About a year ago, a YouTube user called stos2408 posted a video entitled маленькая девочка дирижирует хором, Little Girl Conducting the Choir. As you might expect, it shows a little girl conducting a choir.
The video is just 64 seconds long and yet it is mesmerizing, inimitable, absolutely beautiful. It is hilarious and dumb and true in a way that art isn’t readily able to duplicate. A stolen moment from a choir practice in Kyrgyzstan – or so we learned later, when an enterprising journalist tracked down stos2408 and found out where this kid lived, where these singers sang, where stos2408 was sitting when he imported the video from his camera to his computer, appending a Cyrillic title, uploading it to the world.
маленькая девочка, as I’ll call it, is a simple scrap of home video. We see a wood paneled room, a group of women holding lyric sheets. There’s one lady who looks like a teenager, one who looks like grandma; the rest are in between. This is a choir, or actually a portion of a choir – we hear singers we can’t see, including a clarion-voiced soloist. And although it appears at first to be a women’s choir, there’s a dude there too, hanging out in a tartan tie.
The protagonist of маленькая девочка is the маленькая девочка herself, the little girl. She is fair-haired and serious, with a comfortably pudgy round face, a flowery collared blouse and dowdy denim dress. Her short haircut makes her seem boyish, but her style matches the fashion of the rest of the ladies in the choir: lots of floral patterns and headbands. Put another way: churchy.
The little girl looks like she’s about three years old. And throughout this video, from her place at the back of the room, she conducts the choir.
Well, not really. To conduct a choir you need to be leading them – setting the tempo, guiding the harmonies. This little girl is doing all the things a conductor does, waving her hands and marking the beat, but nobody’s looking at her except the cameraman. She’s not conducting so much as she’s dancing, freely moving, with a choreography to evoke a choir-leader.
It’s cute as fuck. Cute and then, abruptly, this thing that’s deeper than cute, almost painful.
But first: cute. The girl’s first move is an outraised right hand, an entreating question. She stares at her own hand, as if she’s concentrating on getting it right. You think, “Haha, she’s slowly imitating someone.” You think, “Kids are so cute when they try to act like adults.” Then she scratches her belly and it’s like, “Haha kids so unselfconscious just scratchin’ their cute round bellies.”
But then there’s a swift change of expression. In less than a second, the little girl’s brow furrows. She raises her hand in a different way, higher, as if proposing a new idea.
And now, blinking, there’s a different shine to her eyes: it’s no longer the look of someone watching someone else; it’s the look of someone listening very hard.
The little girl calmly raises one finger. “Consider this,” she seems to be saying, as the soloist sings a high line. The tiny conductor considers one more thing and then she spreads her arms in a sudden, expressive entreaty.
It’s a movement of WHY?? or WHAT??, and then she does it twice more, and is about to do it again, to ask her poignant question, when instead a feeling captures her – something invisible and impossible for us to comprehend and instead the girl is falling forward, almost swooning, her eyes closed.
Less than 20 seconds have passed.
Just as we are processing all this, the music begins to pick up and the whole choir is singing. маленькая девочка is kind of interrupted in mid-thought and although she pays no attention to the singers directly in front of her, she seems at first to be overtaken by the change in the music’s intensity. There on her face – anger, confusion, then an expression of deeply-felt sympathy, a sort of stricken ‘O’.
The little girl seems felled by the power of this music. She can barely lead it. And yet over the course of mere seconds, from 0:23 to 0:28, our choir-leader finds her bearing. And as the music goes on, as it rises and crests, the маленькая девочка finds another gear, finds another level.
She is pointing here, she is pointing there, her gestures are confident and swooping. Her expressions flash from certainty to interrogation, bemusement to impatience, and she even throws this one weird witchy surfer move, as if summoning an elemental.
It’s virtuosic. It’s commanding. It’s gorgeous, to see someone, anyone, so caught up in a piece of old song. There’s a delicate, precious power to any moment where we see a person moved by art; but even then these moments are usually public, outward facing. A man at a gallery is moved to laughter, a woman at a bluegrass show begins to weep. As much as we can half-forget we are in public, with strangers around, they rarely feel truly private.
But the маленькая девочка seems to be alone: we witness a moment of private, vulnerable experiencing. It’s terrifyingly honest. And overtop of this there’s also the dance of it: a tiny figure moving to music, graceful and animated, translating sound into gesture. We are at once voyeurs, spying the secret, and an audience witnessing a dancer. A dancer whose spirit is new enough that this music seems to plunge directly into the heart of her heart, soothing and pricking it.
Across each of these moments, the маленькая девочка is not social. For all the auspices of “conducting”, she is not making eye contact with anyone, not exchanging meaning. She is “conducting” in that other sense: a signal is passing through her, we see it in her face.
At the end of the piece, the cameraman zooms out and the маленькая девочка is holding the notes in place, clutching them with her hands, like someone who can literally feel the weight of this music. Its electrical heft. She stands like a true maestro. Or maybe like a maestryoshka.
It is not a finale so much as a stoppage. The singing ends, the enchantment lifts, the music disappears into hush and rustle. Everyone sits down. There’s a split-second when the маленькая девочка seems bewildered, a pint-sized stranger in a bureaucrat’s strange land – but I can’t see her eyes and I can’t quite be sure what she’s feeling. What I know is that she takes this funny backward step, and there’s a woman in red walking past her, patting her head, and as this woman moves past her the маленькая девочка is once again a hapless kid, a harmless little girl, and maybe she’s picking her nose.
