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.

Virtuality

Screenshot of the Virtual Insanity video

Some time ago I discussed multimediality as a means to study and understand some artistic experiences. Virtuality is another such concept. With all the “virtual reality” hype of the recent years – perhaps even decades already – the term has become part of the vernacular without too much “resistance”, or people wondering about it. So I’m going to do some “wondering about it” right here.

Let’s start from the beginning and look at the etymology of the word. “Virtual” has three meanings in dictionary. From its Medieval Latin roots it carries the meaning of “effective,” as in “the company is effectively bankrupt.” It also means something that exists only in our minds; imagined. The third meaning is probably the most familiar to many relating to computer simulations of aspects of life and rendered through some virtual reality technology.

The word “virtuality” comes from the old Latin word “virtus”; “virtue”. Given the central place “virtue” – moral excellence – has had in western philosophy from the Ancient Greeks to our days, our “virtual realities” seem to be normatively positive imaginations. Here we could think of the Cartesian mind-body dichotomy. The current forms of virtual realities through devices such as VR glasses create an experience which largely neglects the body, although we’re already seeing the technology developing passed this limitation. Being divorced from the physical reality virtual “realities” are “safe” in that what happens in them has little consequences in the “real world.” For deeper discussion on a phenomenological approach to virtuality, see here.

Multimediality of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly pleasures
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Pleasures (1500), oil on oak panels, Museo del Prado, Madrid

There’s also a strongly music-related term pertinent to this discussion. “Virtuoso” stands for someone with excellent skills in some area, but most often the term is connected to musical skills. This is rather interesting considering the changing valuation of music and musicians. I’ve previously discussed The Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch which places music – through musical instruments – in the depiction of hell on the right. Even more interesting, however, is perhaps the way in which musicality – depicted through musical instruments – became a highly valued skill a century later and is displayed in a much more positive light in some paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. The virtues of music and musicians have since varied, also depending on the context, but it seems that this connotation of “virtuoso” has been established rather recently.

Portrait of a member of the family Van der Mersch, Cornelis Troost, 1736. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Portrait of a member of the family Van der Mersch, Cornelis Troost, 1736. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Musical virtuality

Music as sound is by nature – if not by definition – virtual. Assuming the view of Heideggerian phenomenology, I’ve discussed before, the already-in-the-world nature of music meaning – and I would extended it this case to experience – exists in our minds without a material counterpart in the “real” world. As professor Henkjan Honing would say, music is a cognitive phenomenon; there’s no music without a listener.

The abstract nature of music enables it to conjure images and impressions of “other” realities. In other words, sounds are very effective in triggering our imagination. Certain instruments, scales, harmonies, etc. call up associations. Due to the abstractness of sound and the constant evolving of cultural practices such associations always remain “virtual” to some extent. They’re of course also dependent on the listener’s prior experience.

Recorded music is a prime example of musical virtuality. It’s the art of creating an illusion that what you’re listening to is an actual performance of actual musicians in the way you hear them. What you listen to, however, is a result of production processes where musical performances are recorded together and/or individually and the recordings are edited, mixed and processes in many ways resulting in the final product you hear.

I’ve previously discussed Janelle Monae’s Tightrope and how it references – creates virtual connections – with the past, present and future in various ways. Next I’d like to discuss a song that takes up the topic of virtuality quite literally.

Virtual insanity

Futures made of virtual insanity now
Always seem to, be governed by this love we have
For useless, twisting, our new technology
Oh, now there is no sound for we all live underground

Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity is an excellent commentary, but also a demonstration, of the steadfast believe in technology we hold in the western world and beyond. The title is a funny word game referring – in my interpretation – to the way technological mediations remove our experiences of the world further away from the “real” into the virtual realms. People have the tendency to do what they can and technological advances – or “innovations” – are often inspired by aspirations to do something not previously possible or do it in a new way. Sometimes these innovations result in “useless, twisting” gadgets, other times to something more lasting.

The way the last phrase of the refrain is sung makes me always think of how sound – in my experience – is often the first victim when something goes wrong with these new gadgets, whether there’s a gable loose or a software glitch. But the song text is actually talking about a more serious scenario, possibly even an apocalyptic one where people have had to retrieve living underground – perhaps due to something gone seriously wrong with our blind trust on technology.

Mixer 2

 

The refrain also talks about “futures”, in plural. An essential aspect of virtual reality technologies is that multiple “realities” – and also “futures” – can be created with them. It’s not hard to imagine how too deeply submerging into these alternative reality might result in difficulties dealing with the “real” world, i.e insanity.

The video combines the various meanings of “virtual”. The room with its soft walls could be a mental asylum for the “insane” but there are also various “virtual”, illusionary, things going on. While the floor seems to be moving, it’s actually the walls that move. The cuts between the scenes when the camera shows the floor remind moving between levels in a computer game – a sort of virtual reality. There’s also some early CGI in the video with the bugs crawling around.

Oh this world has got to change
‘Cause I just, I just can’t keep going on
In this virtual, virtual insanity
That we’re living in, that we’re living in
That virtual insanity is what is…

Virtual insanity is what we’re living in
Yeah, well it’s alright now

Towards the end the protagonist of the song seems to come to terms with the conditions of the world. While he’s determined to see the world change, he realises that it’s not going to get back to the way it was. There’s no turning back the time. For the full text and further analysis, see here.

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!

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