ISSN 2158-5296
AAWM JOURNAL VOL. 5 NO. 2 (2017)

Principles of Transmission and Collective Composition in Turkmen Dutar Performance

David Fossum
Winner of the 2016 Rob Schultz Junior Scholar Award

This paper focuses on a repertoire of instrumental pieces performed and orally transmitted among players of a two-stringed lute called dutar in Turkmenistan. Through music analysis, it seeks to illustrate exactly how Turkmen dutar players negotiate contrasting demands to maintain the pieces as learned from their masters while also developing them over time as part of an ongoing collective composition process. The analysis relates to a complexly interconnected set of research areas: studies of that focus on the importance of formulas and patterns to the process of reconstructing memorized material and studies that show how musicians draw on formulas, internalized schemas, and compositional principles to generate new musical material in the course of improvisation or composition. While Turkmen music does not feature separate, marked spaces for generating new melodic sequences at length as do most of the genres that have been studied by scholars taking similar analytical approaches, we can observe similar generative processes at play in the ways that Turkmen musicians vary and expand on traditional repertoire. Specifically, I show how traditional pieces feature constantly shifting constraints on and affordances for variation and development. Turkmen musicians internalize principles for exploiting such affordances in the process of learning the repertoire and reapply these to the traditional compositions as they reconstruct them in performance. I separate such analytical observations from the question of how Turkmens assess and valorize performers’ variations on and contributions to the traditional compositions, providing additional ethnographic data on this point. In doing so, I also seek to bring clarity to some of the confusion surrounding the much-discussed, problematic term “improvisation.”

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Contributor Information:
David Fossum is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.

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