SUNGU OKAN’S INTERVIEW WITH ERTUĞRUL OĞUZ FIRAT
( by Sungu Okan )
Sungu Okan: How did your interest in music - or rather, art - begin?
Ertuğrul Oğuz Fırat: As an artist, I had no education in any of the areas of art in which I’m interested. You could say I’m self-trained. I began experimenting with writing at a very young age. I first became interested in music, and began listening with some understanding in 10th grade; I never missed a show on the radio. At the age of 18, I entered the Archaeology Department of Istanbul University, and a year gave that up and registered in the Law School. Being in Istanbul, I almost never missed a concert, and began increasing my knowledge of music and my love for it. In 1943, for my twentieth birthday, my mother bought me a piano, and I almost never left it. At that point my passion for music increased and I become determined to be a musician. My friend, the late Adnan Beng saw my passion, he sent me to the violin teacher Karl Berger. When I began attending the late Berger’s harmonics classes, I lost interest/moved beyond all interest for the romantic periods, and began to take interest for what contemporary music had to offer. For this reason the harmony classes I was taking from Burger didn’t last for more than a few months. In 1947, I met İlhan Usmanbaş, which was a very important event in my teaching myself music. Aside from this, I had no other musical education in terms of music classes.
Among the areas of art I’m interested in, painting/drawing was in last place. In 1960, upon the passing of my mother, I suddenly was overtaken by an insatiable desire to be able to put my memories of my times with here onto canvas; it felt like a personal mission. So in 1964, when I realized that I could find my own way in that branch of art as well, I began painting. I’ve displayed my paintings many times.
SO: When did you begin composing?
EOF: Though I wrote my first piece in 1945, it was really with the completion in 1950-51 of my Opus 2. String Quartet.
SO: Would you say something about the competitions you’ve taken part in and your experiences abroad?
EOF: I’ve never entered any competitions. Since galleries in Turkey had for years refused to display my paintings, I took a shor (one week) trip to display them in the Galeri Pallet-Röder Haus ın Wuppertal, Germany. Other than that, I have no other experience living abroad.
SO: What would you like to say about the position of contemporary music in Turkey?
EOF: I have always enjoyed sharing what I know with those who don’t know it, and I’ve tried to maintain this character, as part of who I am. In view of the cliche, fossilized prejudices of our contemporary musicians and writers, who only agree with what they know themselves, as long there is not enough of an attitude and mindset to move past this, I can say that it will not be easy for contemporary music to find its place and be properly valued in our country. But if they see that contemporary turkish music to be appreciated in more advanced countried than ours and has taken on, that may chip away at those hardened judgments and give rise to a new appreciation. I see that because I’ve seen many examples of this in my own life, both in the area of music as well as painting.
SO: Which school or composers do you feel closest to?
EOF: First I’ll say that I follow my own road in terms of technique and expression, which has nothing to do with a particular school. But I can that I feel an affinity for musicians who work with a narrative goal within a popular/melodic technique.
SO: What can you tell us about the path, method, etc. you follow when composing?
EOF: I’ve generally taken quite a long time to complete my compositions. Most of this time is taken up thinking about the design, and what I can achieve in every detail of its formation. When the outline of it matures in my mind, then the process of putting it on paper begins. But before it is notated in any definitive way, I write down a rough draft of any parts that I want to emphasize, if there are any. The real work starts after that, and goes smoothly. During the long design process, certain parts are already clear; and because it’s already been outlined, the notation process concludes rather quickly. The very long times my pieces remain in the file includes both the design and the notation processes.
SO: Can we hear about Atatürk’s revolution in music in your own words?
EOF: Just as all of Atatürk’s revolutions contained the purpose of reaching and surpassing the level of Western civilization, he had the same goal in his musical revolution, bringing in polyphony. Atatürk was not a musician. But whatever his failings, he was a man of far-reaching views. He was not able to show us every detail of the way. But he knew how to distinguish between the eastern and western approaches, and openly believed that in order to progress, the western approach had to be adopted.
SO: In what ways do you use the techniques of makam music or certain aspects of it? Can such an application play an efficient role in creating a national music?
