I sat in a chair in front of my colleague, the ghichak teacher, my digital recorder capturing the soundwaves, puzzling out how I could write down the pitches and rhythms. Soundwaves, pitches, rhythms: no, this doesn't capture it. I asked my friend if the recording could be excerpted on radio so that Americans could hear something about Afghanistan other than war, and he eagerly said yes. Not only that, he wanted me to write it down. He actually wanted my help in imprisoning this raw emotion in a cage made with the five bars of the musical staff. And on top of that, I was even planning on how I would make an arrangement for string orchestra. How could I?
On the other hand, would the falak be so effective if I didn't know that it is the only Afghan music traditionally used for mourning? Would it be so searing if not for Afghanistan's recent history?
After all, much of Badakhshan only belongs to Afghanistan because of the Durand Line, the border that Britain and Russia drew in 1893 to prevent their empires from touching. Badakhshan is one of Afghanistan's most peaceful (and beautiful provinces), its remote, verdant land proudly guarded by immense mountains.
The ghichak, a small, two-stringed cello-like instrument with a nasal, keening tone, seems an unlikely vehicle for a tragic musical form. Yet as soon as it begins the falak, the ghichak ends awareness of anything but the sense of memory and of vast, lonely space its timbre evokes. The falak, sung at funerals in Badakhshan, begins with a slow chant, in which the notes move by such small intervals that you feel as though moving by a larger interval would simply be too painful. Abruptly, the chant leaps into the abyss of silence, before resuming.
Ornaments, used by European composers three centuries ago as the musical equivalent of curlicues in Baroque architecture, here act as a tremulous variation on the lengthy, sustained tones of the falak. Just as the pain makes the musical intervals so small, it also makes the mere act of sustaining difficult.
Suddenly, the falak enters a fast dance, which increases in frenzy as it continues. But as my colleague put it, this is a "tragic dance," as though the grief has pointed the way towards insanity. Eventually, the ghichak begins slowing down, disappearing. A painful, accent minor second (the most dissonant interval in Western classical music) resolves to the perfect fourth formed by the two strings, before the sound returns to the void from which it came.