Mehmet Polat – Musical Journeys and existing through music

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

I feel like I have to start this post with a disclaimer as there’s been a much longer pause in publishing activity here than usual – not that I’ve ever been extremely active. Most of my free time in the last couple of years has gone into a project I will certainly come back to here as well. Most of this article was written nearly half a year ago after the concert I discuss here. At the time of writing these words, I’ve sat in Corona self-quarantine for two weeks. Luckily I don’t have any health issues but it has thrown me off my – already delicate – routines.

The present pandemic also puts the below article in a different perspective. In this time of severe travel and movement restrictions, music and other arts can offer us precious means of ‘travelling’ to distant places and experience cultures and people from far without risking contagion. We  could call this ‘virtual’ – see my previous discussions of virtuality – but at the present moment that might be as real as it gets. The other topic of this article, ‘existing through music’ or ‘musical being in the world’ can also be helpful during this time of crisis. As we practice social distancing – even isolation –  the social aspect of engaging in musical activities, whether listening, making, learning, teaching music (the latter two most likely online) or something else, becomes more apparent. Many are already habitually using music to regulate their emotional states and help them e.g. ‘be sad in a certain way’. During this period music can help us remain connected to the world outside, to ‘musically be in the world’.

I’ll elaborate on the above thoughts later, but now a glimpse of the pre-Corona world in the hope that the post-Corona world still allows us experience and appreciate musical journeys and experiences in real social environments.

Bassist on stage

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing the internationally acclaimed Oud player Mehmet Polat with his new band Embracing Colours in Bimhuis, Amsterdam.

Music – like all art forms – is very personal to its creators, even if artists are not always very explicit about it as they might want to leave it for the listeners/viewers to find their own meanings and references in art. Polat, however, was rather explicit about the personal dimensions of his music and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

Musical ontology

Polat’s introductions to his compositions were mostly quite personal and even biographical. At some point he mentioned that he ‘exist[s] through music’. This is an interesting philosophical statement that I won’t get into any deeper here but refer you to my earlier discussions regarding Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and musical ontology in Hindu philosophy. In his discussion of music as identity the musicologist Simon Frith speaks of ‘musical-being-in-the-world’. Although he doesn’t cite Heidegger, I think his view is a musical application of Heidegger’s ‘being-in-the-world’. According to Hindu philosophy the universe consists of sound, which is perhaps slightly more literal ‘existence through music’ than Polat had in mind 😉

Polat is by no means the only musician to think in these terms. Below is a talk with the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who (from 26’20”) talks at lenght of ‘way of being as a musician’.

Musical journeys

During the evening Polat frequently reflected on translating his life experiences into music. For the present discussion I’d like to draw a comparison with another Oud player Dhafer Youssef, although not in any normative sense as they’re both unquestionably masters of their instruments as well as resourceful composers and skilful band leaders. Both musicians started their musical journeys by immersing into their native musical traditions and later encountering and exploring other traditions resulting in intriguing combinations.

Polat has not only innovated on the instrumental technique as well as the construction of his instrument to serve his artistic needs; he also has a unique talent for working with musical materials of other cultures and have a musical dialogue with them. In such dialogues, he – together with the other musicians – explores these musical materials from his own background and roots in the Anatolian folk and Ottoman classical music.

Cross-cultural instrumentation

The Embracing Colours project is a jazz band with drums, double bass and accordion. Polat is of course not the first one to play the Oud with a jazz rhythm section. The best known today is probably the Tunisian Dhafer Youssef who has for a long time had a similar group but with piano instead of accordion. The choice of instrumentation has quite significant repercussions to the musical possibilities available for the groups. While Arab music – like most musics of the world – has repertoire that can be played on Western instruments, it does entail sacrificing some of the tonal richness of the musical culture. The micro-tonal maqamat are difficult to perform on instrumentation with fixed intonation. Youssef’s choice is to avoid the micro-tonal maqamat, whereas Polat has cleverly arranged his music so that the accordion doesn’t clash with the micro-tones he plays on the Oud. The Mozaiek Ensemble I have discussed previously also managed to arrange their music to combine piano and micro-tonal maqama.

