Mysteries and secrets: the Turkish electronic spring


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In search of the sources of Turkish electronic music, it is quite natural to first turn to the pioneering adventure of Bülent Arel, who went down in history in 1957 for having composed the first electronic piece of his country: Music for String Quartet and Oscillator [1].

Despite the current notoriety of Arel, retrace his steps in an attempt to accurately reconstruct the birthplace of electronic sound in Turkey is anything but simple; as Schedel and Ackely also state in their analysis of Fantasy and Dance for Five Viola and Tape [2], if we exclude studies in Turkish language, the essays that tell the precious work of Arel are not many, as well as publications dedicated to the development of electronic art in Turkey.



Erdem Helvacioglu said in a 2016 interview:


“in Turkey experimental music really only took-off in the early 2000s. When Istanbul Technical University founded the country’s first advanced music technology degree course in 1999 it had a big effect” [3].

Erdem Helvacioglu is one of the artists who appeared in the collection proposed by Sub Rosa “An Anthology of Turkish Experimental Music 1961 - 2014”, a collection of electronic pieces that boasts only two works related to the spring of Turkish electronic music; in the notes attached to the anthology we can read: “in Turkey, two exceptional composers emerged very early on to show the way to future generations that followed in a piecemeal fashion. Indeed, Arel and Mimaroglu did not have immediate followers. The explosion happened later, through the 'serious music' of conservatories and universities and the electronic/noise music avant-garde - the great wave of the 2000s and 2010s” [4].



But is it really true that, before 1999, no place - public or private - in Turkey accepted the sound of electronic experimentation? To find out you will have to cross some paths back in time. With the foundation of the Turkish Republic (29 October 1923) and the start of Atatürk’s reforms, the country faced a progressive and rapid modernization that looked to the West. In 1923 Radio Ankara was inaugurated [5] and a little over a decade later, in 1935, they were hired Official State Councillors - such as the German composer Paul Hindermith - to build a Western musical life in Turkey through performances by foreign musicians invited to Ankara. Turkish students were offered prizes and funding to study abroad - in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Prague or Budapest - and to bring the alphabets of contemporaneity home [6]; with the accession of Turkey to NATO (1952), the main point of interest for young Turks was established in the United States: overseas travels were supported by funding provided by American foundations such as the famous Rockefeller.

The xenophile and modernizing parabola of the Turkish cultural life is well summed up by a portion of Bülent Arel’s life: in 1951 the composer takes service on the Ankara Radio send him to Paris, at the RTF, to learn the principles of sound engineering [7]. A couple of years later, in 1953, Arel was one of the promoters of the Helikon Association Gallery, an association of vital importance for the promotion of the avant-garde who organized meetings and concerts of foreign contemporary music [8]. In 1955, a colleague of Arel’s - the famous Turkish pioneer, Ilhan Mimaroğlu [9] - received an invitation from the Rockefeller Foundation to enroll at Columbia University; four years later, in 1959, Arel became one of Vladimir Ussachevsky’s first international guests at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York.

After taking his first steps in the world of concrete music in Paris and giving space to electronic sound in the radio studios of Ankara manipulating in real time the sound of an oscillator, Arel trained at the first electronic music center in the United States and returned to Ankara in 1962. The composer does not return home empty-handed: he brings with him a grant from Rockefeller - obtained thanks to the support of his friend Ussachevsky - to open an electronic music studio at the Middle East Technical University. Unfortunately, due to unknown government-bureaucratic intrigues, Arel’s plan will fail and the situation will convince him to move back to the United States [10]: in its most serious academic capacity, electronic music in Turkey therefore struggled to find a nest in which to grow.

In the meantime, however, Turkish rock and pop musicians were fascinated - like most of their European colleagues - by the British and American sound: so that, starting from the seventies, electronic technology began to populate private electronic music studios built to record and create music for television and the popular music industry. Something was taking shape.



