"I'm from East Turkey, from Elaziğ, in the Far East. I was born in Ankara in 1954, but we moved to Elaziğ when I was still a little child. When I was five I started on the violin, and for almost one year I played it by myself. The violin was bigger than me, in fact even the bow was longer than me, it looked as if I were holding a contrabass! There was a teacher in town, not a violin player but an opera singer, so she gave me the first hints about how to read music, singing the notes while I searched the corresponding frequencies on my instrument, finding the right spot on the fretboard. It was quite long (laughs) but like a game for a young boy.
Playing violin was interesting for me because I got the first feelings about strings and wood, and I had to learn long notes. Long notes make you freer since there's no limit to them. On the violin, back then, it was the first time I thought about this. After that I looked around for Turkish music, because I was living then in a very authentic place and time. I started then with what they call bağlama, but we called this kopuz or irisva or bulgari or balta. It had three strings, a little instrument, very handy for me. It is the origin of the cura, the origin of all different bağlama. Organically, physically it felt nice and I felt close to it.
I played in family fests and there I learned lots of things from local musicians. We played for weddings when I was just a little kid, with friends. They played lots of them, and up to 40 days for a single wedding, but my longest was three days, which is long enough for me (laugh).
This taught me about improvising: you play some piece for two hours and then you have to start to play it over from the beginning, the same song again. You get bored, so naturally, you go and find a way to change the music. You are led to improvise something and it stimulates your creativity. Improvisation also makes you one with the old musicians, and gets you into the music.
I learned my first makams there. I didn't learn western music, I learned makams listening to older musicians, makams which are especially common around there. If you play a makam you can also go into another makam, you can modulate. It depends from your ability, and you learn this by listening.
The band we'd play with would include clarinet, cumbuş—a fretless instrument, kopuz, with special frets tied on the neck. You cannot put enough frets there to adapt to all the makams, so they're moveable according to the makam you're playing in. They used to be made with catgut, but now they're plastic. There was the big drum, of course, davul, sometimes kanun, but the main instruments were clarinet or zurna with davul. Cumbuş is very common in that area, but in fact it's a new instrument, perhaps just over a hundred years old. It came originally from the Suryan people. It used to be made of wood but now is made with a metal body and a wooden neck. It has a smaller body; it is easier to make and has a big volume, but with a metallic tone. I played a Suryan cumbuş, so it was wooden, and my first band experience was with that instrument, the cumbuş.
When I grew up, during school time I turned again to violin, until I was 13 or so. But when I was at the Lycée [high school] I started on guitar, which was very interesting for me; I liked it very much. I was still living in Elaziğ then.
After Lycée, I studied physics at Ankara University Faculty of Science from 1970 to 1973. Then I moved to Germany in 1974 to study physics on a scholarship at the University in Munich. For three years I studied there but then I decided I really wanted to play music, so I left the university to study guitar. I started to study classical guitar by myself; at that time I also played electric guitar in a local band, as I needed to work, having lost my scholarship. So I played electric guitar for two years in Munich, my first experience with electric.
I'd heard Jimi Hendrix already when I was still in Elaziğ, in fact I remember the first radio in my house—I'm old enough for that—and on the radio I heard Hendrix for the first time. He was very impressive, not because he had the fastest fingers or anything: he had a different touch, different feelings, different combination of singing and rhythm, and there were no limits to his music. Still I think about him and ask myself how he played that Stratocaster, I have many Stratocasters now and everyday I ask myself how he played it. It's a very difficult instrument to play, especially the way he played it.
When I started on regular classical guitar I concentrated very much on it, and for those two years in Munich I played 10 or 12 hours daily, without a teacher or school. I worked by myself through Giuliani, Bach transcriptions, Villa-Lobos, Leo Brouwer, all the classical repertoire I could find. I didn't know enough and it was a mistake to do all these things in such a short period of time. It was physically too much. I strained my hand and wrist, got an inflammation, so for a year I could not play at all.