Cultural encounters

Cultural encounters always require negotiations on various levels to reach mutual understanding – or harmony, which in this context is not a musical term. Musicians are often inspired by each others’ music and musical cultures. Depending on their aspirations and understanding of the musical cultures they’re involved with the results may vary from mere exotic flavour borrowed – or stolen, a.k.a cultural appropriation – from another culture to exciting mixes of and dialogues between different musical cultures.

No music no life

I’ve earlier briefly discussed how The Beatles – especially George Harrison – were inspired and influenced by Indian music. Even earlier the usual Western response to music from other parts of the world was to view them as primitive (see also my earlier discussion of primitivism in early jazz criticism). The first attempts of the British colonialists to engage with Indian music was to harmonize it as they viewed it as lacking this musical dimension – central to much Western music, but much less so in many other musics of the world. Power relations in cultural encounters may result in cultural appropriation. In music, this risk is greatest with agents in prominent positions in the music industry.

Polat’s and Youssef’s different approaches to music-making and their own musical roots speak volumes of their respective musical journeys. While Polat has immersed himself and draws from the musical heritage of his home region and other cultures in the region, Youssef had his formative musical experiences at a young age in his native Tunisia but paid his musical dues in the jazz scene of Vienna.

It would be too simplistic to try to draw any straight correlations between Polat’s and Youssef’s backgrounds and their musical expressions. It is, however, interesting to observe the musical journeys of these artists.

Specifically, my interest here is the relation Polat’s and Youssef’s musics have to jazz as some of their music is characterized as jazz or jazz-influenced. I have earlier discussed jazz as Black music. However, jazz has ‘gone global’ already a long time ago and there are various local jazz traditions and different kinds of fusions and hybrids with other musical cultures.

While Polat’s and Youssef’s musics don’t use musical elements of jazz in terms of melodic materials (blues) or the characteristic triple based swing of jazz as already mentioned, they opt using the rhythm section of jazz. While bass and drum set are nowadays common across genres, it’s good to keep in mind in this context that this form of ensemble playing started in the Storyville district of New Orleans in the early days of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Jazz musicians at those times adopted their repertoire to the audiences they played for. This legacy lives on with contemporary jazz musicians who are typically rather versatile stylistically, even if they specialize on, or prefer, playing in certain styles or (sub)genres. Polat’s and Youssef’s ensembles consist of these kinds of musicians brought together for the specific projects that mark the musical journeys of these artists.

Material culture – Part 2

By Vincent Clarence Scott O'Connor - The Silken East, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18659886

Continuing my account on the Bake society’s Day on musical instruments. Next in the program was a presentation of Masumi Nagasawa who already had brought three harps on the stage before.

Harp

Another family of instruments found nearly everywhere in the world is the harp. After a short lecture on harp in Asia by Fred Gales, Masumi Nagasawa performed for us on three different harps. She played first a composition of her own on the modern double-action harp. This composition showcases the various techniques available for harpists bringing out a very rich world of sounds out of the instrument. I found the following video in which many of these techniques are demonstrated.

Nagasawa then told us a bit about the kugo, ancient Japanese harp, and played a short piece on it. Kugo is usually played in an ensemble such as a Gagaku Japanese court music ensemble. However, there’s also new music being composed for it. Below an example based on some melodic material from Gagaku music. Notable in this performance is that Sugawara also uses a modern technique of playing harmonics on the harp.

The main part of Nagasawa’s presentation was about the single-action pedal harp and the transition to the modern Grand Harp with double-action in the early 19th century, which is the topic of her PhD research. Nagasawa had, nearly by coincident, found an original instrument by F.J. Naderman, the most famous harp builder of the early 19th century Paris as well as a composer and a teacher. As Marie-Antoinette played harp it was a very popular instrument among high society women of the period and there were up 16 instrument builders making harps in Paris during the period.

Nagasawa then performed a composition by Naderman on the Naderman harp. An interesting story about this composition was that Naderman wrote it for her wife. Meanwhile, however, the new double-action harp had been invented and she was encouraged to perform the composition on the new model. As she had played the single-action harp for a long time and practised her technique on it, she wasn’t very comfortable taking on taking on the challenge of premiering the new composition on the new harp. She eventually did it anyway but gave up the harp soon after.