Presented for the first time by Finders Keepers in 2017, the album Gökçen Kaynatan by the eponymous author collects a series of pioneering works of experimental electronic pop composed around 1968 [11]; made for Turkish television - Türkiye Radyo Televizyon TRT1, this brand new music came to life in what is considered by many to be the first electronic music studio in Turkey, founded by Kaynatan in his home [12]. Starting in 1974, the first polyphonic synthesizers began to make their entry into the private studios of Turkey [13] staged by Turkish psychedelic rock bands such as Cem Karaca & Dervișan who will extensively use Hammond and Moog systems inspired by the baroque grandeur of Emerson, Lake and Palmer [14].

At the conclusion of this short story, it will be permissible to ask a question and make a reflection: Bülent Arel was music director of Radio Ankara from 1951 to 1959 and it is safe to assume that he used the station’s equipment to compose his Music for String Quartet and Oscillator in 1957; the pioneering piece will have been just a one-off attempt - as already happened to Halim El-Dabh and his Wire Recorder Piece (1944) composed using Egyptian radio equipment without leaving any sequels - or we can imagine that others, under the direction of Arel, have ventured into some bold - as unknown radiophonic experiment?

And it would not be right to include in the history of Turkish electronic music also those contributions extraneous to contemporary classical music - such as the sonorizations of Gökçen Kaynatan - that tforged the habit of listening to electronic sound in the masses? Or maybe it is right to exclude these experiences, so distant from the sound research, and leave in the books a chasm over forty years, as if between 1957 and 1999 in Turkey no one had ever dealt with synthesizers and electronic processing?

Notes

[1] Sarah-Neel Smith, Metrics of Modernity, Art and Development in Postwar Turkey, University of California Press, 2022, pp. 81-82.

[2] Margaret Anne Schedel, Taylor Ackely, “Invisible Influence: An Analysis of Bülent Arel’s Fantasy and Dance for Five Viols and Tape”, in Miller Puckette, Kerry L. Hagan, Between the Tracks: Musicians on Selected Electronic Music, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2020. Pp. 154-155.

[3] James McNair, “Beyond the beat: half century of Turkish experimental Music”, The National, Aug. 24, 2016

https://www.thenationalnews.com/arts/beyond-the-beat-half-a-century-of-turkish-experimental-music-1.162133

[4] https://www.subrosa.net/en/catalogue/anthologies/anthology-of-turkish-experimental-music-1961-2014.html

[5] Eminalp Malkoç, “The High-Speed Train of the New Capital Ankara, the First Flights and the Foundation of Radio Telephony” in International Symposium Culture and Communication in Anatolia: Past, Present and Future, 15-16 June 2016, Akanra University 2016, p. 110.

[6] Martin Greve, Individualization of Traditional Music on the Eve of Kemalist Turkey, Würzburg, 2017, p. 38.

[7] M. A. Schedel, T. Ackely, “Invisible Influence”, op. cit., p. 157.

[8] Jim Samson, Black Sea Sketches. Music, Place and People, Taylor & Francis, 2021, p. 84.

[9] Per l’affascinante storia di e dei pionieri della musica elettronica turca emigrati negli Stati Uniti rimando all’articolo di Helen Mackareath “Documenting the Mimaroğlus: Electronic Tape Music and the Turkish Émigré Avant-Garde”, Los Angeles Review of Books, April 6 2019 https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/documenting-the-mimaroglus-electronic-tape-music-and-the-turkish-emigre-avant-garde/

[10] Martin Greve, Individualization of Traditional Music on the Eve of Kemalist Turkey, Würzburg, 2017, p. 40.

[11] Note alla presentazione dell’omonimo disco nel catalogo di Finders Keepers https://www.finderskeepersrecords.com/shop/gokcen-kaynatan-gokcen-kaynatan/

[12] Melis Alemdar, An almost-famous Turks electronic music veteran seeks to reconnect, https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/an-almost-famous-turkish-electronic-music-veteran-seeks-to-reconnect-13655

[13] Daniel Spicer, The Turkish Psychedelic Explosion: Andalou Psych 1965-1980, Watkins Media Ltd, 2016, p. 161.

[14] Daniel Spicer, The Turkish Psychedelic Explosion, pp. pp. 40-41.

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