Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Let me tell you...

Final presentation delivered at Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Conference (University of Puget Sound, August 2, 2015).

Let me tell you who I was one year ago.

I'm a classically trained violinist. I've spent hours every day for the last fifteen years practicing major and minor scales and etudes as well as playing in orchestras and chamber music groups, all with the goal to make Mozart sound delightful and Beethoven dramatic. Everything I perform has been carefully rehearsed for hours to ensure bow direction and articulation is synchronized across whatever ensemble I'm playing with. I have been the concertmaster of the MIT Symphony for all four years of college, and now a soloist with the orchestra, so there's an added pressure and thrill to lead the group and perform with precision.

I'm Type-A, and so at the same time, I'm balancing my music major with my other political science-oriented major in East Asian Studies. I'm taking too many classes, trying to do well enough in macroeconomics and number theory to get Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude while publishing papers on the rights of overseas Filipino Workers and linguistic variation as a result of social media censorship in China. I have worked overseas for a media organization, and my longterm goal is to become an Asia-based foreign correspondent for a major news outlet. To this end I obsessively make to-do lists, plot my daily schedule in ten minute increments, and chronically, neurotically, strategize how I'm going to do well enough in my classes to ensure I achieve my goals in college so I can succeed at life.

It was at this point that I was selected to be a Watson Fellow. My college advisor, a faculty composer at Wellesley, was one of the first Watson Fellows years ago, and later the director of the Foundation, and from my first year at Wellesley he regularly suggested I consider applying. He is one of my closest confidantes, and so I took his advice to heart, after discussing potential project ideas, proposed a project around manifestations of musical multiculturalism, the subject of my senior thesis. Still, I had no idea what my day-to-day life on a Watson would look like, and having lived abroad before myself and also spoken to Watson Fellows who warned of chronic miserable loneliness, it would be an understatement to say I wasn't keen on the prospect of showing up in Indonesia, violin in hand, riding on the hope that I would find some way to fill my time.

Let me tell you about one chapter of my life on the Watson. Let me tell you about...Pak Sanglah.

He's a fifty year old man who is a literal guru, one of the few masters of Balinese rebab, an instrument made from a coconut that, with its loose tension strings and fluctuating pitch, sounds a little like a cat in pain--that is, if you can hear it over the throng of gongs, drums, flutes, and metallaphones that also make up the gamelan musical ensemble. Sanglah is the happiest person I've ever met, and likely ever will. We meet every day in his studio, which is open to the family temple and the chickens that run around it. It's also overrun with tokke lizards that live in the thatched roof and occasionally fall on the floor with a big splat. I stay there for at least three hours a day, but usually more like five, during which time he plays a slow, repetitive, tuneless melody that really doesn't sound so different from yesterday's. Nothing is written down, and I try to mimic his fingers until the patterns saturate my mind long enough to stick. We will play this forty-five second melody nonstop for thirty, forty-five minutes, before we take a short break. He is a man of constant smiles, gratuitous high-fives, and catchphrases. On the back of each of his two hundred business cards he has handwritten the words: "Success is good. Happy is better. If you want be happy, be happy now." Early on in our relationship he discovered I liked the fruit juice he made from the trees in his garden. He exclaimed, "Student likes juice, and teacher likes juice?! We are so blessed."

He believed so strongly in me, and gave me so much of his time and energy, and as I progressed in my lessons the intervals came more naturally and I started recognizing the signaling of melodic patterns, getting better at anticipating how a melody would develop based on its rhythms and internal phrases. At the same time, I am meeting other local and foreign musicians, who, as soon as they discover I am a violinist, invite me to jam, collaborate, perform with them. It is terrifying at first, because there is no structure, no notes written down, but I get in the habit of saying yes to everything, no matter how far-fetched it seems. Recording session for Kailash Kokopelli, Native American flute playing Swedish sound healer? Of course! Music festival with Hawaiian shamaness who is a self-proclaimed channel for Gaia the Divine Mother? Why not! Improvisation on Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" with a bunch of self-taught Balinese jazz musicians? Terrifying, but I'll try anything once. I make friends with a bunch of local Indonesian musicians, and we start playing nightly concerts all over the island--bars, cafes, art collectives, festivals...They have tremendous faith in themselves and the universe, and constantly tell me to stop worrying, that there's no rush. After a certain point, I stop being so worried about messing up the music, about sticking to some predetermined plan--and instead of feeling inhibited I start to be creative and have fun. I even start to write and improvise and perform my own music, using the musical traditions I have been learning up to that point--a totally foreign concept for this classically trained violinist, I'll remind you. People see me on the street and know me as "the violinist." It feels like instead of competition there is encouragement among this artistic community, and for the first time ever I have permission to get completely out of my comfort zone. 

