Beyond the beat: half a century of Turkish experimental music

A new anthology covers half a century of avant-garde experimentalism from Turkey. We cast an eye over these sonic adventures, which are also responses to political events.

Musician Erdem Helvacioglu describes Turkish experimental music as ‘film music without the film’. Courtesy Tunc Aras.
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Mention the words “experimental music”, and some people will turn their nose up. With its emphasis on timbre, rather than rhythm or melody, it’s an unruly and amorphous genre that many consider “difficult”; not the kind of thing one dances to, or whistles in the shower.

"I always say, think of it as film music without the film," says Erdem Helvacioglu, one of the musicians featured on An Anthology of Turkish Experimental Music, 1961-2014, a fascinating new compilation.

“Use that as your starting point and envisage your own images,” he suggests.“Listen to the timbres and think about what kind of emotions they trigger in you.”

Together with Batur Sönmez, another of the sonic adventurers featured on the anthology, Helvacioglu – who works between New York City and Istanbul – spent 18 months sourcing a wide range of Anatolian experimental music for the Brussels, Belgium-based record label, Sub Rosa.

As Turkish experimental recordings from the 1970s and 1980s are extremely thin on the ground, Helvacioglu and Sönmez knew they had to start with works by the hugely-influential composers Bülent Arel and Ilhan Mimaroglu.

Both are now deceased but were father-figures of Turkish experimental music, who, though born in Istanbul, did much of their separate pioneering work at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City in the 1960s.

“So the question”, Helvacioglu says, “was how to move the anthology on from there, because in Turkey experimental music really only took-off in the early 2000s. When Istanbul Technical University founded the country’s first advanced music technology degree course in 1999 it had a big effect, and other universities in Istanbul, Izmir, Malatya, and Sivas started music courses too. It was also around that time that things like samplers, synthesisers and laptops got a lot cheaper.

“Suddenly a lot more people got involved and you had this explosion of new experimental music with different aesthetics and disciplines. Some of it was coming from the conservatories and universities, and some of it was coming from independent musicians into drone or noise or ambient approaches.”

Sub-genres and different ways of working certainly abound on An Anthology of Turkish Experimental Music, 1961-2014. Heard today, Bülent Arel's mutant 1961 tape-loop piece Postlude from Music for a Sacred Service sounds like the stuff of sci-fi B-movies, while Batur Sönmez's Flash Mental Experiment No. 23 processes magnificent noises generated by his collection of analogue synthesisers.

Other artists such as Mors (“he is inspired by the morse alphabet and the sounds produced by walruses”, says the anthology’s sleeve notes) and Sair Sinan Kestelli favour an electro-acoustic approach. Put simply, this involves recording a natural sound source, then processing it in exacting, often utterly transformative ways.

The results can be fascinatingly minimalist, like Mehmet Ozer's Plug-Out: Baliklar II, whose only source materials were a matchstick and some tea falling into a cup, or deeply unsettling, like Kestelli's Earthworks. The latter piece seems to transmute the sounds of highway repair into something ominous and sinister; a sonic nightmare.

Helvacioglu says that on-location recordings have always been important to the Turkish experimental music aesthetic. “There are so many different acoustic spaces to work with,” he says, “and because you can never control the environment, you always have that element of chance.”

There is also a long-established link between Turkish experimental music and politics, which in Helvacioglu’s case, stretches back to the on-location recordings he helped to make at demonstrations associated with the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013.

On the new anthology, though, one of the more arrestingly-titled pieces is I Want to be a Suicide Bomber by SIFIR, (Z Aracagök), who is also a lecturer in continental philosophy at Istanbul's Bilgi University. "I don't think I can talk about it on his behalf", says Helvacioglu with understandable caution, "but basically he defines a philosophical approach and then starts to compose."

Elsewhere, 2013's Democracy Lessons, by the musician, painter and sometime-practitioner of "audio-visual shamanic performances", Asaf Yüksel, includes fragments of dialogue taken from a speech given by Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Helvacioglu, 41, has a masters degree and PhD in sound engineering and electro-acoustic composition from Istanbul Technical University. While there, he studied the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and British experimental composer Jonathan Harvey, among others, but it was while still at high school aged 15 that he first heard and fell in love with the aforementioned Ilhan Mimaroglu's 1964 electronic piece, Bowery Bum (Study After Jean Dubuffet).

“Mimaroglu and Arel were incredibly pioneering composers”, he says. “But they had to live in the US to have their own careers, because at that time Turkey didn’t have any institutions or recording studios anything like the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.

“Starting from the mid-90s, we younger composers were really lucky, because we could record and release our own music at home, more or less. And though Istanbul isn’t Berlin, we could present our music at small clubs.

“I think we were also rebelling against commercial pop, which is particularly huge in Turkey. For the X and Y generations, and for the millennials, the freedom of expression that experimental music brought was very important.”

One thing that hasn’t changed in Turkey since Arel and Mimaroglu’s time is the perception of experimental music as “outsider” music. Further, there is also no real support for the genre from the Turkish government or record industry, and even the country’s universities, which are struggling financially, now tend to favour composers who “put [musical] notes on paper”.

What is infinitely more worrying, though, is the ongoing cultural fallout from the attempted military coup in Turkey in July, which has already seen president Erdogan’s government close down scores of newspapers, TV stations and radio stations.

“These are really delicate times”, says Helvacioglu, who has a recording studio in Istanbul. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen, and some people are closing their Twitter and Facebook accounts because they are a little afraid of self-expression.

“I’m sure the current situation in Turkey will have an effect on its experimental composers and their work. What it will be, though, we don’t [yet] know.”

James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.