I studied Russian. At the institute, I was in the group of graduates from national schools, and instead of foreign languages, we took Russian. I started studying a foreign language independently only in the fourth year, together with my friend form the dormitory, but not for long. I really started only at TNIIYaLI, when I had to take a candidate examination. I studied it all over again at home, by myself. My teacher is somewhere here, on one of the lower shelves. It is a textbook which I crammed from cover to cover. It is a children’s level textbook, but I respect it and treasure it, and will never give it to anyone.

But how did it work out with speaking practice?

— For a long time, I was too shy to speak. I wasted almost ten years in reading, translating. Long, thorough book study delays speaking by a lot. It is better to start speaking, and study the grammar later. In 1990’s, when foreigners first started coming to Tuva, at first I would not speak. But then I began to catch analogies with Tuvan language: the syntax, word order, was sometimes the same. I started speaking. But still, if there is a translator in the group, my brain “switches off”, and refuses to strain itself. When there is no help for it, I speak, and actually quite fluently.

Pursuing the secret of Tuvan music

Valentina Suzukei and Ted Levin- co-authors of “Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: sound, music and nomadism in Tuva and beyond”, published in USA IN 2006.— Is the book “Where Rivers and mountains Sing: sound, music and nomadism in Tuva and beyond”, which you wrote in co-authorship with Ted Levin, which was published in English in USA in 2006, the first example of a joint publication of a Tuvan scientist with a foreigner?

— For Tuva, yes, it is the first. I mean in the humanities. As far as physics or mathematics – I would not really know exactly.

I did not actually write the text, Ted wrote it. But we collected the material together, for several years we traveled throughout the republic. And not just in Tuva.

What does your work on the expeditions consist of?

— We travel through the districts from one master to another, and make recordings of their playing. Then we go over it in Kyzyl, we analyze it. Foreigners specifically plan on a few days of work in the capital, so that they could get my explanations.

For example, that is how we worked with Ted. I myself was a valuable source of information for him, because at that time I already had experience of working with the old masters, I knew them personally and had worked with them before. I already had an opinion based on the collected material and observations. But he started coming here only after many of them had already left this life. I shared my commentaries and observations.

And also…as a child I had lived for a long time in a yurt with my grandmother not far from Teeli, towards Kyzyl-Dag. That was also an important experience for me.

It is important that everything that is connected with nomadic culture has to be viewed through the perceptions of somebody who lives in a yurt. A city-dweller, who grew up between four walls, perceives the world in a different way, he can’t hear the sounds of nature like a nomad in his yurt.

But what is it about our music that interests the foreigners, according to your observations?

Even for an inexperienced ear, especially at the first hearing, Tuvan music is very unusual. It leaves a very deep impression, that’s how specific it is. Certainly for almost every non-specialist, at the very least this question arises: “What is this? What kind of music is this?”

And then, of course, it becomes interesting to figure it out: what is the specificity of the music, what is the singularity, where is the hidden secret. They come to Tuva with the desire to understand this phenomenon.

I personally am just barely getting close to solving the secret. I needed many years for it…

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