Violinist Ellen Jewett may be familiar to readers from her Chandos CD, The Horse with the Lavender Eye, an album of works by Stephen Hartke, reviewed by Colin Clarke in 32:6. As an advocate for new music, Jewett has worked with many composers and performed countless premieres, and her new Naxos release, Turkish Works for Solo Violin, continues her commitment to exploring the unfamiliar and the unusual.
For your new Naxos album, you’ve chosen music by three Turkish composers, Ahmet Adnan Saygun, Onur Türkmen, and Mahir Cetiz. One of them, Saygun (1907–1991) is regarded as perhaps the most important Turkish composers of the 20th century. Recordings of his works are becoming more familiar to listeners here in the West, and his name is likely to be familiar to our readers from a number of previous reviews, though your recording of his Violin Partita may be a first. Türkmen (b. 1972), on the other hand, is a new name to add to the magazine’s composer index, and Cetiz (b. 1977), I see, has made one prior appearance on a disc reviewed in issue 41:5 a little over a year ago by contributor Colin Clarke. Türkmen and Cetiz are both likely to be completely unknowns to most readers. So, let me start by asking you how you came to discover these three composers, and how you came to choose the pieces you did for your album.
Falling in love with a Turkish man, I wanted to explore the history and culture in the most personal way I know—by studying and playing its music. Like most performers educated in the American musical scene, I had absolutely no reference point regarding Turkish classical music before coming to Turkey, and Saygun seemed a natural place to start. From amongst the group of composers called the “Turkish Five,” his compositions were especially appealing to me as they include several exciting works for violin and piano, and concertos for violin and viola, as well as four string quartets. I found his music familiar yet intriguing, and was thrilled to find this Partita for Solo Violin. I was immediately attracted to the expressive yet thorny sound world that reminded me not only of Bartók, but also of Berg and Lutosławski, whom I love. I was surprised to find that there was very little performing history of this piece in Turkey, but was also feeling that it was the kind of piece that gets more interesting the more you practice it. So I decided to take on the challenge to “bring it to life” after 50 years.
And yes, this is a premiere recording of the Partita! During the process of studying Saygun’s musical language, I kept reading about the term “makam,” which are traditional Turkish microtonal modes, and I could not conceive of how these specific modes were infused into his music since he notates in Western tonality without the use of microtones. To learn more about this, I was referred to the composer Onur Türkmen, who is highly knowledgeable regarding the “science” and practice of Turkish microtonal music. After performing his string quartet and inviting him as a composition teacher to my festival in Cappadocia, I commissioned him to write a solo piece for me as a kind of “study” piece to learn more about these makams. I commissioned Mahir Cetiz a few years later after hearing a large orchestral work, Our Sons—Gallipoli, which was a collage piece of seven different composers. I often have a hard time making sense of “group” compositions, but Cetiz was selected as the composer to connect all the various sections, and I was very moved and impressed by his powerful narrative voice. So I came upon these three composers in different ways, but working on their music has been a great adventure, and has provided me a kind of doorway into different worlds.
By modern standards, Saygun’s Violin Partita, composed in 1961, is practically ancient history, and in more ways than one. Your self-authored album note mentions Saygun’s use of modal and pentatonic scales and of tribal Turkish folk elements in a manner similar to Bartók’s use of indigenous Hungarian and Romanian material. But you also mention Saygun’s studies with Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, and Saygun’s strong leanings towards Western Classical and Romantic idioms, forms, and traditions. In that context, can you describe Saygun’s Partita for Solo Violin to someone like me who has never heard it before?