I don't have time now to tell you about sleeping on the street during the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, about going on tour with internationally-acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, cockfighting on Silent Day in Bali, learning Turkish classical and Roma and Black Sea music in Istanbul.

Instead, let me tell you about who I am now and what I've taken from this year.

The most obvious thing I've taken from this year was accomplishing my project. I set forth with the self-assigned, albeit abstract, mission to witness and learn about many ways multiculturalism can manifest itself in local musical traditions. In this last year, I've had the opportunity to play with hundreds of musicians and speak with hundreds more, perform many dozens of concerts in formal and informal venues alike, and been exposed and come to love and play musical instruments and styles I didn't even know existed a year ago. In that same vein, my definition of what makes music, and what makes a musician, has radically evolved from the definition I started with as a western classical musician a year ago.

At the same time, the pace of life I set for myself has been completely transformed as well. In the places I've lived in this last year I found so many people that make more time for one another, and give so much of themselves. If you meet someone for afternoon tea in Turkey, you'd best not make evening plans because you're probably going to be invited for dinner, and possibly breakfast the next day, too. I was constantly amazed by the generosity and patience my teachers, friends, and random strangers showed me in this year, and that's something I want to continue to emulate going forward.

Similarly, my Watson Fellowship project gave me permission to reach out to people for help and advice. It became easier and easier to meet new people and put myself in situations that risked embarrassment because I knew the potential reward of a meaningful relationship, or at least a story for my blog, would be worth it. I made incredible friends and had mind-blowing musical opportunities as a direct result of casting a wide net, taking a chance, and trying to reciprocate offers of help whenever I could. I could tell you a thousand stories about the unlikely circumstances that led to me befriending an onion farmer on a volcano or traveling to Anatolian caves with the Willie Nelson of Turkey, but I'll save those for another time, and plan to keep having more. 

The one thing I thought I would take from this year that still has yet to come is clarity about the future, where I go from here. I kind of thought that after a year of percolation, the answer about "where's this all going" would pop out right on time. Actually, after a year of meeting so many people from all over the world who approach life and music in vastly different ways, it seems I have less of an idea about what I'm doing with my life and skills than I did before. On the flip side, I'm more aware of the world of possibilities that are out there, and more assured that if I continue to be open to that world of possibilities I'll find a way to thrive in it.

What I do know for sure is that I am profoundly grateful for this opportunity, which has been truly and significantly transformational. Thank you, thank you, so much.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Up in the air / homecoming

I am forty thousand feet above the ground and have four hours before I am back home for the first time in 372 days. I don't know if I have the words now to describe what that feels like. I feel depleted, heartbroken, grateful, unprepared, ready, excited, bewildered, and most of all, exhausted as this enormous jet soars somewhere over the Quebec airspace. It's impossible to process the last weeks of this experience, much less the year in whole and the impact it will have on my life as I go forward (and what going forward even looks like). I will save that processing for after I get a full night of sleep (or a few). For now, I think back on my last month in Istanbul.

I never completely found my footing in Istanbul. I continue to be struck by how massively sprawling and diverse the city and its culture is. It was always foolish to think that I would be able to get a handle on the musical traditions of the city in a few short months, but as the end of my fellowship approached and I encountered more and more musicians, I grasped that it would take multiple lifetimes to truly absorb the breadth and depth of musical cultures and traditions in Turkey. In my first month and a half in Istanbul, I focused on studying Turkish classical music, which in and of itself has a rich, centuries-old tradition that requires thorough understanding of hundreds of makams--to play Turkish classical songs, you have to be knowledgeable about the set of pitches in the song and how they behave depending on the melodic direction, as well as proper ornamentation and articulation conventionsand if you want to improvise in this style, you have to know all of these things so innately that you can create new expression within the existing musical framework. It's a fine balance that requires a lot of skillhave enough knowledge of the rules and existing repertoire as well as ability to perform them so that you can use them, tweak them, and break them in an intelligent and evocative way that is relevant to the tradition and communicates with the audience.

