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).

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Istanbul debut, or, twerk time for belly dancers

Since I arrived in Istanbul at the very end of April, people I meet have routinely asked me, out of curiosity or social obligation, "How do you like Istanbul?" It would be a lot easier to just show the pearly whites and say, "I like it a lot!" The more honest answer that I still don't know, and it's still overwhelming in many respects. I try to explain to the inquirer that I just came from four months living in a village in Bali, a place where I was (at the end) established and independent, a place where time seems to inch along slowly without anyone urging it to go faster than it needs to, a place where people seem "clinically happy" for how much they smile at each other without provocation. I arrived here still despondent about leaving the island and the fantastic experiences I'd had there, and also completely clueless about what to expect about life in Turkey. 
Seaside palace
As you may recall, Istanbul was not part of my original Watson project itinerary, but rather the suggestion of Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, with whom I had discussed the obstacles I was then facing studying music and living in Urumqi last fall. Instead of going to Azerbaijan, as I had originally planned ("It will be similarly difficult, but you won't be able to speak the language," he had pointed out), he suggested I go to Istanbul and Crete, and put me in touch with master musicians in both places. 

As my departure for Turkey drew closer, I was still completely unfamiliar with the culture and music I was about to experience. I generally try to strike a balance between avoiding preconceived notions and assumptions, and conducting exhaustive logistical research, about a new place—I find it so much more rewarding to learn about a place through experiencing it firsthand rather than trying to piece together a picture from third-party, biased, or filtered narratives. Going to Turkey, I tell you what I did know (or have in my mind)—I had studied Constantinople (now Istanbul) briefly in the context of of an art history seminar in my senior year of high school, so I gathered the place was (surprise) culturally significant. Given its proximity to, and/or inclusion in, that vague area we Americans label "the Middle East" and tend to only hear about in ominous or threatening news reports, all of my family members expressed concern about me going to Istanbul (especially as a white woman traveling alone—refer to the story of the murder of Sarai Sierra). They said they were unwilling to visit me in Istanbul and encouraged (at some times, begged) me to reconsider coming here. My only other context for Turkey was my time in Western China, where Turkey and all things Turkish are in vogue among the Uyghur people.
In Istanbul, beauty and poverty are often side by side
Galata Tower
Thus, as much as a I wanted to my first steps in Istanbul to be unmarked by assumptions about what Turkey and Turkish people were like, upon arrival I could feel the alarm bells in my head ready to go off at any moment. I won't go so far so as to say I was paranoid, but I was certainly uneasy and on my guard. (It didn’t help that a few days later, people were warning me not to go outside because Istanbul was erupting in mass protest on the anniversary of the violent government crack down on the Gezi Park protests in 2013). I had reached out to the Wellesley Club of Turkey before arriving to ask for advice on life in Istanbul as well as a place to crash on arrival, and in typical Wellesley fashion multiple alums came forward offering both. Their advice was unanimous: "Istanbul is like any other large city—there are some areas you shouldn't wander alone at night, but if you are street smart you will be fine." I ended up staying with an alum who had married a Turkish man and had two adorable young daughters, who were so enthusiastic about playing my violin after I let them try it that I had to start locking my case when I wasn't around (lest they start jumping up and down on my bed while strumming--I saw it happen). The alum was incredibly generous; in exchange for some babysitting, she hosted me for nearly two weeks while I viewed apartments all over the city—one was great but in a sketchy neighborhood, one was tiny but in a happening area, one was actual closet with a bed in it (and a window facing a wall). I finally tore myself away from her hospitality and moved into my current digs: a surprisingly spacious apartment with lovely big windows, musically tolerant neighbors, and an amiable Turkish master's student of studio art who is chronically gone--paradise! (She was actually around one day when I was practicing; when I came out, she said, "Do not worry about playing music in the house—I heard your voice. It is not disturbing.")

But back to battling assumptions about Turkeyone of my greatest concerns about daily life in Turkey was tested in my first week when I was lost and late on my way to a Wellesley Club gathering, and it seemed that the best option was to take a cab. After reading a multitude of travel sights that had warned about taxi scams, as I hailed a cab I braced myself for being taken for a literal and figurative ride. As soon as I got in and did my best to explain where I wanted to go, it was immediately evident I was a foreigner, and the driver began sizing me up in broken English: 

"Erasmus?" he asked, inquiring whether I was a foreign student on an Erasmus Scholarship.
"No, not business."
He was puzzled. "What are you doing in Istanbul?"
"I...I study Turkish music! I play keman [violin], and I want to study kemançe [Turkish bowed string instrument]!" "Kemançe?!" The driver's face lit up. "I am from the Black Sea [where kemançe is an integral part of the folk music]!" 