Schola Cantorum was a gathering place for a wide range of composers from around the globe, who, under d’Indy’s guidance, shared a curriculum rich in contrapuntal studies, and interpretations of folk, Renaissance, and early music. They also put a stronger emphasis on Germanic traditions than did the Paris Conservatoire. In this Partita, I think the first thing a listener might notice is how substantial, serious, and monumental this work is. The writing is immediately (and to my mind, continually) evocative and rhapsodic, and yet the motivic material seems to unfold inexorably with an underlying logic. It seems that Saygun, like Bach, is not intimidated by the limitations of four strings and four fingers and is able to concentrate his ideas through motivic unity throughout the piece. Violinistically speaking, this is very difficult music, but to my mind it never crosses the border into superficial virtuosity; it maintains a sincerity throughout all four movements. The sound world is dark and dense with chromaticism but also extremely lyrical, and the spirit of dance is never far away. The fast movements are full of joyful, intoxicating irregular dance rhythms called aksak (mixed groups of twos and threes), which are frequently used in Balkan folk music and also employed by Bartók. The opening improvisatory and melancholic prelude sets up the exploration of the musical materials (characteristics of the Phrygian scale), and the third movement is the expressive heart of this work, a rich variation movement with a duration more than 13 minutes long, more like a tone poem that could be performed as a work on its own.
When one thinks of works for solo violin, inevitably the paradigm that comes to mind is Bach’s Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas. In purely technical terms, how does Saygun’s Partita compare? What are some of the same technical devices Saygun relies on? Are there any new ones not found in Bach’s examples? And in learning and practicing the piece, were there moments that made you think of giving up the violin for good?
I will start with your last question, because in addition to being funny I have to confess that indeed I did! I think that when taking on what seems like an impossible task that no one else seems interested to do, you are already at a point of questioning the meanings and motives of your work. For me, this learning process took place during a time of political and economic turmoil in Turkey. I had moved full-time to Turkey in 2011, having taken a teaching job at Ankara University, but was forced to leave in 2015. At the same time, I was finding that funding was stalled for many chamber music projects I was working on, and I found myself with a lot of time on my hands.
Although I was missing the intensity of the previous 25 years of playing chamber music and teaching, I tried to channel that intensity into the study of this work. I could sense that like Bach’s solo works, there was a profound narrative lying inside, but it often felt too hard to crack open, and I would wonder if anyone really cared. But I took solace in the memory of Bach’s solo works having been lost for generations only to become the “bible” for violinists, and found meaning through my intention to open the process up for future violinists to discover this treasure in order to add to their solo repertoire (especially young Turkish performers).
While learning, I tried to take inspiration from my favorite alternative term for Bach’s unaccompanied works as “self-accompanied” works. Like Bach, Saygun manages to create the illusion of a multi-voiced dialogue, both through his use of counterpoint as well as establishing motivic cohesion throughout all the voices/ranges of the violin. Although the character/temperament is 19th/20th century, he does not use harmonic double-stopping common to this period, but, especially in the expressive first and third movements, his writing often incorporates two separate individual lines. Both composers share the disciplined exploration, often improvisatory in feeling of simple motivic material—for instance, three-note chromatic patterns or falling thirds. I hear the most resemblance to the D-Minor Partita, where Bach weaves an entire universe over a four-note descending bass line (a lament bass line) that is the harmonic structure for all the movements, concluding with the Chaconne.
Saygun uses characteristics of the Phrygian mode (a cousin of a common Turkish mode/makam) in its entirety in scalar form and in small cells, as a harmonic skeleton throughout all four movements in this Partita. Although the titles of the fast movements are Scherzo and Finale, these are dance movements belonging to a Partita modeled on Bach’s collection of dances. Although Saygun’s dances are more sinister and ferocious at times, they share a sense of wittiness, and both composers seem to find pleasure by engaging the entirety of the instrument. One of the technical devices most difficult for me can be found in melodic passages built on parallel fourths. This perfectly characterizes the Turkish folk fiddle, a kemenche that is tuned in fourths, but it is something we modern violinists don’t do very often, and Bach did not use in his writing.
