It would seem that Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say does not
shrink from taking on a challenge as the subtitles and the scope of these
two symphonies clearly indicate.
His Symphony no.2 Mesopotamia
seeks to tell the
story of the present day Middle East against the background of its culture
and history. It is divided into ten movements all of them highly
descriptive. Some of the instruments it calls for are unusual to say the
least. In some cases they are rarely if ever heard in a symphonic context
and one was specially created for this very symphony.
Using the bass flute and bass recorder to represent two young
brothers as “narrators” Say paints a huge canvas which these
innocent children will lead us through during which one will be shot dead. A
theremin is used to represent a symbolic angel who watches over Mesopotamia
and is the children’s protector. The composer uses his symphony as a
call to peace. The music is suitably grand in scale and highly colourful.
Having read the brochure which describes what each movement concerns the
listener can easily follow the “story”.
The first movement entitled Two Children in the Plain
the scene with the establishment of a leitmotif in the shape of a Kurdish
folk song. This reappears as a linking theme at various times throughout the
symphony. The two main instruments are often played in unusual ways with
sharp sounds caused by stopping with the tongue. There follows an ominous
build up of tension to indicate “fate”. The movement ends with a
waterphone leading us into the second movement. It is entitled Tigris
, one of the two rivers which Mesopotamia lies between; the other
being the Euphrates which is described in the eighth movement. This movement
is wonderfully descriptive of the flow of water.
The third movement About the Culture of Death
is a powerful
statement about the seemingly endless cycle of wars in the region and the
resultant destruction that trails in their wake. The music is suitably
ominous with the expressive use of the lowest registers of a bank of
trombones. That movement segues into Melodrama
in which the two
children speak of fate and their desire to live, above which the angel
introduces a sad melody. This is followed by Sun
, the giver of life
in which spiralling trumpets and xylophone represent the sun at its zenith.
then takes over with both its romantic and dark
connotations. Say, the recording’s pianist, achieves this using a
method of playing from his cult piano work Black Earth
in which he
places his left hand onto the strings to cause a twanging dullness of sound.
is introduced with the specially created
“instrument” that makes the sound of a dove against which the
two children chat and play until suddenly artillery fire is heard and one of
the brothers is killed. The other, horrified and bewildered, laments with
the ‘dove’ signalling the approach of dawn and the sun, this
time rising to a terrible scene. Euphrates River
, fast flowing in
comparison with the Tigris, is described while the surviving child cries out
with a desire for revenge and in anguish for his murdered brother.
The ninth movement About War
is Say’s denunciation of
war which he calls “the most futile thing within the emptiness of the
cosmos”. Although he asks the rhetorical question as to how war can be
represented in music he pretty well achieves it. This is done through a
dissonance that as he says is shown by different sections of the orchestra
declaring war on each other and in turn on the audience. The final movement
in this unusual symphony is The Ballad of Mesopotamia
several elements from previous movements reappear. The rivers and the moon
are set alongside the Kurdish folksong and a general hope for the future.
This is expressed with a final utterance from the sad and lonely theremin.
The audience responds to its conclusion with well deserved applause and
Fazil Say’s Third Symphony
could be said to have an
even greater scope since this attempts to give some musical expression to
the universe. Again the theremin is used, this time to evoke a feeling of
blackness and void in the symphony’s opening movement Expansion of
. Rather than a piecemeal attempt to describe each planet
Say selects a few elements. The second movement is Venus
but not the
beauty of the feminine representation of Venus as viewed by the astrologer
but the scientific view that the planet which has 800 degrees temperature
once collided with Earth. Out of this Say creates the idea that prior to
that there was life on it but that this was extinguished by a meteor shower
before the collision. That life is represented by bass flute, theremin and
English horn. The waterphone is used to evoke the creatures’ fear. A
bank of trumpets repreesents the meteor shower. We then experience a
Storm in Jupiter
- a storm which scientists believe has already
lasted 300-400 years with winds reaching 8000 kilometres per hour. With the
aid of a wind machine along with percussion and brass this phenomenon is
certainly brought to life.
Giving musical voice to the concept that there is “life out
there”, Say uses his movement Earth-like Planet Gliese 581g
try to express what that life might be like. He calls on what must surely be
the most unusual set of instruments to appear in any music, theremin,
waterphone, daxaphone, log drum, hapi drum, ufo drum, vibratone and sansula.
If any sci-fi film makers are ever looking for a composer they should
certainly put Say on the shortlist. It is easy to see why Carolina Eyck is
considered as one of the world’s leading theremin players as she makes
the instrument sound so life-like. It’s sometimes hard to believe that
we are not hearing a human voice. The sounds of snuffles and grunts made by
some of the other instruments evoke some very strange creatures. The
theremin suggests the highest form of life on this far away planet.
The penultimate movement, Supernova
is “full of sound
and fury”. It signifies the explosion of stars which is the force
behind the creation of the supernova before, Dark Matter
which is evidence of the creation of the universe. In this Say uses major
tones to represent nature, minor for humans and atonality for chaos. A
climax is built up adding notes in a mathematical progression that shows his
grasp of the scientific theories involved.
These two symphonies had their premières within a few months
of each other. They reveal a composer who has achieved cult status in his
native Turkey and who has a growing international reputation. He is
thoughtful and original with some extremely innovative ideas. The Borusan
Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra fully deserves its reputation as the
country’s best. It shows that corporate sponsorship can be beneficial
to the arts having grown out of a chamber orchestra founded by Borusan
Holdings, a leading Turkish industrial group. Celebrating its
anniversary in 2013 it clearly shows itself to be world
class. The impressive list of soloists who have been engaged to play with
them underlines this. Skilfully conducted by Gürer Aykal and with such
brilliant soloists as Carolina Eyck on theremin, Bülent Evcil (bass
flute), Çağatay Akyol (bass recorder), Aykut Köserli
(percussion), the composer himself Fazil Say on piano, these two symphonies
are certainly musical experiences not to be missed.