Turkish Classical Music: An Overview

Ahenk: Turkish Classical Music (Golden Horn Productions, 1998)
Ìhsan Özgen: Masterworks of Itri and Meragi (Golden Horn Records, 1998)
Ìhsan Özgen: Remembrances of Ottoman Composers And Improvisations (Golden Horn, 1999)
Various Artists: Ashiklar: For Those Who Are In Love (Golden Horn Records, 1999)

(This review was written by Big Earl Sellar for a previous incarnation of Green Man Review.)

Although I’m familiar with Turkish popular and traditional music, the first three of these discs mark my introduction to Turkish classical music. This is a relatively recent musical invention, dating back 1000 years: composers, inspired by the tradition and the court music, creating a new vocabulary of written, organized works, and defined frameworks for instrumental improvisations. It’s interesting, if not particularly gripping music.

Right from the get-go, the duo Ahenk sets the tempo for these discs: slow. And I mean slow, where a particularly brisk passage might hit 60 beats per minute, and points of free time in the compositions may drop to a snail’s pace. There are many schools of composed music on this planet that equate slow tempos with “seriousness,” and often, they result in “boredom” and “tedium.” The duo perform these works entirely on two instruments, without even a hint of percussion or vocals to reinforce music motifs. Murat Aydemìr plays the tanbur, a long neck low pitched member of the lute family, with a broad range and a sonorous voice. Derya Türkan plays the kemençe, a tiny three string instrument which is bowed, and with a surprisingly broad range. On the disc’s best, such as “Ussak Sirto,” or on the improvisations, the duo prove themselves master musicians, capable of rending amazing lines out of their instruments. The problem is, all the songs sound superficially the same, both composed and improvised, and the dirge-like tempo helps to create an aura of uncontrollable sleep-inducement. It’s a very pretty, but very plain disc.

The dirge continues in earnest with Özgen’s discs. A multi-instrumentalist, a musical scholar, and teacher, his two discs drop the pretty from this music and often add the pretentious. Masterworks, performed with the Anatolia Ensemble, features Özgen playing some mighty minimalist tanbur while woodwind, kemençe and drum accompany. This disc has this strange aura of taking itself far too seriously for its own good: there’s a distinct touch of the academic about the performances. The opener, “Rast Na’t-i Serif (Itri),” is six minutes of bleating drums, shrill flute, and a bizarre speaking part from Özgen popping in and out of the mix. From there we are introduced to various themes, often Arabic-influenced, again devoid of any memorable difference between the tracks. Sonorous and ponderous, the disc plods along between “compositions” and “improvisations” which sound less “improvised” than on the Ahenk disc, if only for the fact they sound more like scale exercises in this instance. A slight variance in arrangement of the songs, instead of the constant unison playing of the melodies by all instruments, would really have helped this disc out.

Remembrances is simply a waste of time. This is a disc of Özgen playing a variety of songs and improvisations he remembers on a kemençe. It’s about as interesting as listening to a musician practice. Again, the music is a blur of like-sounding works, this time coarsely recorded, and again, the tempo seriously drags through-out. Although Özgen is clearly in control of this amazing little instrument, the disc is boring beyond belief. The liner notes are written by Ates M. Temeltas, who seems utterly amazed by these noodlings. Perhaps clearer heads should have prevailed in releasing such an esoteric recording (and this coming from me!). For students of the kemençe who are having a hard time finding solo works only.

Temeltas also presents our final disc, the soundtrack to a documentary about the Ashik Muslims of Turkey. Ashiklar, For Those Who Are In Love, succeeds immeasurably over the other discs reviewed here. It’s a disc of saz (a mid-pitched guitar-like instrument) and vocal music by a group that sounds like it’s related to the Sufi tradition, from what I interpret from the liner notes. The recording quality is often frightful, with wind noise and nearby thunder on many tracks (which are admittedly apologized for in the notes), but the music is gorgeous. “Karisda Görünen,” with dueling sazes, has the sad melodies and breathtaking playing that exemplifies the Turkish tradition. It’s fiery music, very passionate, and a fantastic break from the staidness of the preceding discs. Although I have heard better discs of similar music, Ashiklar is a decent introduction to the folk music of Turkey, audio quality aside.

I find I’m this way with the composed “classical” music of most cultures, that it leaves me cold compared to the folk music: I find it almost like the break between the bourgeois and the proletariat. Ashiklar, For Those Who Are In Love drew me back time and again, despite it’s simple melodies, simply because pretension is not in its voice. As for the other discs, perhaps my brow is not high enough.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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