Processes In New Music In Turkey

by Dr. Ahmet Yürür

Viewing the broad map of tendencies in world new music and the divergent attitudes of composers in Turkey, the following report offers a glimpse at the 21st century's potential orientations in the Turkish new music scene.

"New Music," a trend in Western art music toward change, can be first observed in Europe at the turn of the 20th century as a marginal attempt. It was maintained during the period of the two world wars in a quasi-clandestine manner, with very limited patronage. The tide was reversed, at mid-century, when alternatives were sought to authoritarian society and culture. In the fifties, new music suddenly started to enjoy a proselytism. This period is referred to today as the "Darmstadt era," mainly because this town in southwestern Germany became a gathering place for all the living prominent figures of new music. Gradually ways parted: One group contended that in order to promote new music, strong government backing is needed, while others recommended to stay away from bureaucracy.
In the seventies, two irreconcilable processes were present: (a) Luciano Berio (in Italy), Karlheinz Stockhausen (in Germany) and Pierre Boulez (in France) were wielding tremendous government funds thanks to which new music was made the new "official art." (b) Mostly in California and New York, pioneers of American post-modernism in music, Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, John Cage, George Crumb, Morton Feldman and others, were investing in experimental adventures in an effort to open themselves up to the 21st century. At around the same period, some American "mainstream" composers such as Lukas Foss, Samuel Adler, later Philip Glass, and others, developed an interest in the idiom of new music as well, adding a third, "pop" process to the first two.
Turkey has remained immune to the turn-of-the-century movements in music such as the futurismo, bruitisme, serialism, electronic, non-Western and alternative sounds, etc. In turn, the music idiom of Debussy and Ravel entered Turkey almost simultaneously with that of Mozart, Chopin or Verdi, so the former innovative composers' idiom did not register in the Turkish audiences' mind as an element of change. None of the "Turkish Five" tried his hand in, say, serialism (an exception to this statement could be Saygun's second movement of the 3rd String Quartet, Southern Publ.). Saygun was a devout fighter against new music which he claimed is an ephemerous fad. So, atonality was never considered worthy of being taught in music schools. As a result of this, performers, even today, handle new music with reserve and the activities of new music ensembles in the country are scarce.
In the fifties, the first new music outfit, the Helicon Society, was active in Ankara. Its members included four composers, Bülent Arel, İlhan Mimaroğlu, İlhan Usmanbaş and Ertuğrul Oğuz Fırat; three performers, Faruk Güvenç (who was also a music journalist and a publisher of music reviews), Suna Kan and Ulvi Yücelen; two politicians, Bülent and Rahşan Ecevit. The Helicon Society stood firm for the new music esthetics in the face of an ironic conservative majority. They produced string quartet concerts with Suna Kan and Ulvi Yücelen (vn), Faruk Güvenç (vla) and İlhan Usmanbaş (cello), featuring, among others, works by Bülent Arel and İlhan Usmanbaş.
The Helicon movement could not last in the sixties. İlhan Usmanbaş (born 1921) spent some years in New York where he found opportunities to witness a very lively new music life. Bülent Arel (born 1918) settled down in New York to become one of the pioneers of electronic music at the Columbia-Princeton studio (Arel actually came back to Ankara in 1962 and tried to build an electronic music studio. When this attempt was averted by the establishment, he returned to the U.S. to organize one in 1965, this time at Yale University.) In 1971, he built what was to be his final studio at the S.U.N.Y., which he used until his death in 1990. İlhan Mimaroğlu (born 1926) had also become part of the New York scene for some years starting in 1955, studying electronic music for his master's degree. He was employed at the French radio for a while, then came to Ankara to offer a series of very instructive new music programs on state radio. He would finally settle down in New York as well. In sum, two of the Helicon Association composers had felt for an artistic career in a liberal international environment, while Usmanbaş and Fırat had opted for what the more introvert and restrictive Turkish environment had to offer.
During this period, another young composer, Ali Doğan Sinangil (born 1934) was based in Darmstadt and witnessing many epoch-making sessions of the new music seminars held there. He also returned to conduct an artistic career in Turkey. Basically, in the fifties and sixties, even in the seventies--aside from the two composers who settled down in one of the capitals of new music and made their way to success there--a majority of Turkey's pioneers in new music were not considering to join the buzzing process of globalization that attracted so many innovative artists to big metropolises.