EOF: From a musical perspective, it is difficult to say that makams or other types of scales have retained much importance. The belief that makam music can be reflected in a universalist approach must stem from the inability or unwillingness of people who are accustomed to monophony and that tradition to let go of these habits. What is important in today’s composers is to know/determine how to use all the pitches in an original narrative for. Today’s music, moving beyond popular approaches, has reached a point of such originality and freedom that if the composer wishes, he can usually include a makam-type melody or motifs and make use of them as well. This is the choice of the composer; it’s not obligatory.
SO: Concerning the advancement of contemporary Turkish music, what would you recommend to listeners and students?
EOF: Turkish contemporary music may advance, be understood and take hold if our ochestras and musicians peform it regularly without denigrating it; and if listeners will take the trouble to listen a second or third time to a piece they don’t understand and embrace it. In view of the situation today, it is not possible to say where any one of our contemporary Turkish composers would come in a ranking from the standpoint of contemporary and world music. If all of a composers pieces have not been performed; if at leats partitures of them have not been published, then to judge based on the one or two pieces that have happened to be performed would be both very difficult, and misguided as well. This is even true for the most-performed Turkish composers.
SO: Which of your pieces do you believe will best introduce you and your musical language; would you give us an example?
EOF: Unfortunately due to my visual impairment, I am not involved in any new endeavos in any of the branches of art in which I’ve participated. I have not been able to produce an article, painting or musical composition since 2002. With my four books, a little over three hundred paintings, and 94 compositions, I have finished my artistic life.
Although I have composed 94 pieces, in view of the fact that only 15 of them have ever been performed, how can I choose, how can I give an example? But if you keep in mind that from my first work to my last, I have always been after a new quest, a new statement; then you could decide on what basis to make a choice. For example, I could say that I consider my “ATATÜRK-Symphony and Oratorio” to be my most important piece both in terms of quality and quantity; but as not a single piece of it has ever been performed despite my many submissions to all of our orchestras in the twenty-five years since it was written, then how can I give that as an example? There are such striking stories concerning the non-performance of many of my pieces, that the ignorance of them is a sad and clear display of the failure of a contemporary musical understanding to take root in Turkey. Still, if I were to choose from among my pieces which have been performed, I would say that my Opus 30, “Atatürk Savaşta ve Barışta” and Opus 82 “Sevi Çığlıklarıyla Geçiyor-Harpsichord Concerto” best reflect my approach to music.
SO: Have you included local melodies in your compositions? How did you work with these melodies?
EOF: As for whether I set out based on local melodies or not, the point I’ve especially tried to remain aware of in my pieces is within what kind of structure I use the sounds in relationship with each other, and within what sort of relationships I can create a narrative most fitting to the goal of the composition. Thus in my compositions I have never remained bound to a single melody. The build up of melodies, or their emergence over a polyphony has never required the use of local melodies. Still, as I included a local melody, in some of my compositions where I was aiming for a localness in the narrative, I used some folk tunes of my own choice (which I like a lot) polyphonically in order to achieve a new sound and activity. In my pieces, Op. 51 "TÜRKİYE- Gençler İçin Geçmiş ve çağdaş Türk Küğü Üzerine Alıştırı -Araştırmaları," Op.67 "TÜRKİYE ( II )” and Op.90 " Eşliksiz Koru için Çığırgılar," I utilized the folk tunes which I chose within the complex polyphony required by my music, and set them in a new structure. But the point I must state immediately is that this is not as in the examples of polyphonized folk songs by most composers, where a few concordant parts are added to the basic folk melody. From this standpoint, this type of polyphonizing remains within the classical period understanding of harmony. My music, in contrast, where I have tried to arrive at a new structure based on local tunes, is dominated by a rich contrapuntal approach. For this reason, within all the tones used, the local melody is part of the whole.
Unfortunately none of the abovementioned Opus numbered pieces have yet been performed. Only the first two pieces (AMAN AVCI and URFANIN DAĞLARI) of Opus 67 TÜRKİYE II, written for a capella chorus have been performed in concert several times due to the appreciation and interest of Mr. Ahter Destanş. I was told that their latest performance by the choir last summer in Budapest was very successful.