When Politics and Music Don't Mix

Azerbaijan composer Arif Melikov finds parliamentary duties sidetrack his creative efforts. MUSIC: INTERVIEW

SOME say times of great political turbulence should spur the artist to new heights of creative inspiration. Arif Melikov disagrees.

As the foremost living composer in the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, Mr. Melikov can speak from experience. Since his days at the Azerbaijan State Conservatory in the late 1950s, Melikov has composed six symphonies, three ballets, and numerous cantatas, symphonic poems, song cycles, and theatrical scores.

But for more than two years, he hasn't written a note. He's too preoccupied. While Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's drive for a more open society has created opportunities for artists, in places like Azerbaijan it has also unleashed long-suppressed ethnic animosities that have brought this republic and neighboring Armenia to the point of armed warfare.

``You know, I can't compose right now,'' Melikov said in an interview in his Baku apartment. ``How can I when I turn on the radio and hear that, again, on the border, several people have been killed? Or open the morning newspaper, and again read about atrocities?''

Melikov's love for his native Azerbaijan - where eastern, Muslim hues shine through generations of czarist and Soviet domination - is both his inspiration and his distraction.

While many Soviet artists have left the country, by choice or by force, Melikov says he never wanted to leave. If he had been offered a spot at a more famous conservatory, he wouldn't have taken it, he says. His teacher, Kara Karayev, was a pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich, and Melikov still savors his connection to that 20th-century legend.

``I think a real artist must be brought up on his own soil,'' he says. ``I am against cosmopolitan arts. I think all the great masters I know from the last century and the current were always connected with their own nation.''

But his ``connection'' has also forced him away from his work, with distractions that go beyond the morning headlines. In this regard, Melikov is typical.

Imagine that the late Leonard Bernstein had, in addition to all his musical endeavors, also been a member of the US Congress and the New York State legislature. In the new Soviet reality, public reverence for cultural figures has put many like Melikov in the political spotlight as members of national and local parliaments and even Mr. Gorbachev's Presidential Council. And so, many of the nation's top artists and writers have put their work on hold.

As a member of the Soviet parliament, Melikov spends most of his time in Moscow debating and voting on the laws and issues of the day. He also keeps busy at home in Baku, which remains under military rule following last January's pogroms of Armenians and grass-roots threat to Communist authority, as a member of the Azerbaijani parliament.

``I'm the type of person who must take part in every skirmish. Every time someone is thrown in prison, I have to visit with every one of them to find out why,'' he says.

``If there is an important political discussion going on at the very top, where President Gorbachev sits, I am one of the most active. And it's not always very comfortable. Maybe it comes from my character. But on the other hand, nothing limits me.''

Melikov proudly describes a tense confrontation he had with Gorbachev in late 1988, in which the composer blamed the Soviet leadership for not taking measures to stop bloodshed between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.

Gorbachev defused the tension when he turned to Melikov and suggested he write a symphony.

``I told him I would, but that it would be a tragic symphony,'' Melikov says. ``He said, `Let it be tragic, but let it also be realistic.'''

Melikov says this symphony is almost completed in his mind, but not yet written down.

In assessing his work as a composer, which he says blends Eastern themes with Western compositional techniques, Melikov doesn't shy away from superlatives, and in the course of discussion comes back often to his best-known opus, the 1961 ballet ``Legend of Love.'' In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Yuri Gabay describes it as ``a work concerned with one of the eternal subjects of Eastern poetry: pure and tragic love.''

Melikov stresses the level of international success his ballet has enjoyed. It is probably the only one by a living composer that has been staged in 60 countries, he says, including performances in the United States by the Bolshoi Ballet.

Melikov's biographer, Nelli Alekperova, likens her subject to a Soviet Gustav Mahler. But Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, edited by Nicholas Slonimsky, is far less enthusiastic: ``His music hews to the tenets of socialist realism, representational and stylistically inoffensive to untutored ears.''

Melikov takes issue with such a ``toe the party line'' characterization. Four times, he says, the conservative Union of Composers found him guilty of composing in too modern a style.

But what about his membership in the Communist Party? Melikov brushes that off. When he joined, in 1968, he was already famous and did it only to please his father, an army colonel, he explains.

More recently, he turned down an offer to be minister of culture. ``What I really want to do is teach,'' says Melikov, who is head of the department of composition at Azerbaijan State Conservatory.

Melikov also yearns for the days when he could fly to Armenia, attend performances of his music, and sit down afterwards for a big banquet with his Armenian composer friends.

``You can't imagine how they would see me off at the airport! ... Even to the last moment before my flight, there would such celebrating!

``Here, we used to stage Armenian operas in our theaters. Really, before the `events' it was impossible to imagine that such a thing could happen. But now it's almost to the point where one nation hates the other entirely. It's not normal.''

Does he foresee a time when he and his Armenian friends can have banquets once again?

``I think that will be,'' Melikov replies, ``but not so soon. The situation has gone past just the point of insults. So much blood has spilled.''

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