When, in 1971, a ministry of culture was established in Turkey, Usmanbaş was honored with "state artist" status, while Arel and Mimaroğlu's contributions to Turkish culture were overlooked. Music life in Turkey was under severe chauvinistic pressure. The generations trained in this era only learned about new music through the translation of a book by Vincent Persichetti, Twentieth Century Harmony (Norton, 1961). Persichetti's attempt is to instigate formalistic rules where they do not exist; his book misses the whole point about new music that has to do with the essential role of "texture and sound." Instead, he tries to see horizontal entities, cut-and-dry "chords," everywhere. By and large, the book is a tool for compromising new music with conservative academism.
Among the Turkish composers born in the 1930's and 1940's, only two aspired for a career in a liberal environment. Cengiz Tanç (born 1934) and Ahmet Yürür (born 1941). Tanç took up studies at the Julliard music school in New York, but ended up becoming a student of the same Dr. Persichetti, father of a process towards academism in new music in Turkey. In 1983, under pressure from his supervisors, he cut short his doctoral studies to rush back to a teaching duty in Istanbul. Tanç's musical identity displays a dichotomy between academism and post-modernism: his love for the daily life, nature, humor and fantasy contrasts with a sense of duty to compose for monumental orchestras.
Yürür and Tanç are the first Turkish composers to have discovered American post-modernism. Yürür spent the era between 1978 and 1987 on university campuses, in Indiana and Maryland, becoming part of a newly emerging music scene that moved away from the Darmstadt era. Through doctoral studies in composition, musicology, ethnomusicology and music theory, he observed the changing roles of composer, performer, conductor and audience, experienced the genuine creativity through a cooperation between a small ensemble and a composer. Witnessing a gradual decline of large orchestras patronized by central authorities, he realized the value of a concert life kept alive through a symbiosis of small subsidizers, small ensembles and innovative composers. Back to Ankara, he convinced the progressive mayor of the era to subsidize a biannual international new music festival which was held in 1989, 1991 and 1993, to popular acclaim. Audiences were mostly made up of college and high-school students and the motto was "to create a gathering place for the future elite of the world." A majority of the works performed were either world premieres or Turkey premieres (no work by Anton Webern, for instance, had featured on any concert in Turkey so far). In the nineties, Yürür became the artistic director of an ensemble entitled "New Music from Istanbul," performing in concerts in Turkey and abroad.
A generation of young composers, born in the sixties and later, flooded the U.S. and Europe just before or following the 1980 military coup. The one among them who really made his way to success in the mainstream music scene was Kamuran Ince (born 1960). As a student of Samuel Adler at the Eastman school of music, his works enjoyed an enthusiastic reception among philharmonic circles. Until the age of 30, he obtained prizes and commissions from all over the U.S., as a young Mozart re-incarnate. Another composer of around the same generation, Betin Güneş (born 1957), acquired a position as a music director of the symphony orchestra of Cologne. Meliha Doğuduyal (born 1959) became a student of Theo Leuvendie and settled down in Amsterdam.
Along with the young Turkish composers who were getting established in the mainstream new music in various metropolises, others who are more inclined to small innovative projects were also settling down abroad. Sıdıka Özdil (born 1960) gained a very good reputation in London's new music environment. Deniz Ülben and Deniz İnce, are two young female composers who settled down in the U.S. with the aim of maintaining a cooperation with certain groups of colleagues. Mete Sakpınar, a student of Milton Babbitt, was active organizing concerts in New York.
This list of composers who looked for opportunities in a global music market is far from being complete. The eighties and nineties witnessed a tremendous extrovert process that resulted in an accumulation of Turkish composers in new music centers abroad. If Turkey continues to remain immune to the rapid spread of new music, an evergrowing number of its musical elite is expected to emigrate.
Özkan Manav (born 1967) is a new rising star in the mainstream style. A student of Lukas Foss, he won prizes abroad. Mehmet Nemutlu (born 1966) is also another upcoming mainstream figure with a tendency for academism as well.
Hasan Uçarsu (born 1965) a leading name among the post-modernistically oriented composers of the young generation, has been a student of George Crumb in Philadelphia and accomplished an impressive early career in innovative activities. Can such an artist find a niche for his creative existence in Turkey?
Two composers born in the late seventies, Taner Akyol (1978) and Cenk Ergün (1977), are among the generation who grew up in Turkey's mood of insecurity after the 1980 military coup. Akyol is originally from Tunceli, son of a Kurdish dede family who settled down first in Bursa, then in Berlin. Bright and talented, he moved rapidly upwards in music and is a composition student at the Hans Eisler music academy, with Hanspeter Kyburz. Ergün, although he is at the Eastman school of music, heart of the U.S. mainstream, is considering to move away towards a more individualistically oriented conception. His compositions indicate good trends in a sensitive handling of sounds and time.
Can these distinguished young assets be accommodated into Turkey's intellectual climate?