It was this musical tradition that I was broaching with my primary hocas (teachers), Necati Çelik (oud player) and Baki Kemancı (violinist). Every day I met with Necati, he would give me two pieces in a new makam/scale system to learn, and we would play them together a few times as other students, friends, and musicians would stream in and out of his office to talk and just listen. It was fascinating to work with Necati, who is simultaneously a very warm and generous person and also a traditionalist rooted in a personal mission to preserve and spread Turkish classical music as well as older traditional Turkish values as well. It was frequently frustrating to work with him because although I know he respected me as a musician, he could be very critical, impatient, and a bit patronizing (though never in a mean-spirited way). I came to realize that a lot of what he says probably just doesn't translate well, and from that point on I was more amused and offended when he would exclaim, "Why do you keep making the same mistakes?" I remember him taking my face in his hands one afternoon: "Audrey, I love you. You know nothing." Still, it was clear that he was hard on me because he was impressed with my playing and believed in my potential. During Ramadan, the thirty day Muslim holiday that requires observers to fast while sun is up, Necati invited me to his iftar dinner (a literal break-fast) for his friends and family. After the dinner, held at a fabulous mansion that used to be a meeting place for teachers, in front of everyone he invited me up to play classical music with him. It was a huge honor, as over sixty of his students, friends, and family members were present and I was the only one (besides his son) he invited to play with him.

Performing with Necati hocam at iftar

At the same time, I was working with Baki, who is renowned as a violinist for his skill and flexibility as a musicianhe is an excellent player of Turkish classical music, but he can also perform many other (more popular) styles, including Roma, jazz, Indian, Irish folk...His family is Roma, and when I told him I wanted to learn some songs from that tradition our lessons got flashier and flashier. He started writing out belly dance tunes in complicated (for me) time signatures (five beats, nine beats, etc.) that we would play at gradually quickening tempos, all the while adding showy embellishments. We would play a piece faster and faster until it was a whirlwind that would get even the most stoic listener to start tapping his toes...except for Necati. When I made the grave mistake of showing him some of the tunes I was learning with Baki, it was as if I had insulted his very essence. "Sevgili [dear] Audrey, you have been playing music for so long, have been studying violin for such a long time, I don't understand why you are learning this. You are wasting your talent. You have forgotten everything I have taught you. You are too good for this music." He went on: "Next time you come I hope you will be just my student. You are studying with many people and it is making you confused." I quickly tried to save things by assuring him that most of what I was working on with Baki was Turkish classical music, but still it felt like I had made a gross misstep. It's not just Necati from whom I have heard this sentimentmost of the Turkish classical music purists I have met assert that the style sits at the top of the Turkish musical pyramid, even going so far to deem other, more popular and colloquial styles, such as Roma and Arabesque, not music at all. As someone who was experiencing many Turkish music styles for the first time and learning to differentiate between them at the same time, it's hard for me to understand why such musicians can't tolerate these other musical styles. It's one thing to not like a different style, but to dismiss it and its creators entirely because it's too low-brow? 

I was learning some Roma music with Baki, and also met Oktay Üst, a musician with the muscles and thick well-groomed mustache of a reformed pirate who was part of the well-known Black Sea music ensemble Karmate. He now runs a cafe-cum-instrument workshop where he and his friends play music outside on the street daily. I was at the cafe with Egesu marveling at Oktay's incredible command over the kemençe, an instrument with a simple appearance he was using to crank out the most elaborate melodies and rhythms at lightening speed. At Egesu's urging, as I was fairly nervous to approach the guy, I went up to introduce myself and ask if he would be willing to show me some Black Sea music. "Come anytimewe are always here." I went a few nights and did my best to keep up with Oktayuntil I insisted he slow down and sing the basic melodies of what he was playing, I could barely pick up the tune. Beyond the complex rhythms and even more dense ornaments that render simple melodies in perpetual motion, it didn't help that the kemençe is tuned in fourths, rather than fifths like the violin. (After I retuned my violin to match him things got a lot more entertaining.) While I definitely have so much to learn in Turkish classical music, I wish I had spent more time, or just had longer, to focus on Roma and Black Sea traditional music styles, which are radically different (and more energetic and engaging in many ways).