At that time, 1976, I made my first fretless guitar. I built it because to be able to play in the Turkish system, which is completely different, and in order not to have to press, to be able to play without forcing my wrist and hand. If you see my instruments now you will see how low the action is, just the tiniest space between the strings and the fretboard. Even my friends pick one up and ask where the higher E-string is. You can't feel it, it almost touches the fretboard already! (laughs)
In Turkish music a whole tone is divided in nine, in nine equal pieces but we actually only use four of them, the first, fourth, fifth and eighth comma. So it's 57 different notes in two octaves. It also depends on the makam and on the way the makam goes from low to high, or the other way round. The energy of the makam brings the notes with it, so they're if fact mobile. If the makam is descending the notes are lower, and the reverse is also true. It is closer to natural tuning: well-tempered tuning is not 'well', actually. (laughs)
Even the Turkish system is not perfect, although it is better adjusted to the real frequencies produced by a string if you divide it in parts and pluck or bow it. The Turkish system is better because the tones move, unlike the so-called the circle of fifths in Western harmony. With natural tuning it does not close, it's not a circle at all. In Turkish music it looks more like an ellipsis, but it still does close, so it's not perfect. It's in the nature of the harmony: on a well-tempered piano, if you play an improvisation on A-minor and you concentrate on the note B, you'll hear it lower than its tempered value of around 485 Hz. Then, if you play an improvisation on C-major you'll hear this B higher. It is your brain, your imagination: you tune your brain differently. Composition and harmony in the well-tempered system cannot reach that. In fact, harmony has a big problem, and on that point all the musics all over the world have a big problem. We hear what we like, actually!
Makams cannot be played on well-tempered instruments. You can play a few notes of some makam, but a makam is not just a scale, or only a combination of fourths or fifths. You cannot place a makam on a tempered scale: a makam is moving fourths or fifths in a special logic, in a special combination. Only when—and if—you complete this development correctly will you have the makam.
The single notes of the makam are not the makam itself: Çargah is, they say, close to G-major, but if you play the notes from G to G, the makam is not there, the color is not there; you just played some notes, but not a makam. A makam is a color of frequencies, a logic... it's saying something… it has special feelings, it's even connected with different hours of the day, like ragas. Raga also means makam, it's very close.
Tonalities in western music also have particular feelings: C-minor, or C-sharp-minor have different feelings. If you think of the color of the scale, or tonality, you can have a better improvisation. It's not just the single harmony or the single scale. If instead of thinking what goes with C-major you think about the feeling of that tonality, or D-minor or whatever, you can improvise better, and improvisation is the whole point of jazz, actually.
If you have a special tonality which you like, are very comfortable with, be it playing, improvising or composing, you should find a way to analyze why you have that feeling. If you do that you are going to have a better improvisation. In makams it's easier for us because we grew up with them. I know what Huseyni is and can keep playing it without end, or Uşak or Bayati or Segah. If I'm playing in a jazz band, if I can't think of anything, if I'm stuck and have a moment of difficulty, I think about a makam, which makam could be close to the tonality we play in. Then I go into it and it immediately opens a way for me. Makam is a key for us.
I hear this in Jarrett. He plays well-tempered music, but in his music I hear some modal influences, not makams but very close to them. It's something between modes and makam; he's strongly influenced from that area. Western modes like Dorian and so forth, they all have names from Anatolian regions, and so it's easy for me to play them when jazz musicians play modal.
Fretless guitar was an opening for me after regular guitar, there's no limit after you open that door. It was a real turning point in my life.
After I came back to Istanbul from Germany in 1980, I finished my studies at the State Conservatory of Istanbul Technical University and I started to play professionally. I played in many recording sessions of different kinds, on the Turkish musical scene, and I always did improvised things. They didn't give me any music, or rather they gave me the music and I played theirs and then I gave them another possibility. I played something else of my own, improvising it, and let them choose. That would not really be like a taksim (improvised prelude in free time), however—because a true taksim needs space, time and concentration—but something similar.
Even during my childhood I'd make our toys with wood and strings and stuff. In fact my first instrument was two nuts and a string and a hammer for tuning: I'd hit it this way or the other and it would make different sounds.... It comes very easily and naturally to me, it is like integrated in my body. I learned how to make instruments by doing it, so now I have different fretless guitars, jazz, six-strings, electric, classic, double necked… all fretless models. I played some of them on the CD with Gasparyan, you can see a few in the pictures. I made many electric guitars too. I can make one in a half day now if I have the material ready.
I also made bağlama, with six double or single strings; I even made a double-sided bağlama, with two different tunings. It has a thinner body and two set of strings, so if the song changes tonality I turn it around and change instantly from G to C. I made it for rehearsals with Gasparyan. I didn't want to have to carry two bağlamas! (laughs)
In concert I play mostly fretless guitar or kopuz. I have made several of them but the one I play is 120 years old. It was made with a knife or some other simple tool, but it is symmetrical and has perfect proportions. It's better than if it were designed with a computer, and they choose the perfect wood also. The body is made of mulberry, very common in East Turkey; the neck is plum and the soundboard is spruce: all trees which give sweet fruits, or, translating literally the Turkish phrase, "fruits with honey." But what is important besides measurements and choosing the wood is how you cut it. If you don't cut it correctly it will never give a good sound, and this is the secret of wooden instruments.
