The melodic itinerary of Kudsi Erguner

Interviews 30.11.2022

On the occasion of a meeting in Paris, Kudsi Erguner, one of the greatest interpreters of the ney, shares his thoughts on transmission, memory, writing and improvisation in Ottoman art music since its origins.

Kudsi Erguner is a Turkish ney player and scholar, whose family has been playing this ancestral reed flute from father to son since the court of the last Sultan. Musician, composer, and teacher in Rotterdam and Venice, he has collaborated with Peter Brook, Maurice Béjart, Bartabas, Carolyn Carlson, Georges Aperghis, Marc Minkowski and is currently working with Robert Wilson.

The ney is a particular instrument in the history of Ottoman music that symbolizes the soul of the divine. You yourself come from a great lineage of musicians of Sufi tradition. You got your knowledge from your father, Ulvi Erguner. How did you learn Ottoman art music? How is it transmitted? We often speak of oral transmission concerning non-European music...
First of all, I want to emphasize that my father created a school, we can speak of personalization of the tradition, there is an Erguner style.
And no, there is no oral tradition!
The ethnologist wants to see the non-European musical culture as a culture that has no science and is transmitted only orally. But this is not correct. From the 5th to the 11th century, many books were written on the theory of music, often in connection with Greek philosophy. It started with Pythagoras and the mathematical calculation of specific intervals. There is both a mathematical and speculative contribution. We also have scores since the beginning of the 10th-11th century, these scores are written with letters (in Arabic alphabet), ABCDEF.
But our relationship to written music is not the same as in Europe, where great precision is required, especially from the 18th century onwards, so that it can be played by symphony orchestras. Whereas for us, writing is above all a memory aid. We memorize the music and we only consult the score to remember certain passages.

So we knew the Byzantine writing, for 80-90% of the repertoire.
Then Dimitri Cantemir, a Moldavian prince who lived in Istanbul and was welcomed by the sultan at the palace where he was taught music, transcribed more than 350 instrumental works of the 16th and 17th centuries, according to a personal alphabetical system of notation, which is now called the Cantemir script.
Then came Hamparsum Limonciyan, an Armenian theorist and musician from Istanbul who used Armenian neumatic* writing.
Finally, in the 18th century, a new notation was introduced by Giuseppe Donizetti (Gaetano's brother), a band musician in the Italian army who also resided at the court of Sultan Mahmud, where he organized concerts and hosted celebrities such as Franz Liszt.
At first, it didn't work. Until my parents' generation, we used Armenian notation, but after 1940-45, we started writing with staves.

How do you get along with the other musicians?
To put it simply, in our writing, we don't change keys, and therefore pitches. We decide together in which key we are going to play and everyone knows how to transcribe immediately. This is always a problem when I play with Europeans!

Can you explain to us what are maqâms, these models, and what are taqsims, these improvised parts?
In the East, we have this system called maqâm. In this modal system which organizes the intervals between each note and which gives at the same time the feeling related to each mode, there is no pitch whereas in Europe we have fixed the sound in the scale (diatonic tempered).
What is important for us is the relationship with the sounds.
In contemporary music, it's different again. A few years ago I played a piece by John Cage, with a Japanese flute. Cage draws graphs and you are free to travel between the notes. It was the same with Nicolas Frize who wrote for the ney, but only in a graphic way. There was also Georges Aperghis. We are very good at deciphering this kind of graphic score!
Concerning improvisation, there are two kinds: one with a rhythm and the other without. Because there is first of all a memory filled with melodies. Each mode has its own ethos, its own character, and you have to know them well by learning them from memory. There are about 490 maqâms, each with its own intervals
Contemporaries often say that it is a scale, but it is not.

What does it mean to you?
For me, it is a melodic itinerary which has very specific intervals and incorporates a hierarchy in these intervals.
From one maqâm to another, the atmosphere changes. It is the seyir, the itinerary.
In all the learned music, there is a bond with the Ottoman literature; there are forms which follow one another, rhythmic cycles. These forms make a suite, but the masterpiece of a suite can be 14 or 15 pages long! It is not a ditty, it is long, and therefore difficult to memorize.

What then would be the differences between Ottoman and Western music?
There is a difference in the notation itself. The European tempered scale is called diatonic because it has 12 sounds.
With us it is different, the subtlety lost with equal temperament, we kept it in the subtlety of the intervals. We have 7 thirds when you only have 2, for example. So we can play this music with a diatonic keyboard, but it's ugly, we recognize the melody but there is no interval...
I'll tell you a story: in 1932 in Cairo, Egypt, the Arab world met in congress to know how to write music. They decided to divide the diatonic scale by two, and so they created 24 intervals.
It was just as catastrophic
But this was kept in the Arab world, in Egypt, Syria and Iraq and even in North Africa. We, the Turks, have kept the 24 intervals in order to keep this simplification but not in a tempered way.

So what happened after 1932 in Turkey?
My generation thought in terms of maqam, but today's generation has changed that.
A certain Arel(Hüseyin Sadeddin Arel, ed.), from the nationalist and fascist generation of Turkey, who came from Western music, conceived, from 1943, a musical system that is still the most used today. He wanted to elaborate a theory of Ottoman music but it was a terrible simplification.
Socrates - through the voice of Plato, in The Republic - said that if you want to see the transformation of a society you must see the transformation of music. But Atatürk did the opposite: he changed music to change society. To create a progressive society, a society copied from that of the Europeans. Whereas the Europeans followed a progression century by century, we did not have this progression!
So at that time, conservatories were created, young people were sent to Germany, and this generation hated modal music, it was a political war.

