The musicians of the Ottoman court in 16th-18th century Turkey were the first Easterners to write their music down. Previously, Western musicians capable of playing something from a score and those who wrote the scores were viewed as magicians, according to Walter Feldman, PhD in Ethnomusicology of the Ottoman Empire from Columbia. Some of these early pieces were brought to life for an overflow crowd of mostly world music fans, but with a few familiar classical-music-lover faces, in the NC Museum of Art's auditorium on the evening of July 9 by the Bezmârâ Ensemble. The group was founded in 1996 by Fikret Karakaya, and is "dedicated to historical performances of Ottoman music based on early manuscripts and using reconstructed period instruments." It came to us fresh from its participation in Yo-Yo Ma's "Silk Road Project" as a part of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
In order to perform this music, a number of the instruments had to be researched and reconstructed because they have fallen completely out of use in contemporary Turkish classical music, and hence out of existence. Karakaya is responsible for a lot of this research, both musical and iconographic, and for the designs from which they were built by skilled Turkish instrument makers. Collaborator Feldman gave good oral commentary throughout the evening, which helped to make up for the total lack of program notes of any kind. Each instrument was described and demonstrated individually prior to performance of the pieces, whose origins in two collections were also explained in a general manner, but this latter did not satisfactorily replace the lack of written names of composers and titles of individual works as well as notes about them.
Karakaya played the çeng, a small 24-string harp, with its resonance chamber on the top and tuning pegs on the bottom that rests on the thigh, which he built himself. He also sang in the two works incorporating texts. Other strings included two sizes of lute-like instruments, the kopuz, smaller than the one familiar to us, with a thin pear-shaped resonance chamber, a part-parchment soundboard, and a long fret-less neck with four double strings (looking but not sounding somewhat like a misshapen banjo), played by Birol Yayla, and the sehrud, played by Osman Kirklikçi, that looked like the familiar one but is about twice the size, though with a shorter neck, and the kanun, a zither-like psaltery, played by Serap Çaglayan, the ensemble's only female. The sole wind instrument, played by Senol Filiz, was the ney, a reed flute held and played like a recorder, and seemingly quite difficult to master. Percussion was supplied by a daire, a thin-frame drum resembling an oversized tambourine with five pairs of proportionally large bronze cymbals, held vertically and tapped by Kemal Caba, and nakkare or kudüm, a pair of small kettle-drum shaped copper drums set at an angle, tuned a fourth apart, and struck with zahme, mallet-like sticks, played by Feldman. The çeng, kopuz, sehrud and kopuz disappeared at the end of the 17th century.
The first half of the program featured six (of about 350) works from the collection by Moldavian Dimitrie Kantemir (1673-1723) dating from around 1700 and including works of his own composition as well as by others along with a very important treatise on Ottoman music. Also a linguist and a historian, he spent 20 years in Istanbul as a hostage of the Ottoman court, and fled around 1711, for reasons of political opinion, to Russia, where he helped found the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1714. The second half was divided into two parts, the first featuring four (of over 600) works, including the two with vocals, from the other major collection by Ali Ufkî (1616?-1675), a.k.a. Wojciech Bobowski, dating from around 1650, and likewise containing some original compositions along with the entire court repertoire of the 1630s. He was a Pole captured by Tatar warriors, brought to the court as a slave, and kept in the palace because he had had musical training and was capable of reading and notating music. He also spoke several Western languages, learned others spoken in the Empire, and became an interpreter. He assumed the new name when he converted to Islam. This signed manuscript, now in the British Museum, is the oldest compilation of scores of all the Eastern musics. After a brief break to switch to modern instruments, the evening concluded with a lengthy piece from the 19th century Mevlevi dervish tradition. The kemânçe, a bowed instrument resembling a tiny viol, was substituted for the çeng; the kopuz was replaced by the tanbur, which has an even thinner resonance chamber and an even longer neck, though with gut frets; an ud, like a modern lute but fretless and with five double strings, substituted for the the sehrud; and the kanun used was a larger model made of different materials. This work was more like a Western piece divided into movements, though without pauses. A brief encore in the same style was given.
The music, which Feldman described as "a kind of chamber music," has its roots in the folk melodies of the region we used to call Asia Minor, especially Anatolia. He indicated that there were many amateur musicians amongst the Ottoman aristocracy who enjoyed performing in the palace. It seemed relatively simple: a melody played on one or another of the string instruments or the ney, or in unison by several of the above, with support from the percussion instruments or in the form of chordal strumming of one or several of the string instruments. There were few true harmonies, nor was there a very wide dynamic range. The pieces seemed generally to be built on a theme and variations structure. Hence, other than the differences amongst the melodies and the rhythms themselves, it tended to seem all of a kind and to offer little variety for this Western reviewer's ears, though one might argue, I suppose, that our string quartet literature, say, would appear likewise to Turkish ears. Tuning is obviously to a different scale than Western music, but nothing was said about that. Without a point of comparison, it is impossible to assess the quality of the performances themselves, but these musicians are professionals, playing for the Turkish state radio or in ensembles, so one assumes an appropriate level of competence that appeared to be there, the ney player being, as noted above, the only one who seemed to have difficulties. It was most certainly an interesting and a positive experience to be exposed to and learn about the music and the musical instruments produced by this culture about which we know so little, even if the printed information provided was so much sketchier than I would have liked. A steady diet would, however, not be especially palatable.