When it comes to the Türkmen and Cetiz pieces, figuratively speaking, the ink is barely dry. Türkmen’s Beautiful and Unowned was originally composed in 2013, but revised as recently as 2017, and Cetiz’s Soliloquy dates from 2016. Something you don’t know about me, but that the magazine’s loyal readers do, is that I have a big “NOT WELCOME” mat to discourage all solicitors from the Modernist and musical avant-garde religions from knocking on my door. Unfortunately, it’s not much of a deterrent; they can be quite persistent. Having listened to what Türkmen and Cetiz were trying to sell, I waved them both off with a “not interested” and “don’t bother me again.” So, consider me opinionated and judgmental (that’s my job, after all), and explain to me, if you would, what attracted you to these works, and help me understand how to listen to and appreciate them.
You seem to share the same sentiments as most of the people around me—my mother, many of my students, most of my non-musician friends. But I would disagree that solicitors/practitioners of this Modernist and avant-garde music fit into a category/analogy of religion (especially organized religion). In fact, it could be said that starting with a “NOT WELCOME” mat implies that there should be some arbitrary “cut-off” date for acceptable or “listenable” music that in turn, would render earlier classical music frozen in time. To my mind, a non-evolving religion leads to dogmatic and dangerous fanaticism. Quite honestly, I have no interest to “missionize” or teach anyone how to listen to appreciate this new music. I play it because I experience a voice of a composer that I connect to, and I believe that they have the skills to act as a conduit for an active creative process. It is this active principle that inspires me the most because it connects me to that active and exploratory principle in music from earlier times too. My father (a New Testament scholar) likes to talk about the “hermeneutical arch,” an interpretive tool for literature that has its feet anchored in two different time periods—importantly one foot in the present time. I believe both of these composers are truly innovative, and whether or not I understand the technical aspects and architecture underlying their music, I judge it on the simplest level of whether it gets better through time and repetition. Both of these pieces ripened in my ears and mind over time, and the more I practiced them, the more interesting and complex they became to me. I think that the biggest impediment to understanding new works is the fact that most people only listen one time. I know this is a cliché, but I do believe that time will judge, and my job is to offer as many coherent repetitions of this music as possible in order to give it a chance for continuity.
I see that the recording was made in Cappadocia, and that you have served on the faculty of Ankara University, so you have obviously spent time in Turkey, and familiarized yourself with its people and culture. In your album note, you quote Türkmen’s impressions of the Klasik Keyifler festival and his feelings about his piece, Beautiful and Unowned: “My personal memories about Cappadocia (and the Klasik Keyifler festival) cannot be separate from collective memories inherited in the town’s unique dreamlike atmosphere that exhibits remote layers of time concretely in its shockingly eclectic architecture (both human and nature made) and landscapes. I believe that this is what Beautiful and Unowned is all about.” Can you elaborate on this?
I requested that Türkmen take a theme inspired by the “Land of Beautiful Horses,” which is one of the possible meanings of the word Cappadocia, the region where our festival is located. It’s surrounded by some of the most otherworldly wonders of this world (try looking it up on Google!). A volcanic region situated along the Silk Road that has been occupied from Neolithic times; there are many ruptures in its history, with no clear linear timelines agreed upon by historians, which leaves visitors and residents forced, or perhaps even seduced, into engaging the powers of their imaginations. The landscape is extraordinary, and numerous cultures have built a wide variety of structures by carving into the soft tufa stone, resulting in the eclectic style and dreamlike atmosphere Türkmen was referring to. I hear this concept of eclecticism conveyed through his use of overlapping makams/modes. He uses more than 10 different makams, each with individual microtonal characteristics. In his score, the playing instructions regarding tunings equal the page length of the piece itself! Colors and gestures swirl by in a naturalistic way through his engagement of the natural overtones of the violin. He often also uses extended techniques to “interfere” with the fundamental of the note and extract other properties from its sound spectrum. In these ways, sounds unfold into melodies that seem to pass through more than 10,000 years (unowned and unknown), often chant-like and punctuated by bursts of shimmering energy. I understand that you commissioned Cetiz’s Soliloquy. What were the circumstances of your meeting, and how did the commission come about? Did you make any suggestions to Cetiz as to what you were looking for, other than a piece for solo violin, or did he have free rein to write whatever he wanted?
