Galya Bisengalieva discusses Violin, Climate Change, and Aralkum

Left: Galya Bisengalieva (photo credit: Gwenaëlle Trannoy), Right: Aralkum album cover

Galya Bisengalieva is a Kazakh and British violinist and composer whose solo work focuses on combining her virtuosic violin skills with rich electronic drones and field recordings. She has been involved in numerous collaborative projects with artists like Frank Ocean, Moor Mother, and Radiohead, and sits as the leader of the always inventive London Contemporary Orchestra. On September 4, she released her debut solo full-length album, Aralkum, a record that maps the tragic story of the shrinking Aral Sea through intricately layered atmospheric music. We chatted in early September over Facetime Audio to discuss Aralkum, as well as how she became a violinist, immigrated to the UK, and feels about climate change.

VANESSA AGUE: Congrats on the album!


VANESSA: Has it been exciting to have it out?

GALYA: Yes, it’s been great. It’s so wonderful to see when you’ve worked on something for so long and then it comes out. I’ve never done something like that.

VANESSA: How was it to record a whole solo album of all your own work?

GALYA: Exciting, definitely. I enjoyed it. I haven’t really revisited the feelings that I’ve had during the making of the album, but it’s definitely a journey. You have to buckle down and see what you’ve got and what ideas are working out and what isn’t, and at what point it’s good to leave something that isn’t worth pursuing. I think, especially as it’s my first album, I’m being really excited about it. And, the subject matter’s very important and at the heart of making itself. I think that drove the whole project.

VANESSA: Do you have a particular interest in climate change?

GALYA: Yes. I try my best to be environmentally aware and friendly and I do what I can. Having lived with something, and having seen something like the disaster of the Aral Sea and having been amongst the news of it first hand from people that have lived it, it makes it a bit more real, I think.

VANESSA: Totally. We keep seeing so many disasters happening. It’s interesting to be talking about that right now while there are these crazy fires in California.

GALYA: It’s such a strange time in history, I think, and in what can be done to the environment. But at the same time during lock down, people are not really thinking as much about it as they were before. I just hope people aren’t forgetting about it.

VANESSA: When you set out to make this album, did you have the environmental concept in mind?

GALYA: Yeah, for sure. I set the album into three parts. I envisaged what was there before the disaster and then looked at a lot of documentaries and what happened in the sixties and how it all began with the irrigation projects. And then the two final tracks are hopeful, envisaging something good happening. Hope is a strong thing, right? I just hope for the future.

The album is an inspired moment of reflection on how not taking care of our surroundings has had a devastating impact on the environment. I think it came naturally to me to work on — on finding the voice of the Aral disaster and the concept of it — because I like the simplicity of the desert and the water. I think it suits my compositional style. I am quite a visual artist when I compose by multilayering strings and having drones. I think it all has a connection together.

VANESSA: How are you using that visualization?

GALYA: When I compose, I see things. I think it’s how I learned music from the start. It’s how I learned the violin when I had to perform and do concertos and things. When I memorized them, I would do it visually and that would help me a lot. And I think that’s kind of translated into my compositional work as well. But you play the violin as well!

VANESSA: I do. And you saying that right now, it takes me back to concerto competitions, when you’d get up there and you had to have the concerto memorized because in classical music that’s how it has to be.

GALYA: I grew up with that as well. If you are seen to play music with the music it’s frowned upon, but it doesn’t really make sense to me.

VANESSA: I know, it doesn’t make sense. I think it would be weird if you had a bunch of music in front of you and you were improvising, because that would also make no sense. But with this, you’re playing notated music and everyone knows you read it off of a page. So I don’t understand it, but I remember with learning violin, it’s so much about those three types of memory: muscle memory, visual memory, and aural memory all at the same time. I remember I’d always have my eyes closed so that I could visualize the score.