Blue notes, bending the strings, is another way for musicians to get out of the temperate system, looking for the real thing outside their tuning. I use bending for ornamenting, vibrato and such effects if I play regular electric guitar, but with fretless guitar I can slide. Bending is limited to one or two steps maximum, then you break the string. But my slide is endless, woooosh! I can go anywhere. In the west they have slide guitars, which are also fretless, but their logic is different. But if you know makams you can play them very well with a slide guitar. In fact, I heard an Indian player who plays Indian music on his slide guitar, a Gibson Super 400 with very high action and temperate tuning, but still, he does it perfectly. In slide guitar, however, they have a bottleneck or some such thing. It's like if you break your finger and have it in a cast you can slide with it. But with my fretless guitar every finger is a slide, a bottleneck, and it's free. You can slide your chords, which is very interesting to me.
In orchestral music for example I'd be very interested in having a whole string ensemble slide their chords from A minor to C major, it would give very interesting sounds in between.
Mostly on records I play my classical fretless guitar, as I like that wooden sound better. My main instrument is a broken instrument: the soundboard is broken, the neck is broken. I made over 30 instruments to find a better sound than that one, but did not succeed yet! Still trying though... You can see the broken soundboard in the pictures in the CD booklet. It happened while I was in New York at the airport. I was going for an interview with the magazine Guitar Player, in 1991. I put the guitar by the wall in its soft case, and a huge trunk fell on it from a cart. It was horrible! I fixed it right there in the airport, but the sound changed, the volume now is reduced, but strangely, it has a longer sustain, and I do not know why. I'm still trying to understand that, and even making projects based on the same effect. The neck is new, but the body is mended. And I still play this same guitar, which is an old classical guitar from Spain, just a village guitar, not by any well-known maker. I like its sound very much. If you'd see me playing it now you'd ask, what is this piece of junk he's playing? (laughs)
I met Philip Catherine because there was a jazz concert here in Istanbul, in the early '80s. He was here with Larry Coryell, and I was asked to lend Coryell an amplifier, so of course I brought them mine, and I went backstage. At that time I'd heard a bit about Coryell. He was using a special Ovation guitar with a synthetic body. This was a new thing back then and I was curious. So I figured since I'm letting him use my amplifier it would be OK to ask to have a look at the new Ovation, but his answer was "No, don't touch it!" So I went to my seat and listened to the concert.
During the intermission Catherine came to me to tell me not to worry. We started to talk a bit about guitars, and he was interested in fretless guitars, and in fact had made a fretless Telecaster. He also wanted to know about Turkish ornamental style, which is different from the Indian style (sings the different styles, showing the fingering on his arm). Ornaments in Turkish music go higher than the note, in Indian music they go lower. In fact the characteristic color of Turkish music is in that ornament, in the way you play the notes: you can play a C major scale and say this is Turkish music, because you hear the ornamental style.
So Catherine came to my house and he was very nice, interested. We talked and played together, so he learned a bit and that night he played a little run with Turkish ornamentation during the concert! (big laugh) It was just a little show, but it went over big with the audience. We became friends and kept in contact, and when I did the Fretless project with Birger Gesthuisen's help, between 1990 and 1993 we recorded something together. For that project we also wanted to invite Trilok Gurtu, but he fell ill at the time of recording. So instead, on one piece we had Arto Tunçboyaciyan, who's very good as well. We also played a few concerts together at that time.
Among jazz guitarists I like Pat Martino's playing better, in fact he's my favorite guitar player in jazz. His recordings from the 1970s are wonderful, a very high point in music, he's a real philosopher. Bill Evans and Coltrane are my late-night listening, I like their aesthetic, and I learn how to play with that feeling... In jazz guitar playing today mostly they play scales and harmony. You can hear they have the vocabulary down, but the feeling is not there. But with blues players sometimes a single note is enough, at the right moment and bent at the right point. I think jazz players need to introduce more feeling into their music, there's a problem there. I sometimes find that special feeling more in blues singer and guitar players, whose songs are closer to original African sources.
I played for almost two years in the United States with Robert Johnson, Robert One-man Johnson. (laugh) All around Iowa, Wisconsin, Chicago, down to New Orleans and up and down on the Mississippi. He sings, plays foot piano, cymbal, guitar and harmonica, he's an one-man band, and I finally played fretless with him.