Through my workshops with young performers and composers in Turkey, everyone kept telling me that I needed to work with Mahir Cetiz. As he was on the faculty at Columbia University, our paths crossed in NY several times, but it was not until I commissioned him that we had a chance to work together. He pretty much had free rein to go in any direction he wanted and we met several times during his work, especially at the early stages trying out different passages and ideas. I believe this collaboration had an influence on his creative process.
Does Soliloquy speak to you about Turkish atmospheres and landscapes in the same way that Türkmen’s Beautiful and Unowned does, or is Cetiz’s piece about something else?
No, not in the sense of any outdoor landscape, but it certainly speaks about psychological ones. In his program notes, Cetiz defines a soliloquy as speaking to oneself, allowing emotions to flow freely in such a way that the psyche is exposed in its most transparent form. His musical ideas alternate between expressing being muted and strangled, and then suddenly bursting out with spontaneous eruptions. In melodic passages, I find Cetiz’s writing to be soulful and expressive (in a Saygun kind of way). The last thing I want is to be is publicly political, and Cetiz does not indicate any specific references to current affairs in his score, but I can’t help but recognize many emotional expressions in Soliloquy that resonate with the anxiety of my/our current experiences (not just living in Turkey). Just because we don’t want to talk publicly about these experiences, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. This bubbling anxiety evaporates though in the coda, where jazzy barriolage passages sweep into an exuberant and virtuosic finale.
If I could change focus now, I’d like to hear from you on the many other activities you’re engaged in and other avenues you’ve explored. I see from your bio that you were a member for 11 years of the award-winning Audubon Quartet, and that you’ve partnered in other chamber music performances with artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Maxim Vengerov, Colin Carr, Johannes Moser, and Idil Biret. Tell me about these surely stimulating artistic relationships and opportunities.
I would never like to consider myself a “new music violinist,” because I have spent most of my time and career playing traditional repertoire, like Beethoven cycles with the Audubon Quartet, as well as most of the standard chamber music repertoire in music festivals and various concerts series. I spent 11 years with the Audubon Quartet and joined its members for the last period of their 37-year career together. Because of their deep knowledge and experience with this repertoire, it was an amazing feeling to “slip into” the sound mechanism of such an ensemble. I also loved that we had many different “musical homes” to go back to, where the audience felt like family. We led a string quartet residency at the Chautauqua Institute every summer, performed regularly in Mount Gretna and Reston, VA, and were in residence at Shenandoah Conservatory. I have also been very fortunate to perform and study with many legendary musicians, and it is certainly an inspiring feeling sitting down next to a performer who performs regularly as a soloist. It’s like running with a well-toned athletic animal. I am in awe of the blend of discipline and charisma that all the musicians you mentioned above exude on stage, and after sharing music-making together, I am grateful to carry away a renewed sense of commitment to this crazy musical life we all lead.
Tell me about your co-founding of Ensemble X with the late Steven Stucky. You worked together at Cornell, where you had the chance to work with a number of other contemporary composers as well. What were your impressions of and experiences with Stucky and other you met there? And what was the mission of Ensemble X?
