Futurism Restated: Galya Bisengalieva Interviewed
The experimental violinist’s new album pays tribute to a Soviet-era nuclear wasteland in her native Kazakhstan.
This week I’m flying back to the U.S. for one of my twice-a-year family visits, so there’s no roundup of new releases today (although I’m already at work on next week’s, which will have some fantastic picks). Instead, here’s a very special post for paying subscribers: an interview with the fantastically talented composer Galya Bisengalieva on her stunning new album Polygon, about a Soviet-era nuclear test site in her native Kazakhstan. Read on.
As leader of the London Contemporary Orchestra, Galya Bisengalieva is no stranger to to dark drama: The ensemble has played on scores like Thom Yorke’s Suspiria, Jonny Greenwood’s The Master, Volker Bertelmann’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Tár. (They’ve also appeared on albums by Radiohead, Actress, Frank Ocean, and, most recently, the National.) But Bisengalieva’s music might be even more intense, simply because its inspirations are anything but fictional. For her last album, 2020’s Aralkum, Bisengalieva wrote a somber, stately suite inspired by the environmental disaster of Lake Aral, in her native Kazakhstan. Now, on Polygon, she turns her attention to an even darker chapter in the nation’s history: the Semipalatinsk Test Site, one of the principal nuclear testing grounds for the Soviet Union. Located in a remote corner of Kazakh Siberia, Semipalatinsk—known colloquially as the Polygon—was the site of 456 nuclear tests between 1949 and 1989, both underground and atmospheric. And though the site was shut down in 1991, with spent plutonium sealed off in mountain tunnels, its safety today is disputed by experts.
Bisengalieva’s album is an awe-inspiring testament to the region’s history, and also a thrilling testament to her talents, guided by a highly original timbral sensibility, rich with microtonal harmonies and extended techniques. One track even morphs into something approaching techno, marking the first time her music has sounded so thoroughly electronic.
I spoke to Bisengalieva about the legacy of the Polygon, her upbringing in Kazakhstan, how she made the album, and what contemporary classical music can offer to histories as complex as that of the Semipalatinsk Test Site.
This interview is exclusive for paying subscribers; if that’s you (and if it’s not, it could be with just a few clicks!), read on. And if you’re in London on November 28, don’t miss Bisengalieva’s debut performance of Polygon at the ICA.
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