GALYA: I’m the same. I’d be turning pages in my head when I’d get to a certain hard part. It is liberating to not have music there, but I just don’t think people should set such rules. That boundary puts constraint on learning, but I guess that reflects classical music, in a way, and how we could be a bit freer with our understanding and approach and making it approachable to a wide audience. Rules like that is one little example of how it closes its borders.

VANESSA: It really does. What kind of training did you do as a kid? Did you do Suzuki or anything like that?

GALYA: No. So I trained at an early age, I was five when I started playing.

VANESSA: Me too!

GALYA: Oh, really?

VANESSA: It’s a good age, getting the tiny violin.

GALYA: And measuring it with your hands, seeing if it fits. [laughs] But my training was Russian school Soviet training. It’s very strict and hardcore and you’d have to practice for most of the day to get to learn the instrument — intonation vibrato, bow speed, all those things. And violin is a hard instrument. I think it is one of the hardest ones to learn. It takes time. It’s not like a piano where you can just press the key and you get the notes. You have to find them. So you do have to dedicate quite a few years to honing the skills in the first place. I did get that from the schooling that I got. I think at the time it felt a bit much, but in hindsight, it gave me the base that I needed and I’m grateful now for it.

VANESA: Did you pick the violin or did someone give it to you?

GALYA: I come from a musical family. My mom plays the cello and my dad was a violinist, and I think it passed on. My grandmother was into folk singing, she had a beautiful voice, and my grandfather played a folk instrument called Dombra. So it trickled down. At that age, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I stuck with it and started to enjoy it later on in my teenage years.

VANESSA: It’s really cool to have that history of musicians in your family that you can look up to or be inspired by.

GALYA: Yeah, definitely. I think I was lucky to be surrounded by that. I was constantly amongst musicians and friends of the family that were in that world. I think that as I got older, it definitely helped me to open up and to not just be in that particular classical music life.

VANESSA: How did you start discovering more experimental music?

GALYA: It was through improvisation, really, when I moved to the UK and started listening to contemporary classical music. From then on, it was other genres and electronic things. And, actually, collaborations helped a lot later on when I started delving into that world. Improvising and collaborative work opened my mind up to what I do now.

VANESSA: Which is a whole lot of experimentation, I’d say.

GALYA: Yeah. But it’s cool. I like that it’s happened slowly and over a long period of time. I think it feels more organic to me. Not that I know another way, but I’m happy with it and it’s good to have knowledge and to know what you want to make.

VANESSA: Do you find that you like working in any genre or style more than another?

GALYA: No, not really. I don’t see music in genres. I just go for good content and good music and I think you can find it in every genre. You just have to erase that word and open your mind and then you can like find amazing things in the world of music.

photo credit: Gwenaëlle Trannoy

VANESSA: So your biggest collaboration that I think a lot of people probably know about is with the London Contemporary Orchestra. How did you get involved with them?

GALYA: I’ve been with them from the start. They celebrated their 10 years a couple of years ago, in 2018, I think. We all studied together at the Royal Academy of Music. I’ve gotten to do a lot of collaborative work through that. I lead the orchestra. This group is so great because the way we approach the collaborative aspect is that you can workshop and there’s time and you can create things. We’re not afraid to make sounds that are not known in a traditional sense. It’s very liberating and I love that style of working.

VANESSA: With that orchestra, you have been able to do a lot of very different things, like film scores or pop albums.

GALYA: The live element has been so exciting. I love the shows that we’ve put on. We played at the Barbican, the Royal Festival Hall, the ACE, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and all these more traditional places, but also we would go to Print Works, this really cool place in London that mainly does raves, but we were the first classical orchestra to go and do a show there. And also, the collaborative work we did with Suzanne Ciani, and Philip Glass’s new symphony, and we played Steve Reich in a train station in Liverpool, were great. It feels very exciting to do projects like that.

VANESSA: When you were getting into experimental and contemporary classical music, who were some of your first favorite composers?