He reached into the glove box and pulled out a stack of Turkish music CDs, fanning them out like a poker player revealing his royal flush. He popped one in, cranked the volume to its maximum, and turned around to gauge my reaction to the sound of the tulum [Turkish bagpipes] blasting the car and passerby alike. 

This is not exactly what he played, but just to give you an idea of what was going on in the car:

In such situations, there is only one correct response:
"It's great! What wonderful music!" I declared, forcing my grimace at the cacaphony into an enthusiastic grin and some rhythmic head bobbing. Don't get me wrong—the music was excellent, but after a certain decibel level even Turkish bagpipes lose their charm, believe it or not.
Nonetheless, he was pleased with this response, and glancing at the road from time to time, sampled for me three or four more CDs from his collection while I affirmed for him my deep and undying love of pop versions of Black Sea folk songs played at stadium volume.

As we pulled up to my destination, I reached for my wallet—
"For you, who love kemançe, no charge!"
"No, come on, I must pay you!" I said, taken aback.
"Just give me two Turkish liras," he retorted, requesting less than one dollar compensation for the four-dollar fare.
We went back and forth, but he insisted I not pay him more than that. Then, he reached back into his glove box and pulled out a CD with an outline of a man‘s face on the front.
"Do you know who this is?" he asked.
"No, I'm not sure…"
He lowered his voice for dramatic effect. "Atatürk," he said reverently, referring to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern-day Republic of Turkey and nationally venerated quasi-god figure in Turkey. "For you!" He handed me the CD, a compilation called "Ataturk's Beloved Songs."
"No, no, I can't accept this!"
After a lot of back-and-forth and many heartfelt thank you's, I left the taxi with a radically altered stance on Istanbul's cab drivers (and Ataturk's Beloved Songs, of course—there was no way to refuse).

My good fortune continued even after I left the cab of the very generous and nationalist cab driver. As I mentioned earlier, Kayhan connected me with a nationally renowned master musician in Istanbul, Derya Turkan, a kemançe player who specializes in Ottoman classical music. Given that Derya is in high demand as a performer in Turkey and around the region, he has been extremely giving of his time and concerned about my well-being in Istanbul. In his words: "If Kayhan sent you, you must be special--I will teach you for free, and present to you many musicians, and luthiers, instrument collectors." In my first week in Istanbul, he made good on his word and brought me to his rehearsals for an upcoming concert series with musicians from Greece. The ensemble included a soprano sax player, a singer, a percussionist, and a Cretan lyre player (picture the harp-like instrument Orpheus used to subdue the forest creatures in Greek mythology, complete with turtle shell) performing a mix of improvisations on Ancient Greek songs and American jazz standards alike. Conveniently, the common language between the players was English, so I was able to follow the dialogue during rehearsal.

I was at the final rehearsal before their concert the following evening when Derya announced that he would not be able to perform with the group because he had been called early to Belgium for his tour there. He left to prepare for his departure, but I stayed to listen to the rest of the rehearsal because I enjoyed it, the Cretan lyre player was borrowing my amp for balance purposes, and, frankly, I had nothing else to do. On a break, the players started talking among themselves in Greek, and then suddenly turned to me:

"Audrey, we were thinking, maybe, if you would like, you could play two or three songs with us."
I was stunned and delighted that they would ask me to join themt hadn't crossed my mind that the possibility would even be on their radar. The only problem—I didn't have my violin with me.
"Maybe we could borrow one for a few hours from a nearby music shop," they suggested.
And so, that is how I ended up playing a dilapidated child-size violin (more box than instrument) with Vassiliki, Aliki, and friends. I warned them that the sound was going to be awful, and assured them that my own violin would sound much better. I also warned them that I did not know anything about Greek or Turkish traditional music stylesI could improvise, but it more than likely was going to sound like Chinese and/or Indonesian music. 
"Even better!" they exclaimed. 

Long story short, they really liked my playing, and I ended up playing the entire concert with them (and singing a song in Ancient Greek as well)! They were really pleased with how the concert went, and hopefully we'll have opportunities to play together again in the weeks to come. (I also have an open invitation to Athenswe'll see if that can happen before it is time to come home!)