I feel tremendously lucky to have taken my first teaching job at such a place as Ithaca. I also was fortunate to have arrived at the same time as a number of kindred spirits (pianist Xak Bjerken, cellist Elizabeth Simkin, and clarinetist Richard Faria). After a performance of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, Steven Stucky suggested we start an ensemble together. Our mission was “hands across the gorge,” referring to connecting the performers from Ithaca College across to Cornell; and as the Artistic Director, Steve became both an inspiring mentor as well as a father figure for all of us. Even with his brilliant and eclectic mind, he was always modest and nurturing, and maybe because of the “small town” environment of Ithaca, we had ample time to delve into huge amounts of repertoire. Because of the shared resources of both universities, we had a chance to work with many important composers who were invited for short residencies, such as Leon Kirchner, John Adams, Shulamit Ran, John Harbison, Joan Tower, Stephen Hartke, etc. We also performed a number of premieres of works by Cornell’s graduate students who later went on to have successful careers, such as Marc Mellits and James Matheson. Ensemble X celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, and can count 130 works from over 80 composers that were performed over the years. I continue to have close connections to these wonderful colleagues, and they have each come to Turkey to support us in our development of projects here. We all miss Steve very much.
Additionally, you’ve served as concertmaster of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra, Ankara, and you are the founder and Artistic Director of Klasik Keyifler, a chamber music festival in Cappadocia. Tell me about these activities as well.
Yes, for three years I was one of the concertmasters of Borusan, which is a private orchestra in Istanbul funded by one of the large corporate holdings. I also continue to act as a guest concertmaster in Bilkent, which is Turkey’s oldest and most elite private orchestra, founded alongside Bilkent University. But for the last 10 years, my primary activity has been Klasik Keyifler (KK), a non-profit association that I founded with my husband, who is a professional guide. We organize chamber music concerts and educational projects throughout Turkey, including a music festival located in the Anatolian region of Cappadocia. Rehearsals and workshops take place in an Ottoman medresse restored by Cappadocia University, and concerts take place in caves, caravanserais, public squares and courtyards, private homes and boutique hotels, Byzantine churches and monasteries, museums, and former oil and wine presses. Our aim has been to create an environment both rigorous and non-competitive for the students, and intimate and informative for the audience. Over the years, KK has hosted more than 400 students and 130 teaching/performing musicians from throughout Turkey, U.S., Canada, Europe, and the Middle East. With all of the financial and political instability in the country, the last few years have been challenging, but the sense of community that has grown up and evolved through this 10-year process has been deeply satisfying.
Are you currently playing in an orchestra or established chamber ensemble? And have you thought about branching out into conducting? It seems like the natural next step for so many instrumentalists these days. Then again, I see that you’ve also been heavily involved in academia, serving on the faculties of McGill University, the State University of New York—Stony Brook University, Ithaca College, and, as mentioned earlier, Ankara University. Do you currently teach at a university or conservatory, or privately?
I have never aspired to move into conducting, but I do love leading a conductor-less orchestra. It can be thrilling to perform with a large group whose members are all listening and responding like a chamber music ensemble. It is true that I have always felt at home in academia. I grew up in an academic household and went straight from graduate school to a teaching position. I enjoy the collegial environment (when you are lucky!) and take satisfaction in participating in the development of students over a several-year period. In Turkey, I have found the institutions (orchestras and conservatories/universities) to be overly authoritarian, with prominent structures under central control. As an independent-minded person, I have not been able so far to adapt, but I do keep myself fulfilled by private teaching, coaching, and organizing collaborative projects through KK.
Your commitment to contemporary music is clear from the albums you’ve recorded so far, but going forward, do you have any plans to tackle some of the more established, mainstream works for solo violin. On the evidence of your new Naxos CD, you obviously have the technique, the discipline, and the musical grits to take on the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, Paganini’s Caprices, and Ysaÿe’s six sonatas for starters. What are you thinking of doing next?
Absolutely Bach!! Since my early college years, I have been playing Bach almost every day (days that I practice) and in preparation for this album, I performed the cycle in a three-concert series with one of the Turkish solo works on each concert. For the 300-year commemoration of the Bach solo and secular works in 2020–21, I want to produce a video project with all the solo works, and am also working on a commissioning project for six composers with the same instrumentation as the six Brandenburg Concertos. 2020 is also Beethoven’s 250th birth-year, and Klasik Keyifler is organizing an eight-concert series of the complete piano/string works in several different venues in Turkey. So, I believe that should keep me busy.