Monday, November 1, 2010

An Interview with Kamran Ince / Tom Moore

Composer Kamran Ince straddles two worlds both imaginatively (as a child of a bicontinental couple, he was born in Montana, and grew up in Ankara) and literally, with simultaneous faculty appointments in the USA and Turkey. He has had a stream of recent releases on Naxos, including his Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Symphonies, and the Concerto for Orchestra, Turkish Instruments, and Voices. We spoke by Skype on March 22, 2010.

MOORE: Was there music in your family while you were growing up? Were there uncles and aunts who were musical?

INCE: My father loved music, almost too much. When he was twelve, he wanted to go into music, but there is a conservatory system in Turkey, and at age twelve it was already too late for him. He was a very creative guy, and was constantly listening to classical music, and would take me to concerts when I was a little kid, although I would sleep through most of them. My mother had a beautiful voice. She sang with the St. Olaf Choir, but did not continue singing after that. Beyond that, my Turkish grandfather used to play the tambur, a sort of lute with a long body (I am half-Turkish, half-American). While I was in elementary school I played with mandolin a little. My father saw this, and before you know it I was taking the entrance exams to the conservatory. Most kids there don’t have any musical background, so they give a very extensive ear test, and look at your fingers, your mouth, your height, and decide what instrument you will play. They told me that I would play cello. And they were right -- cello was the correct instrument for me. So I started on the cello, and was doing very advanced solfege at the Conservatory. We had a family friend who was one of the foremost composers in Turkey at the time, although he was not really well-known outside the country -- Ilhan Baran. He would come three or four nights a week for dinner at our house, and would give me assignments to write. I would write them, and it ended up being that I would write a little piece for the cello almost every day of the week. I couldn’t go out and play until I had finished that.

MOORE: How old were you at the time?

