Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall - Istanbul: Dimitrie Cantemir 1673-1723
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Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Istanbul: Dimitrie Cantemir 1673-1723:
“Le Livre de la Science de la Musique” et les traditions musicales Sépharades et Arméniennes
Alia Vox Avsa 9870

Istanbul: Dimitrie Cantemir 1673-1723: "Le Livre de la Science de la Musique" et les traditions musicales Sépharades et Arméniennes is an elaborate presentation, with an 8-language translation of the notes in an illustrated booklet of almost 200 pages, the last 25 serving as catalogue of other Savall productions. The presentation warrants discussion in itself, inasmuch as it seems a case of what Eleni Kallimopolou, in her book “Paradosiaka,” called “the silencing of Turkey.”

In the notes the project is described as aiming “to present the cultivated music of the Ottoman court...in dialogue and alternating with traditional popular music, represented here by... Armenian musicians and … Sephardic communities,” but this Turkish/Ottoman element is conspicuously absent from the cover title and misrepresented in the music.

In fact, the fundamental choice of such a representation could be discussed: is there any evidence of a specific survival of Armenian folk music (duduk and percussion) in Istanbul as such? And while certainly there were Ottoman composers emerging from Armenian, Greek and Jewish families, their music was integrated in the medium of the Ottoman musical life, unless written or performed for specific events and celebrations inside the single communities. In other words, a composition of Ottoman music of the 17th Century by a composer of Greek origin is certainly closer to the style of his contemporaries than that of another Greek composer of a different era: there's nothing identifiable as a “Greek” element as such (while certainly Ottoman music as a whole was based also on Byzantine music, Greek philosophers having had a major influence on early Islamic music theory). An alternation of art and folk pieces would have been more convincing if it included Iranian, Azeri and Anatolian traditional musics, but this would have involved a different confrontation with Islamic-oriented cultures, instead of this artificial cut-out of two “traditions” maybe more palatable to the Western audiences.

The danger of such an approach is seen when performing “Madre de la Gracia” which is not that Sephardic, its main strain being based on the Nihavend tune “Uskudara Giderken,” one of the most resilient melodies in history, most probably composed by Tanburi Kuçuk Artin, curiously a musician of Armenian origins, in the 18th Century. Isaac Levy, whose collections have served as basis for the Sephardic pieces, published his volumes in the Sixties, and since then they have been subject to criticim based on modern ethnomusicological research.

In Savall's notes one can read the phrase “I selected four magnificent makams” which demonstrates a fatal misunderstanding: makam is not a name of a composition, nor of a type of composition, but a “melodically organized mode” on which theoretically infinite compositions and improvisations can be built. You can choose a makam to compose on it or to improvise in it; it has similarities with European tonalities, or Greek modes, inasmuch in traditional performance style the performer was called to demonstrate his ability to modulate from one makam to another and then either returning to the makam of the composition about to be performed (entrance taksim) or connecting with the taksim pieces on different makams (passage taksim).

Worse, the question of oral versus written tradition is swept quickly under the carpet: “it was the only Oriental music to come not from an oral tradition, but from a contemporaneous written source.” Now, isn't it logical to ask WHY it was not written, since there is a multisecular tradition of treatises about music, first in the Arabic and Persian cultures and finally in Ottoman times, where music is discussed but where there is not a repertoire? Is written music as such a better representation that we must sweep away oral transmission as an inherently inferior mode, or is there a question of accepting diverse conceptions of music?

Despite the under-representation in words, and the lack of proper crediting on the cover and in the notes, pieces created on the basis of Ottoman/Turkish surviving oral tradition provide a major share of the music on the CD: of 21 pieces exactly seven, or one third, are improvisations performed by the Turkish musicians invited as guests precisely because they where educated, in part, in an orally transmitted performance mode that allows them to improvise about and around a makam, creating (using the slightly clumsy but neutral Walter Feldman definition) a “performance-generated” music. The Turkish (and I guess Armenian) instrumentalists are, in other words, to be considered both authors and performers of these tunes, but the composer/director duality of European Western Classical music leaves no space for such an acknowledgement, which could weaken the ideological structure (with its very practical products in terms of power, gigs and revenues).

In Cantemir's own words: “...through the beauty of his arrangement he may connect one makam with another, and bring about agreement among conflicting makams, so that he may create melodies which are brand new and entirely his own.” So Cantemir's works are not merely a collection of written melodies, but a description of performance practice that should be considered in full.

All these may well be questions of limited interest to the final listener of the project, and have more or less impact to the lasting value of the record. While competently played and smoothly recorded however, the CD fails to shed further light on a repertoire which has been abundantly explored, and the interpretations keep themselves on a level aimed at the “ancient music” listener, with an often imprecise perception of the subtle differences between Western and Ottoman pitches, and even more generic rhythmic approaches, providing a kind of blandly pleasant but not at all exciting sound. Should I choose to introduce listeners to this repertoire, this CD would not certainly not be the first choice. I'd start with recordings by kemençe master Ihsan Özgen's groups, for example the series on the Californian label Golden Horn: Masterworks of Itri and Meragi, Remembrances of Ottoman Composers and above all Cantemir: Music in Istanbul & Ottoman Europe around 1700, all easier to find outside Turkey than his equally valuable recordings on Istanbul's Kalan label. Taksims of much higher interest can be heard there and on recordings by the Turkish soloists invited to this project.

There's no shortage of Sephardic recordings, and I'd say that Yahudice (Kalan again) by Hadass Pal-Yarden is especially effective in underlining the ramification and the connections of the repertoire over the whole Middle-East, while Gaguik Mouradian's unique approach to kemancha is better appreciated in his solo CD published in France of the Emouvance label.

Murat Salim Tokaç, tanbur soloist on the Savall CD, is the personality connecting them. He is considered by many to be currently the finest and most rigorous exponent of the tanbur tradition in Turkey. His taksim style is heard at his best on his solo CD Dem, published in Turkey and hard to find, but also in The Fountain, a string trio recording of folk and art music pieces on the Italian label Felmay, whose approach is resolutely non-philological in the arrangement while being true to the exploratory spirit of this music.

The 3 CD box Bir Yilin Mirasi (An Heritage of a Thousand Years) is painstakingly precise in its research and brings the characteristic qualities of Turkish/Ottoman music to the forefront. It was published by the Turkish Merkez Bankasi and features the Istanbul State Turkish Music Research and Performance Ensemble under the direction of Tokaç. I believe that this will be officially distributed soon, and will become an important point of reference.

The first CD presents mostly vocal pieces, whose relation to language and poetry might discourage the first time listener. The second CD, devoted to instrumental music, features intensely played examples of pieces from different eras of Ottoman music, not only Cantemir's, that spotlights its historical development and diverse geographical origins from the Balkans to Azerbaijan. The third CD, a selection of Anatolian works, is given the same treatment, underlining the pure beauty of their lines and the connection to the makam system of “art” music. The two minute tanbur taksim and the "Ferahfeza Saz Semaisi" by Tanburi Cemil Bey, also interpreted as a solo tanbur piece, are enough to show what is missing from the Savall recording, not least sound-wise: compare the deeply etched, percussive attack of strings in the former to the diffuse, incorporeal voice of the instruments of the latter.

Listening to these recordings will be more rewarding, provide a deeper understanding of the music involved, and would ultimately be more exciting then to listen to than Savall's comforting, Orientalist approach. - Francesco Martinelli (Ankara, Turkey)

Istanbul and some other relevant recordings are available from cdRoots

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