Thinking on Life with Music – Part 1
I often reflect back on my life as a musician. I like to observe my journey and find alleys of guidance in myself. Having my career based in Turkey, I helps me deal with the difficulties to be found here and also counterface a bit what could be mixed feelings. There is no need to hide it: it is often like trying to imagine that the empty part of the glass is also full. My main motivation since my return here 18 years ago has been grasping and building on the uniqueness this enchanted geography offers. Turkey is a country layered with civilizations so diverse and so ancient one can never grasp it all. There are traces of this complexity wherever one looks. Music here runs like a river in which the currents have always been powered by this mosaic…the refinement one’s musical imagination can reach in Turkey has no limits. Yet, Turkey is also country with no cultural policies governing the musical life the richness could potentially yield to. This drastically results in an absence of proper musical culture and evaluation and dealing with high musical art requires strong nerves, dedication and patience beyond what I could ever imagine. A lot of thinking occurs when things are like this. So here is part 1 of my thinking.
I grew up in an household where music was very present. My dad played the guitar, my mom had a piano from her childhood days. Dad took us to concerts, mostly western music but there was always much more than western music in the air. At age five I started taking piano lessons, which did not last long as my teacher went to study abroad. I was left alone. No other teacher was integrated afterwards, due mostly to financial reasons I believe. But because I really enjoyed the time spent on playing the piano this meant I had to learn alone. I kept studying on my own. Sometimes I would take a score to a friend who was taking lessons from a good teacher and ask her about fingerings and so on. Five years went by like this. I kept playing more and more and a nice range of music I concocted myself. What freedom!
At the end of the elementary school my dad encouraged me to take the entrance exams to the conservatory in Istanbul. I did. Not everyone chose their instruments themselves. Through some family connections I was favoured by the harp professor, Sevin Berk, a fine harpist, and I was chosen to play the harp. It was something marginal but thank God it was love at first sight. I loved the pearly sound of the harp from the first day on. I felt like drops of rain fell inside of me. Magic. After two years of training in Istanbul I left to Switzerland when I got separated from my parents at age 13 (the rest of the family went to Indonesia, as my father was appointed to the World Health Organization there, and wanted a good education for us, and a future with more prospects for the family). About eight years were spent in Geneva. Resulting in my undergraduate degree at the Geneva Conservatory, fluency in French, English and good skills in German and Italian, work experience under my belt starting at age 15. My first harp student was a man in his 20’s. I was very embarrassed teaching him, but managed. I regularly taught harp from that age on.
While in Geneva, I studied with a renowned Swiss harpist, Catherine Eisenhoffer who was a good representative of the french harp school. I was also under the wings of my teacher’s assistant, an interesting woman and musician of Hungarian descent, Notburga Puskas. She invested quite a bit in me and helped me through many musical and life issues. She was the one who insisted I study with the legendary French harpist, Pierre Jamet who was in his mid-90’s then. I would take the train and spend one day a month in Paris first with M. Jamet, and then with another very fine harpist and human being, Frederique Cambreling. I owe both a lot in terms of understanding music, and keep a very warm place in my heart for Notburga. And I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Paris museums on the days of my Paris lessons. This was all so passionate for a 18 year old!
In 1987 dad stepped in again, this time suggesting I pursue my graduate studies in Bloomington, Indiana, US. He was right. I would study with the legendary Susann McDonald, in one of the finest music schools in the world. I was about to become a Swiss citizen when the suggestion came, but an idealist by nature that meant nothing to me. I dropped it all in Switzerland. Luckily, my studies IU turned out to be truly a heaven for me. I enjoyed every bit of it. And learned more than I could ever imagine. The exposure students had and still have to musical culture at IU is tremendous. I felt extremely lucky to be learning from Susann McDonald, a very very fine human being and an artist and pedagogue of the first order. I love her very very deeply in my heart and I am indebted to her for the incredible generosity with which she taught us all.
After graduation I wanted to gain some real life experiences and moved to Washington D.C. where my father had gotten a position at the World Bank. Dad bought me a car and a harp and I went to every single job I was called to in the area, driving sometimes crazy distances for a rehersal or concert. I played all sorts of freelance jobs and recitals, taking me from the Kennedy Center, to churches, to hotels, to supermarkets…to shopping malls, to theaters…and the list goes on. I acquired speed and skills in adjusting to musical circumstances without preparation. I lived at home after many years away and was pampered by mom, alongside the hard work. I got a lot of experience in orchestral playing that way during those years. I saved, enjoyed home comfort and learned the kinds of things one can not learn in school. The range was fantastic and crazy. I really felt like a functionning musician also because the preparation at IU was so great. In 1993 I got a fantastic review of a recital I played in Washington D.C. which appeared in the Washington Post. To read it:
That review jumpstarted my career and encouraged me to go out there and play as much as I could. I also gave my debut concerts in 1993 in Turkey. They would take place in the three big cities: Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul. The first and third concerts were cancelled because President Ozal died as I was stepping on stage to a packed hall in Ankara. The second concert took place in Izmir. On the day of the Istanbul concert there was the funeral, so the national mourning made organizers reluctant to hold concerts. I was heartbroken for my own sake. No immediate effort was made to make up the concerts in the near future which left this aspiring harpist sad. Eventually I worked hard and a few years later I got to play in Ankara and Istanbul under the same patronage.
A few years later I wanted to spend some time in New York and was accepted on a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music to study orchestral repertoire with Sarah Bullen. The learning was tremendous and the NY experience thrilling. I was so inspired to play while living there, which was just about 6 months in total but completely submerged in music and art. To this day I think I did some of my best playing while in NY. Things came to me with ease. I lived in a housing unit turned from a hotel where Gershwin would lock himself to compose in the past. My flat was so small, there was no room for both the harp and the futon. So at night, I would push the harp to the wall to make room for the futon to open for sleeping. It was a great time no matter.
In the late 90’s I was introduced to Cinuçen Tanrıkorur, an incredible musician who was both an ud player, an unsurpassed composer and a singer at the same time. Mr Tanrıkorur was in Washington D.C. for medical treatment. He was a remarkable influence on me. As a master of traditional Turkish music, his knowledge of western music was also astonishing. He offered his knowledge to me as he listened to my harp playing, included me in his conversations on music in Turkey and taught me some basics of makam music. This was the first time I was exposed to Turkish music as well as the social and cultural issues surrounding it in an academic way. I didn’t know then how much this encounter would affect my career path. I guess if a person should meet one master of Turkish music, he was the one. I was very very lucky. It never occurred me to take a picture with Mr Tanrırkorur who passed away in 2003 after a long illness through which he continously worked, creating and pioneering relentlessly. I guess those days we lived a life in which we were truly submerged with the topic at hand, and never thought of taking a picture. We would not loose time doing that!
As I was freelancing in Washington D.C. I ended up winning a training orchestra’s audition in 1996. I was chosen among more than 60 candidates for a job in Miami, which included amazing training, a stipend, free housing…If I remember well, the job was up to two years, perhaps three. It meant that if I took that road I was becoming more permenant in the US. But I was also always curious to find out more about my roots, about Turkey…so I turned down this professional opportunity in the US and headed to Turkey.
To be continued…