I wrote last time about having a fantastic time going to concerts and events with Egesu, an electric guitarist and music conservatory student. Spending time with him has been one of the great, if not greatest, highlights of this year. As we spent more time together, it felt like I had met someone I had already known for years. In my last month in Istanbul we went to countless astounding concerts, went hiking and swimming with non-stinging jellyfish on the island of Büyükada, got cheesy temporary tattoos of each other's name, cooked at home and went for midnight coffee, met his friends and mine, tried out what seemed like every breakfast place in my neighborhood, argued about capitalism and John Cage and Mozart...Saying goodbye was heartbreaking, but it's not farewell, as we are already making plans to reconvene in the months to come. 

For Egesu 
Thank you, thank you, for sharing the time we had with meafter everything in this year, I look back on our time as my fondest memories. The concerts we saw, the fortunes we told in coffee cups, the evenings we sat by the sea, the cooking and dances we attempted, the songs we made up...these memories are precious and I treasure them. You put me at ease, make me laugh until I think I'm going to explode, make me feel alive and excited, and every time I see you I am profoundly grateful. I am waiting for that bright day, not too far from now, when we'll meet again.

There's now a little over an hour and a half left before my homecoming. It's going to be a shock, I know. I stopped over in London last night before taking my flight today and was struck that I could comprehend the conversations happening around me for the first time in many, many months. What a luxury! At the same time, as I said before I feel drained by this constant state of flux I have been in for the last week (and perhaps the last year). Especially recently, there have been moments where I'll see something random that triggers my mind and I have a visceral flashback to a completely different placefor instance, something on the street in Istanbul will mentally transport me back to Bali. At times I can feel the presence and impact of the teachers and friends from each place where I have spent time this year, and perceiving that connection is a sensation both incredible and overwhelming. Remembering huddling under blankets in my dreary room in Western China one moment and then thinking of the long hot days spent in the studio of my rebab guru in Bali the next is almost too much to bear or comprehend. It feels like I've been in completely different worlds and lived completely different lives--and to a large extent that's true. Some of my "lives," or perhaps adaptations, in the places I spent time this last year were smoother than others, but regardless I found some way of "being" in each place. What it all means, where it's all going, I really don't know. That's going to take some time. It's all going to take some time.

Coming in for a landing...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Dear friends and deer conversation

At a dazzling Turkish National Television recording session for an upcoming Ramadan music program
For the last few weeks I have been lucky to have the chance to hop around Europe while continuing to immerse myself in the music scene in Istanbul. You may remember my friend Nick, who is a violist with the fantastic string quartet Brooklyn Rider as well as Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, who I have been consulting about my Watson Project starting months before my departure. He invited me last fall to join the Silk Road Ensemble's Asia tour, an experience which was an incredible highlight and huge influence on the development of my project. We had the chance to meet up again a few weeks ago when he invited me to come to Vienna and see the final concert of the Knights Orchestra, a New York-based ensemble that is notable for the freshness and vibrancy of its relatively young players and repertoire. Istanbul is such a international hub that it's easy to hop over to most destinations in the area, and so when Nick invited me to come spend some time seeing his concert and exploring Vienna for the first time, I just told him to send me the dates. 

Even if I hadn't known Nick, the concert, which was held in the legendary Musikverein, was well-worth the trip. The hall itself is acoustically superb, as the sounds from the stage have warm resonance while remaining very clear to the players and audience (many of the players in the Knights commented that they were taken aback to hear for the first time musical interactions in their pieces between instruments that they had been completely unaware of in previous rehearsals and performances. Also, the hall's interior decoration is gorgeous, so there is a lot at which one can marvel. More importantly, the Knights' concert was really spectacular, and included works by Berio, Adams, Shostakovich, Milhaud, and Ligeti, as well as some Chinese folk songs arranged for a string quintet. The Adams work (The Chairman Dances) was incredible in its precision, and it was an added delight to hear how the players interpreted the Chinese folk songs (some of which I recognized from my erhu days) they utilized a lot of the techniques of Chinese music tastefully, which is not a small feat. The concert also featured internationally renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw (when Nick introduced us before the concert, I had to refrain from saying to her, "You're THE Dawn Upshaw?!" She sang folk songs in around ten languages (including Armenian, Sardinian, and Azerbaijani) that Berio had adapted for his wife and included lots of vocal techniques unusual in Western classical (think high pitched trilling, yelping, and yodeling). It was certainly not the typical fare I imagine the Musikverein or Viennese audiences see very much, and I think the crowd was refreshed to see such music played with incredible skill, coordination, and creativity. 

