I - Traditional, Acoustic, Folkloric
There was a pale light that fell onto the waving Bosphorus strait, as the sun’s last rays peaked over Istanbul’s historic peninsula and onto the whitewashed marble floor of the shorefront terrace at the Four Seasons. In the uppish air of its elite ambiance, a pop-up stage had been lit, chairs fanned out in the style of an amphitheater, and onto its raised platform walked vocalist and composer Bora Uymaz, trailed by Ertuğrul Erhan on violin, Oray Yay on percussion, Murat Bağdatlı on oud, and finally Şirin Pancaroğlu on harp and ratchet harp, who, as fellow composer to Uymaz, organized the ensemble in their names.
They had come to play new compositions based on the 12th century Anatolian folk poet Yunus Emre for the 49th Istanbul Music Festival. It was a night of mysticism and reverie as Uymaz intoned the words, “I asked the yellow flower”, and the band performed, gently at first, as for a hymn, and then more vigorously. Yay followed the rhythmic lead of Uymaz who sang with a bendir frame drum in his hands, tapping out the careful, intricate measures with an apparent ease, as if the music had simply swirled up through him from the depths of the earth. They explored a variety of riddles, songs, Türkü folklore, humoresques and other forms.
Erhan’s violin grounded the music like the roots of the yellow flower, while elaborating outward from its stems, and buzzing up, even, transforming into the hum of a bee, the flapping of a bird, calling back and forth with the masterful oud work of Bağdatlı. Of all the solos that ensued about the evening’s performance, it was Bağdatlı who warmed up the crowd as they sat and listened during one of the first chilly nights of the season. A cool breeze drifted off the choppy water behind them as they witnessed Bağdatlı play at his deliberate pace, as a craftsman might hold onto the material of his work, balancing on the tightrope of creativity.
Bağdatlı improvised with an equally calculated, and spirited force. By the end of his detailed venture into the womb of the plucked instrument, he had achieved a subtle but no less powerful communication, of aural vision, beatific and harmonious. The adhan called and Uymaz, who was singing praises to Allah, asked that the ensemble hear its ululating cries, as is a traditional practice among musicians in Islamic spaces. But there was a tension about that moment, something inherent in the classist politicization of culture and religion, as it exists within Turkish society.
Pancaroğlu began again, as the sole woman onstage, and a peerless classical artist in Turkey with an impressive range of musicological accomplishments, having, among many other untold achievements, managed to revitalize the medieval Ottoman ceng zither from obsolescent obscurity. Her playing was sweet to the ear, and although her recordings might have been more exquisitely crisper than her sound as engineered for the outdoor concert during Istanbul’s flagship music festival, she did not disappoint, and held a posture and strength of creative poise that rivaled the masculine voice of her chief collaborator, even surpassing the humble prowess of Uymaz with the soft, graceful touch of her virtuosic harp.
II - Modern, Electronic, International
Within the sleek, metallic rush of the Zorlu Performing Arts Center building, housed in an architecturally cutting-edge shopping mall, the electronic music festival Sónar pulsed and boomed, billowing with fog machines and crowds who held up their beer and cigarettes while entertaining the grooves of the multi-room venue. A long, shallow escalator brought guests down slowly into the heady mix of dance music and virtual art, machine-mad and raging, everyone there felt they were modern, contemporary, synonymous with cool, hip, in. The theme of the festival, “Music, Creativity & Technology” could not have been more basic.
But it seemed that most of those who danced and played, drank and reveled in the audiences of Istanbul’s Sónar 2021 only came to move their bodies in front of each other while beating the soles of their feet to the monotonous din of EDM. The artists, however, did come with attempts to provoke thoughtfulness in the midst of the generally superficial social tone and its demands for all-out mindless fun. Opening the largest venue, SonarClub, on the first of the two evenings was Kerala Dust, who struck not a few high chords with their ensemble of two d.j. tables and an electronic guitarist, whose licks and notes accompanied well.
Out in the common hall, where cold drafts of local beer were served with gourmet Italian fare, a simple electronic music setup had a spot under SonarScreen, where the glissandi of Kerem Altaylar sounded off as part of the Algorave Istanbul collective. Their cathartic blends of crescendoing harmonies spilled upward to the eye-opening visual evocation of a waterfall, glistening with rainbow hues, and reverberating with a meditative ambience. It was all a daze of introspective blurs that fed out into the mundane thrust of capitalist commerciality under the distracting, streaming colors of its exuberant and delicious fakery.
The following day, Acid Arab underwhelmed with a much-hyped but humdrum occasion of live drawing by one Raphaelle Macron. Their project, “Climats”, wound through the streets of what appeared to be Beirut, or some such Middle Eastern city, as their forgettable music droned on carefree. It made everyone sit and wonder just how they had come to be so bored in a room with friends of friends they don’t know, watching someone paint away in the corner of the party like a disaffected loner. Although genuine, and even sweet, the effect did not communicate, artistically or musically.
Yet, when the veritable headliner came on next, Christian Löffler, the festival itself was redeemed of its insipid backwash of electronica and tech. Löffler slowed everyone’s heartbeat to that of a waving leaf, as a string quartet played his song, “Pastoral”, and changed the vision of a night out that so many had come to from the shores of the Bosphorus to that sterile mall. And rounding out his set with bold and vicious dance rhythms, Löffler proved to be not only the most dynamic artist of the festival, but also one of the greatest causes to make merry.
But in terms of pure jollification, the Spanish electronic musician Cora Novoa blew off the tops of everyone’s heads who wandered into SonarHall to see her following a relatively mediocre performance with her band, The Artifacts. She projected nerdy historical tracts up on a screen above her while jamming hard on a chorus of tempos that burned and bled across the devastated minds of her eager listeners. I, among them, sat alone, in the dark, smiling.
Gözde Kaya is an ethnomusicologist and journalist based in Edirne, Turkey