A clean slate policy?
I think that any policy that interferes with cultural life is a disaster

How did Ottoman art music live on?
The Ottoman heritage was not national. Turkish music was needed for the Turks, so we made a leap before Islam. The idea of the republic was to recover the pre-Islamic culture and to marry it with Western music. We invited Bartók, Moussorgski and others; we wrote oratorios like the one by Yunus Emre for orchestra. But I think it was the wrong direction.
During this period, modal music was forbidden. So, we received people in our houses - my grandfather, for example, received people every Tuesday - or in the tekke(Sufi establishments, editor's note): 200 to 300 people met on weekends, we passed around, we played music. Others created associations, university choirs. As a high school student, I attended them, that's where I learned to practice.

In this context of revolution and counter-revolution, what happened in Turkey?
Around 1976-77, the first Turkish music conservatory was opened. But I am against this idea: music has no nationality, it must circulate. To whom does Turkish music belong?
We wanted to incorporate polyphony in the heritage of Ottoman music, to make music for orchestra, but it is often very kitsch!
It is said that Ottoman music is monodic but no, it is heterophonic. While playing the same melody, each interpretation is different. Everyone has his own version, it has different variations and ornaments.
The fascists have unified everything, an absolute unison. The singers breathe at the same time, it's cold, I was disgusted. I am a bit of a reactionary (smile)!

You studied in London and Paris, starting with architecture, while pursuing your career as a musician. How did the transition between the two cultures come about?
One day when I was supposed to be in Paris in 1972, I landed at the home of a friend of my father's - my father had friends everywhere, in London, in Paris, who were interested in Mevlevi music and who came to Turkey to meet him. This architect friend, Hervé Baley, and a young filmmaker, Pierre-Marie Goulet, took me in and I was stuck there. I studied architecture and then musicology while playing in concert or for the radio. I met musicians from all walks of life. When I listen to Indian music, Arabic music, Balkan music, it is also my universe. Political borders are much more restricted than culture.

How do you work with artists from different cultures?I have initiated many projects, but not "fusion" projects as we do today. The musics which meet must have proximities between them. For the Taj Mahal record, I played with Indians.
I also collaborated with flamenco musicians because we have common points: from the 7th to the 15th centuries, Andalusia was Muslim. It was an exciting project, linked to the philosopher Ibn Arabi Sufi, who was born in Murcia and came to Konya, in southern Turkey. He died in Damascus in 1240. I found a book of his poems and I wrote the music for the show The East of the Westwhich we performed at the Greek Festival in Barcelona in 1994.
And then I composed a lot: for Peter Brook's Mahabharata by Peter Brook, for Peter Gabriel, but also for Maurice Béjart, Didier Lockwood, Jean-Michel Jarre; I worked with Tony Gatlif, Bartabas(Lever de soleil) or Markus Stockhausen (Gazing Point). Also, with some Turkish artists such as the theater directors Mehmet Ulusoy and Genco Erkal, the pianist Fazil Say.
My contemporaries are often prejudiced, and think that I play traditional music because I play the ney; if I played the piano, they would say that it is contemporary. It is the instrument that creates the listening, we classify too much.
I consider myself as a contemporary who creates projects that evoke tradition.

Currently you teach at CODARTS, the University of Performing Arts in Rotterdam and you have created a Bîrûn ensemble, at the Fondazione CINIin Venice. How is ney taught today? How do you transmit this knowledge?
I teach ney but I don't consider myself a ney teacher: I teach music above all. For example, in Rotterdam, I have a Chinese student who plays the erhu, a one-stringed violin, another who plays the electric guitar, another the oud... I don't teach them the technique of the ney, but the maqam.

Who are these students? And what are they looking for then?
There are many Greeks, Syrians, French, a young Dutch woman who plays the harp.
I'll tell you another story: in the 1970s, I gave a concert in the church of Saint-Merri in Paris. Three days later, a young man came knocking at my door (there was no other way to reach people at that time!) and said: "I play the oboe and I teach at the conservatory, I am the 1st oboist of the Orchestre de Paris; I saw you playing alone without a score for an hour, but we, with my comrades, are not capable of playing without a score! That's what I want to learn. He was looking for a soloist's identity, a soloist's way.
And indeed, many of these young people are in this search of memory. Except for the Greeks who already have this practice: they were told that they were Europeans but in fact they are also Anatolians and they come to me to find their history.
There are young people of all nationalities who are interested in maqam, but among them, very few young Turks. I myself play very little in Turkey.

You give concerts all over the world, you were recognized in 2016, Unesco Artist for Peace and Dialogue between Cultures, which dedicates a career dedicated to keeping alive the musical heritage of your home country, Turkey. Do you think about your own legacy?
There are all these students, my ensembles, theBîrûn Ensemble, theLâmekân Ensemble... That's my legacy!

Interview by Sandrine Maricot Despretz

To be heard on France Culture, in Chrétiens d'Orient, "From Byzantium to Istanbul, with Kudsi Erguner"

*neumatic: A sign of musical notation in plainsong, grouping several notes on a single syllable, especially at the end of a word.