Aral Sea Stories and the River Naryn

Peter Cusack

The recordings in this exhibition are part of a project entitled “Aral Sea Stories and the River Naryn”. It concerns the disappearance and partial restoration of the Aral Sea in Central Asia since the 1960s. Because The River Naryn is one of the primary sources of water for the Aral Sea it is also vital to the story. My project focusses on the amazing variety of sounds created by the river, the sea, the surrounding environment and the people who live in these areas. It asks the question, “What can we learn of water uses and abuses by listening to their sounds?” and follows the stories and directions suggested.

Aral Sea Stories and the River Naryn explores the question, “What can we learn of water uses and abuses by listening to their sounds?”, and is part of a larger project concerning the disappearance and partial restoration of the Aral Sea in Central Asia since the 1960s. It is a story of destruction, but also of hope, as, in the North Aral, water levels are rising again and the environment is showing signs of revival. The tracks were recorded in the village of Tastubek (2013/15), beside the North Aral Sea, Kazakhstan, and at the town of Shamaldy-Sai (2018), alongside the Naryn, the Aral’s principal source river in Kyrgyzstan.

In 1960 the Aral Sea in Central Asia was the planet‘s fourth largest lake. Today it has almost disappeared; a victim of massive, water hungry, irrigation schemes, created during Soviet times, that extract too much flow from its tributary rivers upstream. It is one of the most significant, but least known, environmental catastrophes of the 20th century. However, since independence, Kazakhstan, with the support of the UN and the World Bank, has been attempting to restore the North Aral, about 10% of the original, within its territory. It is a story of success, albeit partial.
Rising water levels and the rebirth of the fishing industry are bringing obvious improvements to the local ecology and economy, and show that even major environmental damage can be reversed with sufficient commitment and resources. It is a much needed positive example in today’s climate crisis debate and in re-thinking our whole relationship with the environment.

The Aral Sea is the end point of the vast watershed formed by Central Asia’s two great rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, that rise in the Tien Sian and Pamir mountains on the borders of China and Afghanistan and flow thousands of kilometers through five countries (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan) each with differing water
requirements, before reaching the Aral basin. What happens to the Aral Sea is the consequence of all that happens to these rivers on the way.
Major hydro-electric dams, huge cotton and other agricultural plantations, international agreements and disagreements over water rights combine with countless industrial and domestic needs to determine the overall impact. It is an impossibly complex, ever evolving, eco-system where physical geography and climate interact with the culture, politics, history
and economic beliefs of the peoples who inhabit and control this fascinating part of the world. And today, as everywhere, the additional effects of global climate change are also being felt.
From 2013 I have made three trips to the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and one to the Naryn river in Kyrgyzstan to make field recordings, take photographs, to talk to people and to try and gain some insights into the impact of water use and abuse on the environment and on those who live in the region. The focus has been as much on the restoration of the sea as on its original disappearance and listening to its sounds was prioritised as a starting point
for the investigation. All the audio, photographs on this album stem from these visits.

The Aral is an extraordinary region, a huge body of water in a vast open, arid landscape. There are low scrub bushes, but no trees. A strong wind usually blows. The weather is extreme, +45°C in summer, -30°C in winter. Camels and horses are left to roam freely. Tastubek lies on slightly higher ground overlooking the Aral Sea. In the 1960s it was a successful collective farm dealing in livestock and fishing. 90 families lived there. Now there are 17. Most were forced away as the sea dried up and the fishing industry collapsed. Since then village livelihoods have depended on its animals – cattle, sheep, goats plus the horses and camels. But the restoration of the North Aral has brought new life, reviving fishing, the economy and hope for the future. During two visits, in spring 2013 and winter 2015, I was shown great generosity by everyone there. It is a special place.

1) Aral Sea Thunder
When a large body of water disappears it significantly impacts the regional environment and weather. Around the Aral rain decreased, summer temperatures rose, winds intensified and wildlife diminished. Salt and industrial pollutants from upstream dried out on the former sea bed to be blown far and wide by more frequent dust storms. Soil quality and human health suffered. However, as the North Aral recovers it has been surprising how quickly some of these effects have begun to reverse. Rainfall is improving and villagers say that this allows vegetation to stay green longer into the summer and softens high temperatures. There is less dust. So this recording documents not only the events of village life – the amazing sound of camels, Dariga’s skipping skills, a lost young goat, an ancient Soviet Ural motorbike in full throttle – but also the return of rain and thunder, pushing back against the dry years. It is a sonic reminder of the interdependence of environmental systems and that decisions about water use (and abuse) have potentially far reaching consequences. The original storm lasted about 35 min. This track is a condensed version.

Tastubek, the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan.

