Improvisational music has carved a strong niche in Istanbul’s concert life. Four programs I attended last week showed an innovative array of stylistic approaches to creating music on the spot.
At Borusan Music House, three evenings focused on the work of electronic music composers and artists: “Happy Birthday John Cage” on May 8 with Alper Maral’s Multiphonics Ensemble; “Electroacoustic Day” on May 9 with Juliana Snapper and Miller Puckette; and the Moritz von Oswald Trio from Berlin performed on May 11.
Pacif.ist, an improvisational group of six musicians led by harpist Natalia Mann, occupied Alt on May 10 with their unique sound tapestries using the kemençe, harp, bass and rhythms from around the world.
John Cage’s universe
John Cage, who lived from 1912 to 1992, is one of the leading figures in post-war avant-garde music. His quirky compositions, often written for household objects in addition to standard musical instruments, are considered hallmarks of innovation. Through many eclectic sources and philosophical studies in the late 1940s, Cage came to the idea of aleatoric, or chance music, which he started composing in 1951. One of his teachers, Arnold Schoenberg, said of him: “He’s not a composer, but he’s an inventor -- of genius.”
Local composer, trombonist and pianist Alper Maral, with saxophonist Burçin Elmas, violinist Utku Öğüt and bass trombonist Stefan Fricke performed several Turkish premieres of Cage’s works in addition to new pieces by Maral and Fricke. Many of the nine pieces they selected from Cage’s repertory are decidedly tongue-in-cheek. His famous ‘4’33”,’ is exactly four minutes and 33 seconds of silence -- silence from the musician, that is. Cage wrote it purposely as a disconcerting lack of sound, to reveal whatever sounds the audience decided to make during it. Fricke sat with the score, his trombone and a stopwatch. At one point he made some preparatory motions, but continued patiently counting his minutes. At about four minutes, the audience figured it out and laughed. That was quite a contrast to the uproar it caused at its premiere in 1952.
Equally hilarious, at least to this New Yorker, was “Eight Whiskus” (1985), as the title sounds like “eight whiskers” spoken with a New York accent, and the sound effects he wrote were like a cat’s whiskers emanating from a solo violin. Played with the bow exerting half-pressure on the strings, it gave a spooky feeling there was a hungry feline prowling the premises.
“Radio Music” is just that -- three radios playing simultaneously, although most of the “music” was reception static. Maral combined the pre-recorded “Fontana Mix” (1958) tape with “Solo for Sliding Trombone” (1958) where he had to utilize five different mutes, one by one while he played and change them with split-second timing. At one point, he couldn’t change one of them fast enough and dropped it on the floor, whereupon Maral just let it roll with a dismissive wave of the hand and grabbed another. Cage would have loved it.
For “Electroacoustic Day, “ singer Juliana Snapper and electronics wizard Miller Puckette’s workshop explained how to produce an electronic score with data programming, rather than standard music-writing applications. They used a score by Philippe Manoury: “En écho,” to demonstrate, through both explanation and performance of it. It was written for soprano voice and a program that actually follows the singer as she sings it, effectively becoming a kinetic echo to her phrases.
This workshop as well as their concert the following evening were presented in partnership with İstanbul Technical University’s (İTÜ) Center for Advanced Studies in Music (MİAM), whose students were in the audience along with the public. One issue they raised was how to record a performance of electronic music. Puckette replied that it’s extremely difficult to reproduce a live performance, especially with live voice alongside the programmed sounds. Indeed, the sheer amount of shimmer emanating from Snapper’s silvery soprano, together with the various resonances bouncing around the room, was in itself a kinetic event. “We don’t have equipment that can capture that,” he said.
A question about computer composition programs elicited Puckette’s frank opinion. “The problem with the standard music-writing programs is their inborn templates which don’t allow an imaginative composer the freedom to come up with alternative systems,” he explained, adding: “They only serve to maintain traditional notation. Using data to program the sounds has no such template.”
Another genre of adventurous electronics is the Moritz von Oswald Trio (Vladislav Delay on live percussion, Max Loderbauer on analog synthesizers, Moritz von Oswald on electroacoustic equipment), who performed their own mix of dub, trance, techno, improvisation and ambient for Borusan Music House’s Nova Muzak series.
Along the lines of Kraftwerk without video, the two electronicians impassively turned dials on an assortment of sequencers, synthesizers and samplers, while Delay, in shadow, struck a variety of hanging gadgets and skin drums. Together, they produced a 90-minute non-stop sonic stream of consciousness. That stream shape-shifts through a subliminal steam engine’s sound track. We’re swept into its magnetic vortex without our being aware of how closely it actually resembles the internal symphony of a nine-month human gestation.
Harpist Natalia Mann, classic kemençe player Sercen Halili, bassist Aziz Şahin and percussionists İzzet Kızıl, Naomi Jean and Torab Majlesi wove a magic carpet of worldly sounds from the South Pacific, Turkey, the Middle East and free-form jazz. Pasif.ist invokes an aromatic universe that could easily underscore surreal paintings. Mann’s creative harpistry and Halili’s haunting kemençe, in particular, conjure both dusky orientalist dreams and dramatic escapades in a new language.
That new experimental language -- whether it includes electronics or not -- is developing rapidly around us. We desperately need new terminology for it.