INCE: I was eleven. As I continued writing, piano began to be important, and so I began to play the piano as well. Four or five years later, it became way too much to have to practice cello, practice piano, write, do harmony and solfege exercises, so at age sixteen or seventeen, while I was studying with another composer, Muammer Sun, he moved to Izmir, and I thought that it would be a good idea to go to Izmir with him. When I did that, I stopped studying cello. It was a move that allowed me to find myself, to realize what it was that I really wanted to do, what my passion was. So I was in Izmir for three years. This was in the late seventies to around 1980. Turkey in general was a closed country until 1980 -- the most modern things that we were hearing were Shostakovich symphonies, Orff’s Carmina Burana -- things like that -- we thought that that was modern music. There was also a nationalist movement in music that went on much longer than in places like Eastern Europe. There was a group called the Turkish Five, including Ahmet Adnan Saygun, who joined Bartok when he came to Turkey to record folk music. The nationalist movement was still dominant, and ultimately I think that they did more damage than good, which is a controversial statement in Turkey. And so you were expected to use Turkish folk elements. I was doing that, but half-heartedly. I was hearing different things, and after I had been in Izmir for a couple of years I decided that it would be really good to go to the U.S., which was a part of me anyway, and was a big melting pot, a place to clear my mind and make a new beginning, get rid of the baggage of nothing but Mozart and Beethoven and all that stuff. I went to Oberlin, which somehow was the only place that my parents knew about. At that time it was still coming out of the mentality of the sixties, in the middle of cornfields, in the middle of nowhere, but with a very intellectual atmosphere. I would get up every morning, before breakfast, and compose for two hours, because I felt that breakfast would take the blood away from my brain, and went wild! I started writing more abstract music, experimenting, doing Elliott-Carteresque things, assigning different characters to different instruments... and during all this one thing that became obvious was my love for contrast. At first, extreme contrasts, coexisting -- when you are feeling one thing, you are able to feel at the same time the very opposite. The differences between Turkey and the United States were much more marked at that time -- they are much less so now. The biculturalness, the bilingualness that I have came out in the music with this affinity for extreme contrasts. Oberlin was a very good place, and the faculty members were not out in the world -- they were more isolated, doing abstract things. It was a great place to be intellectual. In addition to the contrasts, I began to create lines with a twisted modality that is kind of playful but with something weird about it. Then I went to Eastman, and when I got to Eastman, it was wow! A totally different world, totally professional -- New Romanticism was going on. After two years of experimenting, I started working with some minimalist techniques in the background, in the accompaniment, and the contrasts are still there, but start to be smoothed out. The modal lines become more concrete and recognizable. My first big breakthrough was my Concerto for Piano and Orchestra [Naxos 8.572554] from 1984, a romantic piano concerto, but with blocks which mix elements of noise with romantic sections, romantic sections with minimalist background, wild melodies on top - really, really bold. I just recorded it -- I played it and it will come out on Naxos. I will have four Naxos CD's in the next two years. I sent it around, and got a call from the New York Philharmonic. Some people there looking at it thought that it was a really good piece. One of them was David Alan Miller, who said, “would you like to do a New York Youth Symphony commission?” I did that next, which was another breakthrough. I got on the map in New York, with reviews in the New Yorker and elsewhere. I continued working with stylistically different blocks, that want each other and long for each other. In these blocks, any can be an upbeat or a downbeat. You are in one, and you are happy there, but still you want to go to the next one. The next milestone was going to Rome, with the Rome prize, which was actually a very difficult experience for me, with a third culture. Where did this third culture come from? I was already dealing with being from two cultures. Living in Rome is great, the food is great, the first four months are great, because you are a sort of tourist -- but living there, it is a museum city. At the same time, I started to go to Turkey a lot, and when I would go to Turkey, go to the archeological sites, and when I was in Istanbul, go to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque... the effect of all this, of Rome, of looking out at the rooftops, with all these incredible domes, these incredible structures of Christianity, and going to Istanbul, and seeing these incredible structures of Christianity and Islam -- it was slowly doing something in me. The result was that in 1992 I wrote a piece called Domes [Naxos 8.557588] for orchestra. I was searching for something higher, above -- it has these descending lines, that go up and descend again, searching. With this piece a very important spiritual side of me started to be expressed. With that spiritual side I wrote another piece called Arches for chamber ensembles. At the same time these pieces may have contrasting sections within that are extrovert, in-your-face, that recall my earlier works, sections that continue to exist, but alongside the spiritual side. With all of this, I wrote my Symphony No. 2 ("Fall of Constantinople") [Naxos 8.572554], which was commissioned by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony, who asked for a work with some kind of Turkish subject. I wanted it to be something international as well, so I thought of the fall of Constantinople, which is weird, since it is something that happened five hundred years ago. What it represented to me was what I am, and what Turkey is -- a meeting of the east and the west, and the contrast of the two. In Istanbul you have all these different ethnic groups -- Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Turks -- you name it. In that work for the first time I used some “Turkish effects” that I wrote. I don’t use anything concrete, like a Turkish tune. What I looked into extensively was the Byzantine side of the story, and Byzantine music. In listening to Byzantine music I realized that Ottoman court music was an exact continuation of Byzantine music, something I had not known until then. It was amazing for me. The next thing I wrote was the Symphony No. 3 ("Siege of Vienna") [Naxos 557588]. For the previous symphony, the Turks were victorious, but here it was the West, since the Turks were unable to take Vienna. That offered other musical opportunities. After that I started to incorporate in my works this spiritual side, and an extrovert, percussive side, but I also started to use voices without text as instruments, as well as alternative instruments. I started by using electric guitar and bass guitar, and then went on to use ethnic Turkish instruments in ensembles and in orchestras as well. I use them for what they can do. Looking back, an important work is the Concerto for Orchestra, Turkish Instruments, and Voices [Naxos 572554], which I wrote in 2002. I use the zurna -- double-reed instruments, but so loud that you can’t even hear a bass drum when they are playing. I also used kemancheh, and the ney -- very difficult to play, but beautiful. Two years ago I wrote a piece called Dreamlines, for the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Chamber of Architects in which I am really thinking about Ottoman court music. Another one is Strange Stone [Naxos 9.70011], which was written for Relache in Philadelphia. The latest that is along these lines is a piano quartet called Far Variations, which is being premiered the 31st of this month [March 2010]. There’s a recent piece which is close to the genre of ambient music called Music for a Lost Earth [Naxos 9.70141]. And I am working on an opera right now called Judgment of Midas, also bringing together the elements of East and West. The story is that of the contest between Pan and Apollo. Apollo does high music, the gods’ music; Pan does street music, popular music. Which is better? That is the question of the opera. But of course there is no right answer to that question. I use Turkish instruments, and it is framed by a modern element -- two American tourists go to Turkey -- the woman is a pop diva, and the man is a formalist composer. They hear about an intact mosaic where the Lydian ruins are, and they want to see it, because it depicts this musical contest. They are there, and all of a sudden the girl finds herself in the middle of the contest. It turns out that the tour guide is Midas! The musical contest gives me the opportunity to play with the contrasts between the two kinds of music. Midas likes Pan’s music, but declared by the mountain god Tmolus the music of the gods is really the winner, Midas has a fit, Apollo gets mad and gives him donkey ears. At first he is very embarrassed, but it is an amazing experience with these bigger ears because he is hearing like he has never heard before. He can hear, and we can hear, the electricity in the air, the turning of the earth. At the end, there is no right answer – it is not what you listen to, but how you listen to it. That’s for 2012-2013. The Australians have a big project for the commemoration of the war of Gallipoli, with various composers writing different portions. I will be writing a part of that.

MOORE: Since you mentioned cultural differences, perhaps you could say a little about Turkish culture, and how it differs from American culture.