A few excerpts from the concert:

 A few of the musicians also invited me to watch their concert on Prince's Islands a few days later—here are a few photos:

A view of the city from the island

An oud player on a hilltop taught me this piece on the islands:

Derya also invited me to his concert with Erkan Oğur, inventor of the fretless guitar and Turkish living legend. It was good I didn't realize how famous he is until after I met him, we had a very pleasant dinner, and he and Derya performed an incredibly moving concert in a packed concert hall. It came up that they were traveling to Cappadocia in central Turkey to play in a festival forty-eight hours or so later; Derya asked if I wanted to come. I eagerly accepted the invitation, booked flights, and a few days later met up with Erkan and their manager to go to the airport. In the cab to the airport, I asked Erkan if he was really the inventor of the fretless guitar.

"Yes. 1976." He told me he had started as a violinist, studied to become a physicist, and then created the fretless guitar so he could have the flexibility to play microtonal makam-based music.
"Did anyone think you were crazy when you invented the fretless guitar?" I asked him.
"Yes; my own teacher thought I was crazy," Erkan said, telling me his teacher had passed away before he could see Erkan's success with the new instrument. 

When we got to the terminal, I saw that the Beşiktaş soccer team was sitting at the same gate, occupied by the hordes of fans asking for photos. Then, the fans saw Erkan, and soon he too was surrounded by people complimenting his music and asking for photos. I saw that one of the soccer coaches was eying Erkan; after a few moments, he strode up to him holding a phone.
"Would you say hello to my mother? We are huge fans!" I just tried played it cool—since, you know, Itravel with celebrity musicians all the time (joking, sort of...)

I had been told that Cappadocia was visually stunning, but it wasn't until I was met by a canyon of man-made caves and a veritable cave-castle from thousands of years ago that I understood why everyone was raving about the place. After passing Mount Erciyes and gentle empty rolling hills, the vivid canyon colors and rock formations come out of nowhere. Derya and Erkan's concert venue capitalized on the scenerythe stage was perched on the side of Uchisar Castle, which is basically a huge rock into which an entire fortress has been carved, and which overlooks a cave canyon. The best part is how hands-off the local tourism bureau apparently is. I didn't see any guides or rangers monitoring the area, and there are no barriers around the caves, and so while Derya and Erkan had their sound check, I trekked and scaled my way into the caves with my violin in tow (hoping to duplicate the cave sound experimenting I had done with my friend and flutist Agustian in Sumatra). Let me just tell you (and humor me while I wax poetic for a moment), there is nothing really quite like playing violin while perched in the ledge of a cave hundreds of feet off the ground and overlooking hundreds of miles of central Anatolian landscape, nothing quite like hearing your own sound bounce off and respond to the walls of a centuries-old Byzantine fortress. Derya and Erkan’s performance was fantastic (especially since the night of the concert, high winds threatened to topple the stage equipment off the side of the castle cliff).

Cappadocia photo interlude

See the person at the top of the fortress?

I had stopped in Madrid on my way to Istanbul to see my friend Rebecca (and mostly mope on her couch after leaving Bali); she more than reciprocated by cheerfully coming to hang out with me in Istanbul. It was great to see her; while I wasn’t completely emotionally settled with my change of locale, I was far less depressed than the last time I saw her and relished the chance to have a partner-in-crime with whom I could be a total tourist. We went to the Grand Bazaar one day, and giggled at the ludicrous tactics the salespeople use to get shoppers’ attention: “Hey sexy angel, let me show you how to spend your money!” I also received a marriage proposal from a salesman and the business card of a fur and leather merchant who asked if I would be interested in modeling for his clothing line. “We have many Russian customers. You would be good for this. You have face like baby.”
Marriage and fur modeling aside, I had recently made friends with Feyza, a Turkish student in my neighborhood studying environmental engineering, and invited her to join Rebecca and me as we went to see the sights. A note to would-be tourists: everyone and her grandmother wants to see the Hagia Sophia on the weekend—just don’t do it. The lines were Disney-World-meets-visa-line-at-the-U.S.-Consulate-in-China long, and yet we powered through, elbowing our way through the crowds at the dazzling harem at Topkapi Palace and the eerie Basilica Cistern. By the early evening, Rebecca and I were exhausted, but Feyza had a surprise for us:

“My friends have a boat, and they are fishing. We can eat dinner on the boat.”
At that moment, I was so tired, and the last thing I wanted to be doing was socializing with strangers trapped on a dinghy, but at Feyza’s insistence we made our way to the pier. Imagine our surprise to see a yacht waiting for us. Stunned, we greeted Feyza’s friend Acilay, a girl our age with perfect makeup and a dream of becoming a Turkish Airlines flight attendant one day, her middle-aged cousin, and his business partner. They offered us tea, blankets, and a delicious dinner of the fish they had just caught. Rebecca and I got a second wind, and just in time as Acilay turned to me—
“Feyza says you are a singer. Will you sing for us?”