The Musikverein before the concert
After the concert, Nick and I spent a few days exploring the cityneither one of us had visited before, and I personally was excited to witness the "City of Music" firsthand and do sporadic Sound of Music reenactments. As it turns out, nowadays Vienna doesn't quite live up to the images I had in my mind of musicians spilling onto the streets and a culturally engaged public. ("That's Berlin," my college advisor Marty Brody retorted when I mentioned this.) To be fair, we did encounter a young opera company on the street rehearsing for a series of pop-up performances around the city of Puccini's opera "La Boheme" (set: pastel pink milk crates tied together). The majesty of the monumental architecturedomes, cathedrals, and promenadesis truly a sight to behold, In general, though, I was struck as much, if not more, by the telling absence of people on the street, in shops, and on public transportation. We would walk around these elegant neighborhoods and encounter maybe a handful of people. It didn't feel unsafe, but rather eerie, rather like the sort of feeling post-rapture or plague, where you can sense that a community once existed in a place but has since evaporated (leaving a few lucky or unlucky stragglers). Nonetheless, I had a really nice time in Viennawe visited some nice cafes and restaurants, saw some interesting exhibits (Haus der Musik, the Arnold Schoenberg Center, and the Museum of Art Fakes) in addition to enough incredible architecture to last a lifetime. We unfortunately didn't have enough time to lay a wreath at Beethoven's grave as planned, but one can only do so much, you know?

With Nick before his concert at the Musikverein in Vienna

Vienna wasn't my only European hop in the last few weeks. My college advisor and resident life coach Martin Brody was traveling around Europe representing the college on official business and invited me to join him afterwards in Italy for a few days before he returned to the States. As I have mentioned before, Professor Brody (or Marty, as I begrudgingly try to remember to address him at his insistence) has been an incredible mentor and confidante for me since my first year of college, and also is the reason I applied for the Watson Fellowship at all—he continues to see great potential in me far beyond what I initially believe is possible, and has unfailingly supported me through thick and thin. I have also never been to Italy, and so making the quick flight over from Istanbul was a complete no-brainer. I arrived in Milan a day before we were to meet up, and got to spend the day with Cristina, my neighbor of one month in Bali who is from Italy and currently lives in Milan. We had had such a wonderful time adventuring together in Bali, and I had hoped we would see each other again before long—I just didn't expect it would be so soon! We shot the breeze and compared post-Bali departure depression stories while tromping around some of the sights of Milan. In true Italian fashion we went for dinner to an all-you-can-eat sushi joint—it seemed fitting somehow. It was a quick reunion and we parted ways the following morning, promising to stay in touch and meet again somewhere before long.

With Marty Brody, perching on a bridge in the heart of Florence
And then I met up with Marty, and, chatting as if no time had passed at all, we embarked on our journey to Florence and Rome. We have stayed in close and regular contact throughout this year, but it was so wonderful to be able to reconnect in person (and while zipping through the Tuscan countryside, I might add)! As a composer and the former director of the American Academy in Rome, Marty has a number of friends in both cities who we set off to meet in our short few days in Italy. We were on a tight schedule—taking a train to the next city in the morning, having afternoon drinks with one friend and dinner with a few others all in the same day—but we found a surprisingly abundant amount of time to explore the incredible historical sights, talk about our lives and next steps, and try a lot of gelato. 

(Pause for massive photo interlude)

The Duomo in Milan

This is the moment where it becomes extremely apparent that, while I appreciated the majesty of the buildings I observed in Florence and Rome, I would be no help whatsoever in an Italian architecture-themed trivia night. I will try to save face by not describing the pictures at all...lest my captions devolve into, "Another really old and culturally significant cathedral."
Ancient houses and jewelry market on Florentine bridge

Sunset in Florence

Mosaics on the outside of the cathedral built on the sight where St. Peter was thought to be buried (actually not true)
Some ancient graffiti

Oh hey, Rome!
Roman Forum ruins. Julius Caesar was stabbed in the top left corner.
Ruins of the Roman Forum. See the Colosseum in the distance?