GALYA: I started off with classics like Mozart and then moved to Sofia Gubaidulina, Julius Eastman, Lutosławski, and Penderecki and that world. And then it went into Suzanne Ciani and Laurie Spiegel. It happened organically.

VANESSA: So beyond collaborative work, what inspired you to want to do more solo work like with your two EPs and Aralkum?

GALYA: EP One and Two came out of wanting to push the boundary of the violin. I was improvising a lot and I tend to try to find new sounds and to try and push the instrument. I really loved the collaborative work as well with the people that were on EP One. It was primarily my ode to the violin and how we can push the boundaries of the instrument. From that I thought I’d make a few compositions and I haven’t stopped.

VANESSA: For the compositions that you made for Aralkum, what tools did you use? I know that the violin is the main central element, but there’s also electronics. How did you incorporate those?

GALYA: I always try and go with an acoustic element first and then what I can’t achieve acoustically, I try and create with electronics. Of course there’s the violin, the protagonist. But I also played viola on it and then I retuned a lot of things and included a little bit of voice. There’s also field recordings from the Aral Sea. There’s the sound of the wind hitting the abandoned ships that I found. There’s a bird call of cormorants that used to nest and the Aral, but they went extinct. They used to settle there before the disaster.

VANESSA: How did you find a recording of an extinct bird?

GALYA: Well, I had to do a lot of research and to go into Kazakh archives. Luckily they still have a lot of things there. It’s been a wonderful project to delve into not just musically, but to learn along the way in more detail about this disaster.

VANESSA: Where did you go about finding in-depth archives?

GALYA: Well, you have to go to the place and you have to get permission. It takes a while. It’s a long process. But luckily I managed to get in. I’m still trying to get some archive footage that I can use, because I love the visual aspect as well. I think it’s important to portray, even if it’s in an abstract way. I’ve made quite a few videos and worked with amazing artists and directors on it from Kazakhstan. That’s been really cool, because not a lot of people in the West know about the Aral Sea and what happened. I did an animated story about it, a short video on one of the tracks, and then another track has drone footage of the Aral Sea.

VANESSA: The video aspect I can imagine is really important for the project in trying to tell this story.

GALYA: I think it helps for people to understand a little bit of what it’s about. Because with the drone footage, people think, “oh, it’s just so bland,” and then they realize, “oh wow, there used to be water there, that’s crazy.” The visuals are striking to see. It makes you understand. It’s so vast. Kazakhstan’s a massive country in Central Asia and the Aral Sea is not only in Kazakhstan, it’s also in Uzbekistan. You can see the different ways the governments have reacted to the disaster and how they’re dealing with it. It’s definitely still a relevant topic because I think more needs to be done.

VANESSA: Like we were talking about earlier, there are these fires and there’s all these natural disasters we see pop up and how the government reacts to them and how the constituents react to them is always relevant. It’s relevant to our lives today.

GALYA: Definitely. And more so now. I think we’re at a point where the planet is telling us to actually do something and soon. Because there’s so many things happening in the world.

VANESSA: It’s so true. And it’s like, okay, are we going to listen?

GALYA: There’s a thing on BBC Three about the fashion world and the wastage of the fashion industry. They’re one of the main pollutants and actually the Aral Sea was massively affected by that, and it still is. The winds are so high that the dust that travels from the Aralkum Desert, which contains pesticides, to the forests of Norway and fields of Russia, and it’s in the bloodstream of penguins in Antarctica because it’s traveled so far. It’s a global thing. It’s not just in one area. It has traveled already and I’m pretty sure it happens in other places, disasters with water shortage. Take fashion, for example, just as one thing.

VANESSA: I knew that there were a lot of issues with fast fashion and recycling and all of that, but I didn’t know about this.

GALYA: The way the Aralkum Desert has appeared is because of the shrinking of the water, and it was due to the cotton industry and Soviet irrigation projects. I don’t want to be down on the fashion industry because it is part of art. The way we express ourselves is important, but as a whole big machine, it’s one system that needs to change and they are looking into ways to do that. I think it’s important.