He was teaching English in the American college at Uskudar. We played there, I met him and we became friends. We played a couple of little concerts together, and it worked very well. One day he said that his contract was over; he had come for two years and ended up staying five. He was going back, and he invited me to go with him: I could cover travel expenses by playing and it would be a experience. So I quit everything here and moved to America with him in 1989. We were living in Iowa City, Iowa, a very good place: safe, friendly, you could keep doors open and your car with the keys in, no one would steal it. Buses were free, you could sleep anywhere, it was so clean and green! There was not much of a music scene, but we moved around. With him I played mostly regular Stratocaster, but I was still practicing fretless by myself. Once we were playing in a small bar, full of junkies and drunks, with the TV on, Budweiser ads and all. Everybody kept their backs turned to us, talking loudly, you know. At one point I broke a string by bending it too far. The Stratocasters have deep furrows (scalloped Strat) in the neck and I went deep into it—sometimes in playing the blues you get that energy, and I broke it.
So I took out my fretless. It was the first time I played blues on that in America, but it came naturally to me. And the people in the club turned toward us, startled, asking what was this sound? So I decided to keep playing blues with fretless electric, which people accepted easily because it was similar to slide guitar. I met lots of local musicians, learned a lot about the blues. They say if you cross the Mississippi 12 times you can play one blues, and I crossed it 60 times so I should be able to play five at least. My plan was to move there for good, but when I was about to get the green card my father got sick and I had to return to take care of things here. I could not go back to the USA, but after a while I also realized that with music there's no place, that music is everywhere. Still my biggest single experience was that one, even if I've been a long time in Germany, Europe, all over Turkey, in Israel, in the Middle East.
For the last six years, since 1995, I haven't done any commercial recording sessions, though I still play with Bulent Ortaçgil, his own music, which is as commercial as I can go for now.
I'm also done with movie soundtracks. I did two: one for Sis, Zülfü Livaneli's movie, the other for Eşkıya. Now they keep sending me scenarios but I won't do it, my experience wasn't happy. They actually use the people and the music, but music is alive only if it's free. Maybe if I could do the movie myself, according to my vision, I'd do film music again! It's just business, I'm not the right person for it, there are too many people involved who haven't any idea about film history or Turkish music, or culture, or politics, or anything else for that matter.
I'd even want to move out of Istanbul to a small village in the south of Turkey, on the coast, take my family there, the kids, and have time to throw stones into the sea, to work on my music. I am tired of Istanbul, it's very dirty, expensive, disorganized, and you lose most of your time just moving from one place to another! Big city matters.
I have some other projects singing "Türküler." One of them is about music from Elaziğ, my town.
I'm deeply based in the tradition but with my own sound, feeling and understanding of it. And will keep working with my friend Ismail H. Demircioğlu. I made two CDs with him already, Gulun Kokusu Vardi and Anadolu Beşik. He has his own original music and he wants to make his own solo CD, so I'll help him with that.
I also want to play live with my trio, and make a CD with them, something like a jazz album, we have many good live recordings now: the group is called Telvin. It consists of me on fretless guitar and kopuz; a bass player, İsmail Soyberk, and a drummer, Turgut Alp Bekoğlu. Actually it started in 1995 with another bass player, Ilkin Deniz, then he moved to the States so that band was over. We started again last year with this new bass player, by now we made over ten concerts. It's improvised music, no limit, but keeping an esthetic, and feeling, and harmony.
We have a theme, improvisation, and theme, and we improvise on top of that structure. It's not free jazz, but there is no limit to the improvisation, so a piece can last as much as half an hour. Coltrane was improvising nonstop for one hour in his few last years. I like to improvise, so they have to be patient! (laughs)
The name of the group, Telvin, has a meaning in Sufism, but it's hard to explain. The word means colors, but as applied to human characters. Philosophically it means that you are in a position, but when you move to a different position what you have in the middle is Telvin, it's like a process in life. And music improvisation is like that, you do not know what comes after, you make your own path, it is like Telvin. That's the origin of the name, we keep the structure, the harmony, but we are free to change everything, free like clouds and birds moving in the sky.
It makes me happier to play with Telvin, the problem actually is with the people, the musicians. If they see it just like a job, it doesn't work. I need people who are close, who understand this Telvin idea. Telvin will happen anyway, with this or with other groups, all my music has that same inspiration.
With Telvin I also like to have a theme from the audience and improvise from that. Everybody have some music into themselves, so I ask to the audience to sing a few notes, and I improvise from there. Once someone said "I can't sing but I can play," so I immediately gave him my guitar. However he was so scared that he could barely played a couple of notes, but still we made a piece out of that.
Everybody should do some music, every creature and every material has the music inside, it's own energy; music is actually very easy, there's nothing to it, and everybody should search for his own.
—interview by Francesco Martinelli