6:30 am at the Vatican Basilica!

Michelangelo's La Pieta, which I forgot was in the Vatican and was amazed to suddenly encounter

Casual lean, Vatican City/priest edition
In lieu of telling you that the hype about sightseeing in Italy is substantiated and that 6 am on a Thursday is a marvelous time to visit Vatican City, here's a tangent about these discussions of my life and the future: As this year has progressed and I have delved deeper into what it means to learn, play, and create music in different settings and cultures around the world, I have begun to reevaluate the role music plays in my own life. Music has been a fundamental part of my life since I was six, but having not pursued music solely up to this point I always assumed it was the “other“ thing I did, secondary to my seemingly more academic and professional pursuits. Up to the time I was applying for college, I had only seen few avenues for professional musicians; namely, become one of the few touring classical soloists, become an orchestral musician, or teach. I had seen enough examples of each category to know the very real hardships of the professional musician’s lifestyle, and also knew that at that moment I had other interests besides music I wanted to explore. Although I applied to and was accepted to music conservatories, I elected to go to a liberal arts college where I would be able to study Japanese and Chinese as well as music theory. And as it were, although I wrote (and published!) my fair share of research papers, interned abroad for a government agency and major media organization, and of course continued to study foreign languages, I simultaneously poured the same effort into my music. I spent at least six hours a week on the bus commuting to MIT where I was serving as the symphony’s concertmaster, spent many hours a day practicing solo, chamber music, and orchestral repertoire, and performed as a soloist with the symphony as well as with the Harvard gamelan ensemble as part of my senior thesis—in my music major. In other words, looking back I clearly was doing more than just dabbling in music—but to what end? 

My Watson Fellowship has given me permission to embrace the mindset of primarily pursuing music. Meeting professional musicians, not only of the Western classical persuasion, but from around the world playing and creating music in various and numerous styles. I have met both self-taught and conservatory-educated musicians and composers who draw on their own musical experiences and environments to foster unique voices that resonate with a range of audiences. There have been traditionalists who seek to preserve the old ways and encourage the youth to hold onto the past; there have also been ensembles that take inspiration from the past but break common conventions to dare listeners to think critically about their own experiences, expectations, and societies. Meeting all of these people has made it obvious that the path to a life full of music-making is not singular, and is constantly being repaved. 

What has also affected me significantly this year is the feedback I have received as a result of presenting myself as a professional musician. While I haven’t studied in a music conservatory, I have nonetheless developed a high capacity and skill level as a violinist through nearly sixteen years of serious and dedicated study. While I can still feel the room for my own technical improvement, this year has made me realize that being able to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto flawlessly is not necessarily the only benchmark for one’s ability to be a sensitive musician and effective communicator with an audience. I think of some of my best music-making this year—playing a solo from a Cantonese opera with a Chinese orchestra in Hong Kong, performing Edelweiss in a public square in Hangzhou, improvising with world musicians using pentatonic and modal scale systems in music festivals, bars, and cafes in Bali. For me these performances stand out not for their perfection, but rather for their success in connecting with their audiences. It was the audience members who came up to me afterward and told me how much they loved my sound, the musicians who invited me to collaborate after hearing me perform, the people who recognized me first and foremost as “the violinist“ and were surprised to hear that I have a life and interests outside of music, who affirmed for me that in their eyes, I was already a compelling musician. I had presented myself as a professional musician and the people around me accepted me as such and believed I was capable. I have told myself for years that I would and could never be more than an amateur, recreational violinist; this perhaps sounds like a trivial point, but this year entering an environment where I have been on more equal footing with master musicians who in turn have regarded me as accomplished and professional has been incredibly empowering. 

This surely will not be the last time I bring up this point, but I thought that a full year of traveling with the intention of delving into the world of music-making would bring me clarity about what my own future and career has in store. In fact, if anything my future seems more impenetrable because of my exposure to a vast range of lifestyles and philosophies about making one's way in the world. At the same time, while I grapple with the uncertainty everyday, I think that I have more faith that if I continue to follow my passions and interests while remaining open to life's sudden and unexpected modulations that will inevitably come, things will evolve naturally and work out, even if that means settling into a new tonal center—that has been a recurring theme in this year for sure. (Refraining from the music theory puns now!) In other words, the path is winding and forbidding, but the light in the distance seems brighter than ever.