VANESSA: Are you creative with your clothing? Do you like to experiment with fashion?

GALYA: I don’t know. In one sense, I’m a minimalist. I’m super minimal. I get to collaborate with a few fashion houses and it is fascinating and I think it’s so creative and incredible. I think in that way it’s amazing. How people can be expressive, I find that cool. I’m interested in it, but I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any means.

VANESSA: I understand that. And the best part about being a violinist is that you can have a bunch of different black dresses.

GALYA: Yes it’s true! But again, in the classical world, why is there the one way that we should dress? It’s an interesting one because I think expressing yourself is good when you’re on stage. For example, LCO, we did a prom last year and we were all in casual clothes and it was quite shocking, but it just seemed so normal. Some people still think of tails and full gowns, but that’s probably another thing that we should think about liberating. Whatever people feel comfortable in and the way they want to express themselves, I think that’s important.

photo credit: Gwenaëlle Trannoy

VANESSA: You grew up in Kazakhstan, right?


VANESSA: How did you end up in London? Was it for school?

GALYA: It was for school. I moved when I was 12. I got a scholarship and then immigrated and then got another one and that’s how I ended up at the Royal Academy for college, because I wouldn’t be able to afford those fees. Is elitist the right word? It’s a bubble for sure.

VANESSA: I totally understand. I went to undergrad at Yale in Connecticut.

GALYA: Then you know how I feel! It’s a club. But I mean, amazing, fantastic teachers and experiences, but I think without help, I wouldn’t have been able to get there.

VANESSA: Was it hard to immigrate at a young age?

GALYA: Of course I only know from my point of view, but I think it’s probably easier when you’re younger, I guess. I mean, when you’re an adult, I think it’s a bit harder. When I was that age, I just went with it and I learned the language. I couldn’t speak English. So I learned it and I just think it was much easier at that age to do and to pick things up like that and to integrate into a different culture. But it’s also made me independent as an individual. I know there’s a lot of questions when people move at a young age, and it is a big thing, but there’s definitely positives as well. It is hard though, for sure.

VANESSA: But it is true though with the language thing, I do know that there is a certain point where your brain is primed to learn other languages and I think that’s when you’re young.

GALYA: I think so. I think that’s one of the main things that was really helpful to do at a young age and then made it much easier to integrate.

VANESSA: Do you visit Kazakhstan often?

GALYA: I do. Well actually, I was supposed to be there in May, but then lockdown happened. I used to go a couple of times a year, but now not as much because of just having, well pre-lock down, having to travel for shows and concerts. I miss certain things. I miss nature and the countryside. It’s beautiful. Things that I’ve actually pondered on during lockdown. You kind of realize what you’re missing during this, where you want to be and what countries you miss traveling to. And I think as a musician, I used to travel a lot. It’s definitely been interesting.

VANESSA: It’s a whole other world.

GALYA: For sure, even the way we’re communicating now.

VANESSA: In some ways though, it’s been pretty exciting, because with video chat being more of an acceptable thing that people are doing, I’ve been able to connect with more artists all over the world.

GALYA: That’s definitely been a plus and I hope this element stays, and people not having to commute so much to work and waste energy. I think of offices and the light being on all night and things like that. Maybe changing the habit of commuting and wasting energy. I’m hoping for a positive from this in some way.

VANESSA: Do you have any in person concerts planned at any point or are you kind of in limbo?

GALYA: I had a lot of things lined up that are being rescheduled right now. The first thing that I’m doing is a show in Berlin for Carousel Art. I’m really excited to go there. I love Berlin, it has such a young atmosphere and culture. It’s just full on. I love it. So I’m looking forward to that.

VANESSA: It’s great. I’m glad you have something to look ahead to because otherwise it’s just this weird limbo.

GALYA: Absolutely. And I’m actually planning to tour Aralkum. I’m making it into a live show and that’s keeping me going.