Music Instruments in Musea and Academia in the Netherlands

This was the title of the panel discussion that closed the day. In the panel were:

Joep Bor from the University of Leiden, Wayne Modest from the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden and the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam and Giovanni di Stefano from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The discussion began with establishing the state of instrument collections in the Netherlands and the considerable lack of attention to the study of musical instruments – organology in the Dutch universities, although it had a prominent role in early ethnomusicology. There’s also no instrument museum currently in the Netherlands and most instrument collections focus on Western classical instruments. Giovanni di Stefano is currently the only full time instrument curator in the country.  He’s working in the Rijksmuseum with the instrument collection they got back in 2013 when the restoration of the building was complete. The collection had been borrowed to The Hague for 60 years.

street drummer

The discussion really kicked off when Mr Modest posed a question how to get people interested in the instrument collections in museums. After the inspiring recital-lectures we had seen, many – myself included – were of the view that these kinds of live presentations should attract people and get them interested. E.g. the instrument museum of Brussels is doing this already, recently with Estonian folk instruments.

Digitalisation of the collections – like the Music Instrument Museum Online is doing – should also help interested people find information deepen their knowledge.  It currently has largely European museums participating and no instruments from the Americas. It could also use some audio samples to make the online collection really interesting.

As discussed before, due to its abstract nature it is difficult to represent music in a way that could be displayed in a conventional museum. Watching displayed instruments – perhaps with some audio samples through a headset – give a rather distant impression of how an instrument functions in real life. As the recital-lectures demonstrated, there are ways to bring the instruments alive for people to experience them.

Some instruments have thousands of years of history but are still played today. What I’d love to see in an instrument museum are more horizontal rather than vertical histories of instruments. The recital-lectures showed how some instruments – flutes and harps in this case, but e.g. drums would fit the bill as well – are played in different variations around the world. Such instruments in a way represent vast distances in space and time and when played a connection could be established.

I found this Day on Musical Instruments organised by the Arnold Bake Society very inspiring. I’ll certainly be posting back here again soon about further thoughts regarding this so stay tuned!

Material culture

Painting from Hasht-Behesht palace, Isbahan, Iran, from 1669.

I recently attended the Day on Musical instruments of the Arnold Bake Ethnomusicological society at the University of Amsterdam. This session was dedicated to musical instruments with talks and performances by musicians and scholars and closed up with a panel discussions about musical instruments in Dutch museums. The afternoon’s presentations and discussions got me thinking about musical instruments as sort of embodiment of musical cultures helping as study them as material cultures.

Representations of music

Due to the nature of music as an intangible art form, it’s most often studied using various forms of visual representations.  They translate music from audible to visual form and allow disrupting the temporal flow of music. In the European art music tradition musical representation is mostly thought of in terms of musical notation. The main purpose of it is to communicate musical ideas from composer to performer and on to the listener. Interpreting the representation the performer translates it back to the temporal realm of sounding music.

This applies to much popular music as well, although most of it is not made or played from written music in a way art or orchestral music is. Vernacular music-making – or producing – nowadays is more likely to happen on computer screens where sound wave representations are manipulated to produce a form of digitalized music to be pressed on a CD, distributed as mp3 files or streamed online.

Sound table

The benefit of digital representation of music is that it can, in principle, be used for any kind of music. The only prerequisite is that it must be recorded digitally, which is not always easy e.g. when the performance is taking place outside and/or the players widely distributed in space and/or moving. As such it can be used to capture musics of oral traditions as well. Meanwhile, computers can now be considered musical instruments as well, but I’ll leave further discussion of that to another time. Jacob Collier, I’ve discussed before, is a master of “millennial” music production.

For the actual study of music, however, digital representation is of little use. It can be used to study rhythms and certain aspects of timbre and dynamics in a great detail. Any pitch related study, however, requires various sorts of analytical software to be applied.

