Dr. Emre Aracı. A composer, a conductor and a musicologist. He is someone who loves to highlight not the differences between cultures but rather the important points of overlap.
In this case, Aracı has had his own orchestra play for the first time some of the classical Western compositions that originated from the Ottoman era. Sunday’s Zaman had the opportunity to talk about music, life and work with this musician, who answered many of Sunday Zaman’s questions.
Aracı has lived in England since 1987, and received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Edinburgh University Faculty of Music. He carried on his academic work on the tradition of European music within the Ottoman Empire at the Skilliter Centre for Ottoman Studies at Cambridge University.
His writings on the Ottoman era and the musical identity of modern Turkey were published in many local and foreign publications. Aracı also produced CDs, such as “European Music from the Ottoman Palace” (2000), “War and Peace: Crimea 1853-56” (2002), “Portraits of Sultans in the Bosphorus Moonlight” (2004) and “From Istanbul to London” (2005). At the same time, he also wrote articles, among them “Ahmed Adnan Saygun -- the Musical Bridge between East and West” (2001), “Donizetti Pasha -- the Ottoman Palace’s Italian Maestro” (2006), “The Naum Theater-Italian Opera in 19th Century Istanbul” (2010) and “On the Trail of Lost Voices” (2011).
How did Emre Aracı’s adventures in music really begin?
Ever since I was a child, I had a great interest in Western classical music. As I got older I saw that in fact that was simply a natural part of who I was. I was so deeply impressed by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony when I listened to it as a child. I realized after listening to it that I was very interested in this sort of repertoire. Even today, I really cannot listen to any other sort of music. I did not attend the conservatory in Turkey, but when I was around 10 years old, I became a member of the Turkish Philharmonic Association, and it was then that I began regularly attending concerts at the Atatürk Cultural Center. I was definitely the youngest member of this group. And it must have been when I was a child that I developed the dream of becoming a conductor, as I saved my association membership card in the event that it ever happened. Many years later, I wound up leading the İstanbul State Orchestra in the same cultural center. It was such an exciting concert for me. During that very same concert, I had that original subscription card with me in my pocket. In fact, these sorts of small symbolic messages have throughout my life been factors that I have felt in my work and in my own art, and which have shaped me and guided me. None of us really knows what is going to happen to us in life. And so throughout my life I have always tried to take meaning from these small sorts of symbols, and to set targets for myself in this future we are unable to see. In fact, one should really try to see more clearly these small sorts of nuances that pertain to our lives.
So does your interest in classical music derive from your family?
Well, my family did love music, but there was really no one else who was as interested in and selective about classical music as I was. My older brother played the piano. There is no doubt that my own familiarity with Western classical music could be attributed to my family; for example, they would take us to the ballet and various concerts. I was just a child when I became familiar with these arenas of the arts. At the time, many families would push their offspring towards studying disciplines that they, rather than the student himself, wanted. But my father, who has since passed away, showed a great deal of tolerance on this front, and when I suddenly began leaning towards a career that involved Western classical music during my university years, he never once withheld support from me.
What was it that pushed you towards an interest in the European music of the Ottomans?
I love all that is classical, not only in music but also in literature and architecture. … So when my own interest in history was combined with values connected to my own country, the era of the Ottomans became very interesting to me. And since I was already interested in Western music, I started pursuing the question of how this style of music arrived in our country. During the years of the formation of the republic, great steps were taken towards the institutionalization of this music here. We are talking about a legacy, and what they did was to take that legacy and advance it by building upon it. For example, the theme of my doctorate at Edinburgh University was the life and works on Adnan Saygun.
What I really want to do is to highlight the points at which our country overlaps with European music. I began to really take an interest in the European music played during the Ottoman era when I was a student in Edinburgh. When I was a student, the Turkish ambassador to Britain at the time, Özdem Sanberk, paid a visit to Edinburgh, when I had an orchestra at the university. And at the concert he attended some of the Western-style works of the Ottoman pashas were played for the first time ever by an orchestra. Sanberk was so pleased by this that I wound up being invited to London. And so we gave two concerts at the ambassador’s residence there in London, more than a decade ago, and thus the way was cleared forward on this matter.
Everyone has a different definition of what music is; what is it for you?
Well, really applying an essential definition to everything is very difficult for me. … One of the best aspects of art is this: I have no family or children; I will leave nothing like that behind. But what I will leave behind is these works, which are like seeds of my interest in certain values in which I believe. I often discover writers from previous forgotten eras, and the messages that they give in their writing still maintain such freshness. And what you can do is take those great things they are passing on and place more on top of it, and continue on your way. And so I am simply trying to reach people who are similar in spirit to me, but who lived at different times, and to save those values and messages from being lost and thus add meaning to my own life. I try to find meaning in my own life by doing this.
Would you talk a bit about the musical ties between Turkey and England? How do these shape your own life?
In both a philosophical and an aesthetic sense, I tend to live more in the 19th century. Turkey may be a piece of Europe, but there is no doubt that music in these two countries is different in a traditional sense. I take great pleasure from examining and highlighting the points wherein our cultures do not separate, but rather overlap. And even in this land, I do not feel disconnected from the values of my country.
Aracı’s latest book combines music, history, art and melancholy
In Naum Theater as well as some of your other works you seem to pursue some forgotten details.
Yes, it is true, details are very important. As it is, I believe the real strength of true research lies in the details. What’s more, I have always gone in pursuit of those small details in my life; for those who can appreciate them, they give a certain sense of autonomy. … In my book about the Naum Theater, I wrote about the magnificent style of Italian opera brought to the city of İstanbul by Sultan Abdülmecid, as well as the general biography of the theater itself.
Would you please talk a bit about your latest book, “On the Trail of Lost Voices”?
Yes, let us call that my latest child. There are so many different elements to this book. There is the multi-voiced style of Ottoman music, the homes of European composers, there are palaces, chateaux, London streets, İstanbul, Vienna, Paris, Venice and Malta. There are some very different topics brought together under the same roof, as well as notes I have taken over the years on concert trips and concerts themselves. In other words, it is not all about just Ottoman music but about a number of topics in which I am active and interested.
Could we call it a book that combines music with history?
Yes, art, music, history, our own past, aesthetics and a bit of melancholy. In fact, perhaps melancholy over some lost values. It is really not a memoir or a set of memories, but there is a memoir style at work in some of the writings. It is a book that is full of stories which will appeal to people who have sought out some of Turkey’s values in other cultures. And as I clarify in the foreword to the book, by following the call of our inner voices, it is basically a journey.