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).

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