Musical objects

Whereas representations of music are helpful for the study of music as an auditory art form, musical instruments embody a musical culture in a broader way. Musical instruments can be studied as archaeological artefacts broadening our knowledge of e.g. an ancient civilization, the music of which we don’t have representations – and the history of the human kind in general. They can also teach us a lot about the social and cultural lives of people distant in time and space. The spread of certain instruments and instrument building techniques may reveal changes in spheres of cultural influences.

Musical instruments as objects of study allow multi- and cross-disciplinary studies of musical cultures. For a while now music has offered new insights to e.g. neurologists, psychologists and architects in their respective disciplines. In the same way musical instruments can be studied by archaeologists, art historians, sociologists and anthropologists to help them form fuller understandings their fields of study – possibly with the help of some musicologists.

Material culture

The presentations of the afternoon demonstrated the lively manner in which cultures, distant in time and space, can be studied through musical instruments. The instruments presented were not only centuries or even millennia old from different parts of the world, near and far. They were also all brought to live by the presenting musicians. One could say that we experienced what Edward W. Soja calls the Third Space; these instruments embody past, present and future geographical and social spaces and the performances, to some extent, brought those to the present and implied something of their potential future.

Ney

Painting from Hasht-Behesht palace, Isbahan, Iran, from 1669
Painting from Hasht-Behesht palace, Isbahan, Iran, from 1669

The first presentation we heard was by Sinan Arat. He first gave us a short introduction to ney and then played an improvisation with a few maqamat and some traditional melodies in between in the traditional manner of Arab music. Arat plays the Turkish ney and told us about the Ottoman tradition of the instrument.

Different kinds of flutes are some of the oldest instruments around the world but due to the simple way in which the early flutes where constructed, few very early flutes have survived. The ney has its origins in the Middle East and its history is documented in various artefacts of the ancient civilisations in the region. In Turkey the ney preceded Islam and continued to be a central instrument in the Mevlevi Sufi rituals.

Despite the relative simplicity of the instrument, the ney requires a lot of practice to even produce a decent sound on it. It’s traditionally used in religious rituals and has an important place in the mythologies of the region it hails from. According to Arat the ney is not played by blowing through it but saying “Hu” – the name of God in Sufism – into it. Although Islam doesn’t recognize music as we understand it in the West, Arat told us that he was accepted into a Turkish mosque with his ney. A frame drum is the only other instrument allowed in mosques.

In many cultures where instruments are parts of religious rituals they are learned in an apprenticeship with a master or guru; often orally as the music is not written down – or even cannot be as it’s mostly improvised. This is also the case with ney and Arat studied it with Kudsi Ergüner at the Codarts in Rotterdam. In the traditional master-apprentice manner, the studies included learning the cultural context by studying the rituals and mythologies as well as how to make and maintain the instrument.

Although the ney is an ancient instrument and deeply embedded into its cultural roots, it’s also used in contemporary music. In fact, I had heard Arat before performing with the Mehmet Polat trio. The performance was part of the Dutch Delta Sounds series in Amstelkerk in Amsterdam and showed how such old instruments – the group consists of an oud and an African Kora – can still be relevant to contemporary artists and audiences while carrying their respective cultural backgrounds with them.

The Brazilian bamboo flute pifano

Next we heard the story of, and a performance on, the Brazilian bamboo flute pifano by Ivan Vendemiatti. This flute has its origins with the farmers in the North of Brazil where it was first used to scare off birds. The rhythmic way of playing gradually developed into a music genre of its own and was performed together with drums.  While fife and drums have been played in Europe and its colonies for centuries, the European tradition is strongly connected to military music.  Like so many musical instruments and practices, the fife and drum tradition exists also in West Africa and the North Brazilian tradition is a typical hybrid or synchronised tradition. It’s performed in social occasions for dancing as well as in some religious processions.

What intrigued me especially in Vendemiatti’s story was that he had no musical background or education when he picked up this instrument. He had bought one on his travels and “fooled around” with it by himself before he got more seriously interested in it. He then went back to the North of Brazil and learned more about the instrument and its cultural background. Back in his native South he initiated a pifano and drum group before getting interested in the Indian bansuri flute which he now studies at the Codarts in Rotterdam.

I´ll stop here for now. Please, click below for the second part for more about the last presentation of the day as well as the very inspiring panel discussion.

 

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