I tried to explain that I was first and foremost a violinist, but at the urging of everyone on board, I sang two of my own songs. My performance was met enthusiastically, and soon everyone was sharing a song. It came out that Acilay is a talented belly dancer, and we begged her to demonstrate. She was fantastic, and she insisted we all get up and join her as the yacht continued sailing down the Bosphorus. 

All of the sudden, the music stopped—
“Now,” Acilay declared, “it is twerk time.” 
And indeed it was. Lest you think that was the end, I assure you we also had Black Sea dancing time and Balkan dancing time, and are looking forward to a reprise next week when Acilay graduates university.

Classic Istanbul sights photo interlude—prepare yourself for a lot of tiles

Blue Mosque
Palace rose garden

Hagia Sophia

Basilica Cistern

Blue Mosque
Despite how wonderful it was to explore Istanbul with Rebecca, as I frequently have over the course of this year I found myself once again plagued by doubts about my project. I worried that I wasn’t doing enough, and that the Istanbul iteration of my project wasn’t unfolding quickly enough. It had been useful to meet with Derya when he was available, as he took the time to break down and and explain the rules of makam in Turkish music. In such music, the makam determines the set of pitches from which a melody is derived as well as the rules for how it develops. One thing that is quite striking is that some pitches in the makam are not fixed, but flexible, changing position within a microtonal range depending on the direction of the phrase. For instance, in rast makam starting on D, the third degree if the phrase is ascending is more or less an F#; however, if it is descending, the pitch has glissando, sliding down from a pitch lower than F# but higher than F natural. And, if the phrase teeters around that third degree before descending, the first time it is close to F#, the second time it is slightly lower, but still higher than the third time, when it has the glissando to a lower pitch (still higher than F natural). You see?! It’s actually pretty intuitive in a way—the pitches of the melody conform to its shape.

Coming back from my tangent on Turkish music theory, Derya’s crash course on makams was useful to help me start to listen more critically; however, beyond talking about the music I knew I needed to play it if I wanted to internalize it. Luckily, promises of future music-making have started to arise. I reached out to Tolgahan Cogulu, a classical guitarist and professor at Istanbul Technical University’s Center for Advanced Music who has invented his own microtonal guitar with adjustable frets; he says he is happy to play makam-based music with me and is interested in arranging some pieces using alternative tuning systems from China and Indonesia for us to play together. Feyza’s friend Egesu is a guitarist and conservatory student who brought me to an experimental open music session—that’s where I met Sumru Ağıryürüyen, a prominent vocalist and conservatory professor who specializes in traditional and improvised music alike; she is interested in collaborating with me on a music project, and also went out of her way to connect me with Turkish violinists.

And so that is how I came to meet Baki Kemancı, a violinist whose name means “Baki the Violinist” (he was literally born for this). I had been baffled listening to recordings of Turkish violinists, as the timbre they achieve is so different that I would sometimes wonder whether they were even playing the same instrument as me. Balki gave me exactly what I had been searching for as he broke down and demonstrated the technique—a slow, womp-womp vibrato combined with precise patterns of sliding into pitches. The effect is relaxed and vocal, but very difficult for me because in many ways it is opposite everything I’ve learned from practicing Western classical music. I’m really excited—Balki is detail-oriented and has high standards as well as the high intensity I need to learn a lot in a short time. At the same time, he seems really friendly, and according to Feyza, he said, “You and I, although we don't speak the same language or come from the same music tradition, we understand each other’s music-making.” (Did I mention he doesn’t really speak English? Ah well, as usual I’m putting my faith in the language of music.)

It has felt slow going in these past weeks, and for the first time I am starting to feel pangs of readiness to be home. But, I have seen in this year how much can change and develop in just a few weeks, and I am optimistic that there is still time for my project to take a few more interesting turns before it’s all over. As always, I will keep you posted—
Minaret sunset