Aral Sea Thunder (12:21) – camels, skipping, vital rain, village life
in the storm, May 19, 2013

2) Ice Bells
The tinkling, clicking of Ice Bells is a sound connected to climate change. In normal winters temperatures drop below -10°C and stay that way for several months. Recently though, because of global climate changes they are much more erratic. In 2015 – the year I visited – they even went above zero for a few days causing the snow to melt and refreeze as very thin layers of ice on all the plants. The sound is made by ice-covered small branches and twigs knocking into each other in strong winds. Without the melting and refreezing it would not occur. The ice coated plants refract bright sunlight and pin-points of white, yellow, orange, even red, flash and sparkle across the snowy landscape. It is stunningly beautiful. Yet another reminder of nature’s unsurpassable artistry.

Tastubek, the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan.

Ice Bells (10:41) – Feb 24, 2015

Shamaldy-Sai, the River Naryn, Kyrgyzstan
The five hydro-electric dams, designed in the Soviet era to harness the river’s power as it descends through the spectacular Naryn gorge, are known as the Naryn Cascade. Shamaldy-Sai wa1s built beside the last in the chain where the mountains level out into the Fergana Valley near the border with Uzbekistan. Originally intended to house the industry’s workers, the town has since become important for cross border trade and agriculture. The surrounding land is very fertile and extensively irrigated by the river water. I visited in 2018 as part of a group of Central Asian, European and US artists/academics collaborating with each other and with people in Shamaldy-Sai to explore the social life of the River Naryn.
We were welcomed with great hospitality. My interest was partly in river sounds, such as those of irrigation and electricity generation, but also in local folklore associated with water and the river. So it was good to discover the waterwheels still in use on the town’s main canal, and, especially, to be introduced to the traditional musician Tinarbek Kerimbekov who sings and accompanies himself on the ‘komuz’ – Kyrgyzstan’s national instrument.

Akkan Suu (flowing water)
song by Tinarbek Kerimbekov
Kyrgyz people are very aware that the abundant mountain water is their country’s greatest natural resource. On hearing of our project Tinarbek immediately offered to write a new song in praise of their water, its sources and the rivers in which it flows. He performed it under a shady tree amongst fields close to the dam. The English translation is by Sharshe Tynai.

Akkan Suu (flowing water)

Tinarbek Kerimbekov

People need water, humankind lives with water,
There are some who mistreat and do not value water,
Let us safeguard water and value it with our souls,
Humans souls are as pure as flowing water
With whoever you speak mention the value of water,
My dear kin, let us sing with tuneful voices about the generous waters!
One cannot live without water, the value of water is unmatched,
Whales, fish, ducks and geese live in water,
No one in this universe can live without water, let us unite and safeguard it,
Water ensures purity, we have always lived with water,
We must not let the springs disappear, let’s keep them clean from today,
When you drink water from summer springs, your soul and body are rejuvenated!
There are many glittering springs on summer pastures,
Glacial waters melt and join forces in powerful streams,
These waters mix and create the Naryn River,
The old Naryn flows loudly through gorges and mountains,
When waters hit the rocks, foam rises into the air,
It shows its power, forever flowing onwards!
Water is the source of life, essential every day,
One must drink water from Arashan* to quench one’s thirst,
No one, no beings, can exist in this false world without water
If we respect water, God is happy too,
Let us listen to our elders as they pass on their heritage
Let us respect water and sit down feeling relaxed!
*Arashan is famous in Kyrgyzstan for its springs

2) Perpetual revolution, exterior

The largest waterwheel on Shamaldy-Sai’s town canal is an impressive sight in bright sunlight, but given its rusty metal structure is surprisingly quiet to the ear. Most of the sound in this recording is the fast flowing canal. Plastic containers (once wood or metal) on the paddles gently bubble as they fill with water at the bottom of their turn to splash it out again at the top. The water is raised 3 meters and then flows downhill through another pipe into the garden behind.
Waterwheels are ancient technology, remnants of a disappeared age. They need no energy sources other than flowing water and gravity, so are completely sustainable. There are many of all sizes along this canal; most are derelict, but a few still work.

Perpetual Revolution

Naryn River



3) Perpetual revolution, interior
The same waterwheel, but the sounds from inside the metal structure and underwater. Although relatively quiet from the exterior its internal music is a different story. The groans, squeals and clanks are loud and insistent. They are made audible using a contact microphone that picks up vibrations in the metal. Listening for a while you hear the periodicity of the rotation (approx. 1min 20sec), which changes with the speed of water flow. The sounds underwater are also very clear. Bubbles and drips (the sharp clicks) can be heard with a hydrophone (underwater microphone) and the wheel’s internal metallic groans are revealed as a subterranean bass moans.
Standing on the canal bank you would have no idea of this hidden symphony. The track is a mix of three separate recordings, the internal contact microphone sounds plus, slightly out of sync, two from underwater, one directly beneath the wheel, the other to one side.