Things that (still) seem important for my future: 

  • I want to travel
  • I want to write
  • I want to constantly be learning
  • I want to facilitate cross-cultural communication
  • I want to contribute to the global community
  • I want to make music (!)
In the spirit of living in the present, however...

Things have picked up in some nice ways since I returned to Istanbul. I alluded to some of this briefly last time I wrote, but I am slowly making some progress on expanding my musical network (and with it, my opportunities to study and play). I have become really good friends with Egesu, a guitarist and student at one of the music conservatories in Istanbul who took me a freestyle improvisation session a few weeks ago. It was very open-ended and a lot of fun, and there I had the chance to meet many established musicians, including his improvisation teacher, Sumru Ağıryürüyen, a renowned singer whose kindness and powerful stage presence makes up for how difficult her last name is for me to pronounce. Egesu and I have taken to attending tons of musical and cultural events, sometimes two concerts a nighteverything from Dutch rock to Sumru's latest concert, freestyle improvisation inspired by 900-year-old Buddhist poetry by Ki'ki, who lived in what is now the Xinjiang region of China. We've attended all of Sumru's concerts as of late, leading us to dub ourselves her number one fans (keep in mind that this music can be quite esoteric, so we make up for sparse audiences with our enthusiasm). It has been a lot of fun to hang out with Egesubeyond going to underground concerts featuring female Turkish pop stars, I have had so much fun (and learned a lot) talking with him about music, politics, and philosophy. Beyond that, it's a treat to have met someone with whom I can have what's known in Turkish as "deer conversation"; that is, a spoken exchange that devolves from silliness into sheer and utter nonsense. A few nights ago, we were at a canceled screening of Birdman and ended up writing our own screenplay about a man who seeks to herd cats using overtone and throat singing, exposes a cat herding fraudster, and narrowly avoids getting "spaghettified" (real quantum physics termcheck it out) after a halay dance circle creates a black hole. After a certain point we abandoned the English language entirely and resorted to high pitched whistles, guttural screams, and peacock calls. (Made sense at the time.) I feel lucky to have met Egesu, not just because it was lonely showing up in Istanbul after leaving my many dear friends in Indonesia, but also just because it's so nice to have met someone who wants to go (and invites me) to the same crazy concerts as I do, who also has a healthy skepticism of and good sense of humor about authority, and with whom it seems I will never run out of topics to argue, joke, complain, and sing about. 

Here's the band from last night's concert:

Besides that, I have been working regularly with Necati Çelik, an oud player and member of the Istanbul State Turkish Music Ensemble. He is a very grandfatherly sort who holds daily open office hours of sorts for his students. At any one time one will encounter a handful of students sitting and playing music together (an music-learning technique called meşk) while he smokes a pipe and chimes in with constructive criticism from time to time. He has been very generous and patient in teaching me about the different makams (modes) and their melodic behavior, correcting my microtonal intonation and making suggestions about ornamentation. It is a challenge to play with him, as he will present me with a new piece, which I will simultaneously sight-read, transpose, and attempt to play with the correct makam tuning and staying in the (usually complex) rhythmic meter while plays along. He does give me a hard time sometimes, criticizing the placement of my microtones ("Why are you still making the same mistakes?") or  questioning my dedication ("Why haven't you learned Turkish yet?"). Nonetheless he is generally very good-natured; yesterday I successfully played a piece four consecutive times in different tuning systems, and he went so far as to mention that it seemed I was actually making some progress. In the meantime, I am still having my English-free violin lessons with Baki "the Violinist" Kemancı, who also seems to think I am making some progress—I have gotten better at inserting the proper slides and ornaments into the melodies, and so he started getting really funky with the embellishments, throwing in some rapid descending arpeggios and chromatic scales to spice up what was at its base a very plain melody. He was reaching electric guitar-solo level showiness, and it was amazing how much of a blast we were having, especially given the fact that we can't communicate using language. 

Okay, I'm going to wrap it up here for now—I have to go accurately place some more microtones! More to come, as always (and I'm in the final stretch of my fellowship—a little over three weeks before I go home! Those are some bittersweet emotions I will confront...another time).