Born in Kazakhstan and based in London, Galya Bisengalieva is a classically-trained violinist, composer and electronic musician. As the current leader of the London Contemporary Orchestra, she has been involved in a series of high profile collaborations with musicians as diverse as Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Suzanne Ciani, Mica Levi, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. As a solo artist, the musician has been delving into experimental composition by blending acoustic instrumentation with electronic manipulation over three EPs to date – EP One (2018), EP Two (2019) and Brother with Robert Ames (2019).

Focusing on “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters” – namely the shrinking of the Aral Sea lying across southern Kazakhstan and northern Uzbekistan – Aralkum is Galya Bisengalieva’s début full-length solo LP and was released on One Little Independent Records on 4 September 2020 last. A stunning ambient concept album whose sonic intricacies slowly reveal themselves with each new listening, Aralkum is also a heartfelt meditation on the global consequences of tampering with a balanced local ecosystem.

Galya Bisengalieva - Aralkum (2020)
Galya Bisengalieva – Aralkum (2020)

Once the fourth largest lake in the world boasting an abundant ecosystem of marshes and wetlands, the Aral Sea sustained a naval presence and thriving fishing industry. In the 1930s, various large scale irrigation projects to cater for agriculture started diverting water from the lake. But when an intensive regional cotton industry initiated by the Soviet government got underway from the 1960s onwards, the building of irrigation canals intensified and the lake’s water levels started dropping. By 1997, the Aral Sea had lost 90% of its original size with disastrous ecological consequences to the environment and public health. Satellite images of the Aral region captured by NASA over the past decades have documented for all to see the inexorable subsiding of the lake waters, and if the building of a dam has preserved a small northern and southern section of the original sea, the present-day Aralkum desert is a vast expanse of dried seabed prone to dust storms and droughts.

We cannot command nature except by obeying her – Francis Bacon

As a solo project featuring acoustic violin alongside electronics, Galya Bisengalieva’s Aralkum showcases a spectacular textural and tonal amplitude, lending the entire project a moving orchestral feel. The music shines a light onto a catastrophic man-made environmental disaster. It also points to the inherent philosophical flaw of the concept of “environment” which tends to view the natural world as an external and quantifiable asset.

Without words, Aralkum tells the story of a regional territory in three distinct parts or movements. In the first “Pre-Disaster” part, the title-track visualises a lush and balanced ecosystem before its destruction. “Moynaq” – a track named after a former fishing port now in the middle of the desert and 150 kilometres away from the shore – features superimposed harmonic drone layers emulating cellos alongside the contrabass flute of Pasha Mansurov.

Borrowing its title from a ghost town on one of the former islands on the Aral Sea, “Kantubek” is a cinematic lament illustrated by eerie drone footage of an empty and deserted seabed which introduces the “Calamity” section of the record.

Concluding the record with a “Future” section, both “Zalanash” and “Korakal” envisage water coming back to the area with liquid chimes. The musician also integrated archival ambient recordings from the area into the mix such as birds chirping or sounds of the wind hitting the hulls of abandoned ships.

In the course of 2021, Galya Bisengalieva and a small ensemble performed Aralkum live in London’s Southbank Centre, at Utrecht Le Guess Who? festival or The Hague’s Rewire festival to rave reviews.

The original recording also prompted a series of reworks from electronic artists such as Coby Sey, CHAINES, Jlin and Moor Mother (with new vocals) among others. Aralkum Aralas featuring seven remixes was released on One Little Independent Records on 15 October 2021 last.