ISCMS takes grooves through the gamut

ISCMS takes 
   grooves through the gamut

Oliver Lake

August 11, 2010, Wednesday/ 16:04:00
In last Wednesday’s Today’s Zaman, I wrote about the İsmet Sıral Creative Music Studio (ISCMS) project, held in İstanbul from July 29 through Aug. 8.The ISCMS hosted 60 global musicians in 41 events (concerts, workshops, seminars, conferences and jam sessions) at several locations, both outdoor and indoor. Since my last report, I attended 11 more events. It was more than an in-depth musical excursion -- it was a life-changing experience.

The Creative Music Studio, founded in Woodstock, New York, in 1971 by Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso and Ornette Coleman, is credited with being the birthplace of world jazz. Later that decade, Turkey’s eminent jazz bandleader, İsmet Sıral, joined the progressive group of experimental musicians based in Woodstock. There, he was able to find a haven for his desire to combine Sufi philosophy with new directions in improvised music involving instrumentalists from all over the world.

Sıral’s lifetime dream (he died in 1987) to create the same thing in Turkey has been reverently realized by a team of musicians here and from outside Turkey. The first ISCMS was held in 2006 for three days and this second one -- 11 days long -- wrapped up last Sunday evening with a concert at the Sepetçiler Kasrı.

Understanding new ways to create

In his workshop, saxophonist Oliver Lake gave technical details about how to play improvised music as opposed to jazz, a genre whose label these musicians feel is too limiting and is already riddled with cliché formulas. “Improvised music is a form of composition that’s almost like our daily lives,” Lake explains. “I like getting lost and finding something new and surprising myself -- that’s a spiritual plane for me.”

Guitarist Kenny Wessel, in his workshop about the musical cosmos of Ornette Coleman, said, “Pulling and stretching the motives and their rhythms allows you to discover new possibilities on the spot.” Coleman’s “harmolodic” technique advises throwing out the chords and just working in a linear fashion, rethinking the relationships between notes.

Trilok Gurtu’s workshop entitled “Music Is One” rethought the relationship between music and us -- the listeners and the players. “Music is not a side dish, it’s very important,” he says. “Music connects to our thoughts; I see it spiritually. It’s a means to an end.” The Indian drummer’s lively class was peppered with challenges to the listener. “What’s this?” he queried as he played an exotic rhythm. “A samba?” “A bossa nova?” were a couple of guesses. “Wrong!” he shot back. “It’s a lesser-known combination of Indian and Cuban beats. And by the way, where does ‘swing’ come from?” Silence. “Africa! This is why I say ‘Music is One’.”

The concert with Adam Rudolph’s “GO: Organic Orchestra” was, for me, a pivotal experience. It completely turned around my concept of orchestration: throwing out traditional, pre-conceived simultaneous lines and substituting spontaneous blocks of rhythm grooves punctuated by cued chords and solos, thus creating new textures at every turn. The satisfaction for the listener lay entirely within Rudolph’s momentary choices and the timing of his cues.

İstanbul’s street life becomes music

Two concerts -- “On the Overpass” and “Street Vendors Take the Stage” -- made clever use of İstanbul’s colorful street life. The first was inspired by a previous session on a pedestrian overpass in Eminönü that wove the sounds of traffic, boats, helicopters and pedestrians with the band. The resulting concert fearlessly used dissonance and silence, sonority for its own sake and its own pleasure. Melody as we know it was reinvented.

The second concert invited pre-selected street vendors to join the musicians on the stage. The band listened to their operatic cries that sell simits, tomatoes, blankets, corn, boza and more, then riffed on them. Musically speaking, it seemed more limiting for the band because the vendors’ cries were similar to each other and often used the same notes. But, stars were born that night. The vendors clearly loved the spotlight and the experience for everyone was exhilarating and nostalgic. Sıral would have approved. Ömer Faruk Tekbilek improvised words for the final stanza on a Turkish tune: “İsmet, you are the light for us now.”

The kaleidoscope grows and glows

The concert, “Inter-cultural Improvisations,” involved musicians from Africa, Turkey, India and America. From tonal folk melodies to adventurous atonal explosions, this concert provided the widest spectrum. Within and between the four sections which blended into each other, we were treated to a multi-color aural landscape which made use of every mode of improvised music. Clarinetist Oğuz Büyükberber’s extraordinary facility and ability to find appealing countermelodies with Benny Goodman-like lyrical lines were especially stunning. During the encore, Karl Berger’s vibraphone magically appeared, beckoning him to play. Berger’s glacial groove, suspended rhythmic overlay and subtle invention spoke louder than any verbal description of the CMS movement: his music was the embodiment of the original source.

Composer/saxophonist John Zorn, who is practically a deity in New York, was the grand finale of ISCMS 2010. Evidently, there’s an avid following here in İstanbul, as I witnessed a capacity crowd on Aug. 8. His group “Masada” used four of his favorite musicians who match his iconoclastic spirit and together they brewed their extraterrestrial alchemy. Cueing them individually, sometimes just seconds apart, Zorn is in absolute control of what might sound like chaos at first. But he runs the gamut of many moods: from forlorn to fractious, and from dulcet to destructo.

So how did the ISCMS change my life? For one thing, hearing a classical symphony now feels like eating cotton candy. But seriously, it has prompted me to encourage musicians, from my students to the professionals I critique, to drop cliché formulas and purge the predictable. Dare to be new and different.

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