So I find myself humbled by this video. It’s like when we see a nine-year-old rock’n’roll drummer or an eight-year-old acrobat-pianist, and we wonder: why the hell can’t I do that? Why can’t I feel this choral song so purely and so finely, showing it in my face and limbs. Or can I? Can I feel that moment of anguish at 0:26? Can I feel the precision the маленькая девочка detects at 0:33 and 0:34?
Maybe the choir-leader is feeling these things, I wonder. There, just past the limits of the video frame, a grown-up conductor whose movements the маленькая девочка is mimicking.
But no – and incredibly, there is evidence of this. Another video shows the same choir scene from a different angle, revealing (just barely) the conductor’s small, subtle hand-gestures. The little girl is barely even looking at her.
The маленькая девочка is there in the corner, all by herself, making movements natural and instantaneous. She is like a solitary waterfall; waterfalls do not need to imitate other waterfalls.
Of course I wasn’t the only person to be beguiled by маленькая девочка дирижирует хором. This winter, about a year after the video was originally published to YouTube, it was publicly acclaimed by one of the most important, influential figures of our time. Kathie Lee Gifford.
“My sister sent me this video and I think it’s my favourite ever,” Gifford said on the February 28 episode of NBC’s TODAY. “I’m in awe of [it].”
The endorsement by one of America’s top daytime talk shows caused a flurry of interest (and several million YouTube views). And someone from TODAY located stos2408, identifying him (as far as I understand) as freelance journalist Vladimir Tsai. Tsai explained that the video had been shot during a rehearsal for the Baptist Central Church choir, in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. And the маленькая девочка’s name? It’s Lara.
Lara! In Kurdish it means “graceful”. In Turkish it means “water fairy”. And it’s only one degree removed from Lyra, the name of the stubborn, brave-hearted, precocious (co-) protagonist in Philip Pullman’s immortal Golden Compass trilogy.
Lara. Now this little girl has a name, and when I watch the video again it is different somehow, even more finely variegated.
Lara. What are the valences of that name, in Kyrgyzstan? Is it more graceful or more water fairy? Is it typical, or weird? Is it an Anna or an Inanna? Is it Baptist-y? Does it evoke Philip Pullman’s immortal Golden Compass trilogy?
This makes me wonder about Kyrgyzstan in general. The Kyrgyz Republic, adjacent to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Kazakhstan. Formerly Soviet, governed by men with names like Almazbek and Djoomart. Almazbek, Djoomart – so faraway from Sean and Kathie-Lee. And would Lara feel faraway, too? When she is older would I be able to sit with her and listen to some records? Or would she find my Montreal apartment too strange? Would she spurn my offers of coffee and bagels? Would she ask me to take her to church?
Anyway, it’s all made me speculate about the quality of Kyrgyz musical education programs. Clearly these choir-members sing the good stuff, and clearly this kid feels the music in her bones. It’s a far cry from huffing and puffing to Frozen‘s “Let It Go”. (Though that’s OK too.) The Kyrgyz seem destined for greatness.
Which brings us to Kyrgyzstan’s other hit video meme of the past five years.
It may not have gotten much play among alumni of Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee, but in 2011 the Russian interwebs went bonkers for a clip known as Зима не будет (“There will be no winter!”), featuring Arstanbek Abdyldaev, a kind of Kyrgyz Donald Trump.
As documented by Registan’s Matthew Kupfer, Abdyldaev hit the LOL big-time when he spoke at a press conference in Bishkek, right across town from Lara’s Central Baptist Church. This “gas station magnate” and “obscure presidential candidate” went off down an unexpected tangent, delivering a thesis he said he had learned from a cosmic energy force called “ayan”:
According to Abdyldaev, the world was on the verge of a new era and a golden age that would begin in 2012 with the Kyrgyz people. This was only fitting because the Kyrgyz were, by their measurement, the oldest nation in the world and Kyrgyzstan was the energy center of the Earth. … Then – even more amazing – Abdyldaev uttered the ungrammatical words that would electrify [the Russian internet] and make him famous: “There will be no winter!”, and an internet phenomenon was born.
Abdyldaev’s pronouncement went well and truly viral: “Зима не будет” became the hashtag par excellence for Russian-speakers tweeting preposterous claims. The world is flat! #zimanebudet, Vladimir Putin is a real mensch! #zimanebudet, The United States is a just and equitable society! #zimanebudet
Even in English, “There will be no winter!” has a delicious, sympathetic loopiness. It helps that it feels like a crumb of scenery-chewing dialogue from Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister in the throne room with the Starks, lots of hands clutching flagons. Maybe climate change activists can borrow it for their next awareness campaign.
But inevitably I find myself considering this slogan in terms of Lara the маленькая девочка, Abdyldaev’s fellow vowelless Kyrgyz, who became famous online for showing a similar absurd self-assurance. Lara’s video fascinates because she seems to show us a little piece of her interior life. Yet it’s also the fact that we doubt that interior life. We can’t quite believe that such a young human being feels this music as deeply as she does.
Such an outlandish premise: that this roly-poly toddler is a deliberate, expressive old soul; that she’s an echo of ourselves in our most open, attentive moments.
And yet it’s true. She is. I’ve watched this clip and watched it again and I’m certain. Lara is listening and feeling and showing, un-theatrical. She is what we are, or can be.
Maybe winter is done with, after all.
Sean Michaels has cooed and hollered about music for places like the Guardian, McSweeney’s, Pitchfork, and the blog Said the Gramophone. Us Conductors, his first novel, will be published by Tin House on June 10. It’s about electricity, useful lies, and the man who invented the theremin. Sean lives in the beautiful city of Montreal.