INCE: It’s not just the culture, but the feel of the country. Turkey is like the old "Wild, Wild, West." It’s kind of wild; it’s tense. I don’t think people are ultimately all that different. Turkey is much more into family and family ties. It’s more chaotic there -- you have a greater contrast in people’s existences, since the distribution of wealth is different. In the urban areas people are Muslims in the same way that Italian are Catholics. It’s a very modern, urban kind of life. If you go to the villages life is much more conservative -- people marry much earlier, they look different, they dress in more traditional clothing. Five times a day you will hear the call to prayer. In the old days, in the United States, you probably heard church bells, which you don’t hear anymore. But there you do hear the call to prayer. It’s a life that’s on the edge, people have less security, people live more for today -- traffic is much more chaotic. There is indigenous music throughout the country. You have the Black Sea, the Balkan, East, which becomes Caucasian, the Southeast, the Aegean, Central Anatolia -- the food from all these places is different. It’s an earthquake zone, so the topography is wild, with mountains and hills. And in the old days, the contrasts were much greater. I was born in America, in Montana, but I went to Turkey when I was seven. When I returned to the USA, when I was 20, I went directly to Los Angeles, and at that time, the differences were so big.

MOORE: Where was your father from?

INCE: He grew up in Ankara, the capital, which is organized. Istanbul is wild, wild, wild -- like New York, with more wild. I go there, and half of my time is spent figuring when I can go to avoid the traffic. Because what happened to the Ottoman Empire, and how it ended, there was a big denial of the cultures of the East. I grew up with this, and of course it was very artificial. It wasn’t right. Even today there is a type of music in Turkey called arabesk, which is influenced by Arabic music, and all the intellectuals put it down. Five million people love this stuff, and there are some incredible effects in it. There is a lot of dogmatic thinking in Turkey: this is one of the biggest differences. “It has to be this way, it has to be that way. You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” It’s changing a lot, but I grew up with that big time when I was in Turkey. In the U.S., you can listen to what you want to, do what you want to do, become a member of the Communist Party -- whatever. In Turkey, there are sides, and very strong sides. All the feelings are very strong. I can’t say of any music that it is bad -- there may be two or three measures that are incredible, but this sort of categorization does not only belong to culture in Turkey, but can be found in everything -- politics, religion -- with the division between secular and more religious people. Life in America is more unified, more peaceful, more comfortable. I was talking with a friend recently about the differences between Turkey and Greece. In some ways they are very similar, but Greece is very quiet, doesn’t have much population, whereas Turkey has this amazing chaotic energy. You can realize the wildest ideas in Turkey, but the simplest things are very difficult to do. For instance, Istanbul Technical University commissioned me to write a piece for their 225th anniversary. I was talking to the president of the university about musical education in Turkey, and said, yes, there is graduate education in music in Turkey, but only on paper, nothing of real quality. And she said, “well, what would have to be done?” And I explained. And a month later she came to me and said “Would you like to do this?” “What do you mean?” “Establish a school.” “Six years from now?” “No, next year.” My American friends said it’s crazy, it’s impossible, you can’t do it. But she said, no, if we wait five years, we will simply wait five years, and do it then. And that’s how everything is done. And we did it. It was successful, we have huge private donations... you can’t do something like that in the United States. And in Turkey you can have a soccer team commissioning a symphony. That doesn’t happen here in the U.S.A.. On the other hand, to pay your overdue telephone bill -- that’s very difficult.

MOORE: Is there a particular style of Turkish folk music that particularly appeals to you?

INCE: No, it’s really the essence of them all. For instance, three years ago the Netherlands Wind Ensemble came to Turkey with the Queen for a state visit, and I had worked with them before. They asked for an arrangement of a Turkish folk tune. I found a website with tens of thousands of folk songs from all the parts of Turkey, and I thought that most creative ones came from central Anatolia, but I also liked the music from the Black Sea, and the Balkans, and what the Gypsies (who are called Romans in Turkey) do. The slow dance from the Aegean, in 9/4... I like them all. I arranged something that was more Balkan, actually. I love all of that, plus the court music, which in Turkey is simply called classical music, with a history of composers since the 17th and 18th Centuries. One of the important ones is Dede Effendi [Hammamizade ─░smail Dede Efendi (1778-1846)]. I have been listening to a lot of his music, because there may be a project where we will play a piece of his for a traditional group, I will write a piece for orchestra and the traditional group, and we will go back and forth.

MOORE: It sounds like from what you are describing that the wealth of musical possibilities would be far larger in Turkey than in the United States.

INCE: I don’t know... What is very rich in the United States is current popular music, and you also have folk traditions, and jazz. Turkey and its mixtures, and the United States, with its mixtures -- there are some similarities there. Turkey is now becoming very popular with Americans -- I don’t know whether that has to do with the similarities.

MOORE: A question about style: you studied at Oberlin, and then at Eastman. Perhaps you were in a good place as someone from where the environment was one of conservative nationalism to go to someplace where the language was that of the New Romanticism.

INCE: Yes, perhaps in a way. What was going on in Turkey was nowhere close to New Romanticism.

MOORE: But also nowhere close to total serialism.

INCE: I doodled with all of that at Oberlin, experimenting, going really wild. Oberlin was a great place to go, and after that Eastman was a very good place to go. And going to Rome brought me closer to Turkey. The places that I have been worked very well for my development.

MOORE: You have also been fortunate to have been able to write frequently for large ensembles, in contrast to many contemporary composers whose work is usually heard with chamber ensembles.

INCE: Absolutely. I am at home being an orchestral composer, a chamber or large ensemble composer. I am pleased to have had these opportunities.