Say’s musical remembrance of Sait Faik at İstanbul Music Festival

Say’s musical remembrance of Sait Faik at İstanbul Music Festival

Zorlu Center hosted the second performance of “Remembering Sait Faik” on June 26. (Photo: Onur Doğman)

June 29, 2014, Sunday/ 17:31:13/ ALEXANDRA IVANOFF | ISTANBUL
Three boys put stones in their slingshots and catapult them onto a meter-long model of a sailing boat, which was handmade by another boy who loves the sea and all the boats that sail in it. The hurled stones destroy the boat and drown it. The boy, the grandson of a ship maker on the Marmara Sea, witnesses the incomprehensible destruction of something he had put all his energy into making over many months of his young life.

This scene is the ending of “Stelyanos Hrisopulos Gemisi” (The Ship ‘Stelyanos Hrisopulos '), a short story from the first of many books written by 20th-century Turkish author Sait Faik Abasıyanık. I'm relating the sad ending up front because the music written by Fazıl Say for two concerts in the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Art's (İKSV) İstanbul Music Festival on June 25 and 26 retells the poignant tale through a music-theater piece that foreshadows the destruction of the boy's ship.

Say's newest creation, “Remembering Sait Faik,” was a world premiere commissioned by İKSV, and was premiered on June 25 at the port of Burgazada, and repeated at the Zorlu Center on June 26. The onstage forces were Say himself at the piano, the Borusan Quartet, three performers on Turkish instruments, two singers and three narrators. It was semi-staged by Özen Yula, lit by Kemal Yiğitcan, with costumes by Machka and visual designs by Fikirbazzenger.

The soul of Sait Faik

Prior to the concert, Asuman Kafaoğlu-Büke talked about the life and writings of Sait Faik, saying: “Though this was written in the 1930s, Faik is always à la mode. Reading him 60 years or 90 years later, he's still young. His themes are humanist: He writes of the daily struggles of people, the way they look, think and feel. The young grandson, Trifon, lovingly builds his model ship, encouraged by his seaman grandfather. The sad end is caused by jealousy -- the three boys' desire to destroy something beautiful built by someone else. Why did Say choose this particular story? Was it a conscious or subconscious decision?” This is for us to decide.

In the Zorlu Center presentation, a wide video screen with the Sea of Marmara shimmering in the sun and civilization at a distance, or perhaps behind us, gave us the feeling we were on the shores of Burgazada. Three young ladies in sea-blue chiffon dresses (Demet Evgar, Songül Öden and Esra Bezen Bilgin) began the narration after a musical opening reminiscent of Turkish folk music with an unmistakably tragic tinge.

A sequence of alternating solo songs, narrations, instrumental music and the sound of the waves of the sea told the story in the space of an hour. The three narrators' costumes and simple choreography suggested mermaids cavorting and cajoling like undines in the foamy surf. The actresses imbued the author's words with spritely spirit and engaging personality, despite the absurdly high-volume body-miking, which overbalanced everyone else on stage.

Singers Zeynep Halvaşi and Serenad Bağcan took turns among several intensely descriptive solo songs. One “sea song” was accompanied by a cello's imitation of a fog horn; another was a comic depiction of a jazz chorus of cats; another expressed crisis and urgency; while the initial song -- more like an operatic aria -- was the harbinger of things to come. Both singers excelled in the clarity of text and expression, inhabiting important roles in establishing the depth of the drama. Say's text-setting ability shone here, and I'm assuming he wrote them specifically for the voices of these two women, who so beautifully conveyed the soul of Sait Faik's story.

The Borusan Quartet (violinists Esen Kıvrak and Olgu Kızılay, violist Efdal Altun and cellist Çağ Erçağ) alternately took the spotlight and the background accompaniment and/or effects. Derya Türkan's kemençe arose from the back of the stage as an eerily emotional quotient, kanunist Hakan Güngör contributed improvisation and historic musical texture and Aykut Köselerli's rhythmic underscore created a subtle atmosphere. Say's own pianistic role veered from lounge-piano stylings blended with folk styles to more innovative fabric throughout. The overall effect was a creation that spoke simply on the outside, yet alluded to deeper motivations that lurked beneath.

Deeper motivations

There are perhaps many ways to think of this story and why Say selected it: an allegory that speaks of the powerful danger of jealousy, a reference to the socio-political movements in the early days of the Turkish Republic or a modern-day parable that hints of evil that could threaten something carefully and lovingly built.

Interestingly, the name Trifon is derived from the martyred St. Tryphon, honored by Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians. His name is invoked by mariners when they are in danger at sea. It's easy to associate the name Trifon with Turkey, as a carefully built new republic in the 1930s through to this day. The triumvirate of slingshot marauders can be attributed to any cabal that is easily provoked into unreasoning and paranoid jealousy: the jealousy that needs to destroy an object of beauty -- an object the destroyer himself cannot understand or create, and an object that sails free and cannot be controlled.

Instances in Turkish history of such jealous destruction abound; we can take our pick among hundreds of historical atrocities. Or, we can read the daily news, where, on a regular basis, stones are being hurtled with startling accuracy at freedoms within the infrastructure of judicial, educational and societal systems, and within the media. I believe Say's piece is a musical warning that the ship “Democracy” (given a Greek name by Faik as “Stelyanos Hrisopulos”), and by now the equivalent of one meter in length, will sink unless the slingshot marauders are apprehended.

Say's work, in many ways, reminds me of how Dmitri Shostakovich encoded messages in his music in the darkest of Communist times in Russia; in Say's case, however, he uses historical Turkish sources to illuminate his message. Or, we can understand this particular composition simply as a folk tale. After all, the final moments in Say's piece were only the sounds of Trifon's beloved Marmara Sea.
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