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Münir Nurettin BEKEN (b. 1964)
A Turk in America
Memories of a Shoehorn (2008) [16:41]
Pottery Shards [6:36]
Holes in the Japanese Lamp [12:07]
Sonata for Piano [8:59]
A Turk in Seattle [9:43]
Münir Beken (Turkish ud), ISSA Sonus Ensemble
rec. 2011, Kaleidescope Sound Recordings Studio, Union City, USA.
NORTH/SOUTH N/SR1067 [54:06]

Born in Istanbul, Münir Nurettin Beken loved music even as a young child. In an interview published in the magazine Voyage LA (September 26, 2019) he reminiscences about the place music had in his early life: “Istanbul has always been a musical city. In [the] Istanbul of my childhood, one could hear music everywhere. When you took a jitney taxi to visit the relatives, you could hear the songs from the driver’s collection of recordings. We used to go to gazino-s, a type of daytime family restaurant-club, where you could hear a variety of music—such as pop, folk, tango, belly dancing, etc. A good portion of the domestic movies were melodramas with lots of songs performed by the protagonists. In Istanbul, you would constantly hop from one musical-scape to the next one. My journalist uncle—my father’s older brother—maintained a Western-oriented ‘alla franca’ culture in his household. I recall, he would play Jazz and other popular Western genres on his turntable. I remember, for instance, records by Frank Sinatra or Tom Jones. My family was more ‘alla turca’. Nonetheless, if nothing else, the public radio was always on and blasting music of a wide variety of genres, including—thanks to a few cultured DJs—some substantial repertoire from Latin America. […] My family had a record collection of 45s reflecting the contemporary alla turca favorites of the family. Besides, my father had a personal collection of old 78 rpm records and, to my mom’s dismay, he played them for pleasure after work every day. My parents would have conversations about music and my father would tell us anecdotes from various music history books and music journals that he used to read.” “I could learn songs very quickly and sing them with the correct intonation”. Although Beken’s father was himself an accomplished amateur singer, he mistrusted the idea of music as a profession. So, when Münir, at the age of 11, passed the entrance examination for the music conservatory, his father insisted that he should attend regular high school at the same time: “Being enrolled in two schools was not easy. I had to wake up at 6:00 a.m. every weekday to go to the conservatory on the European side of the city, take a bus after a short lunch break to go to the high school, and come back home on the Asian side around 7:00 p.m. I remember vividly, the ferry rides with street vendors, fishermen selling their daily catch in rocking small boats, and, of course, a small slice of helva, or another sweet treat, would be the highlights of my trips every day. I bet, only a few people can say that they had to go across continents to attend school every day” Beken told Voyage LA.

Musically speaking, one might say that Münir has been ‘crossing continents’ ever since. At the age of 15, against initial parental opposition, he insisted on continuing his studies at the Conservatory. He studied the ud with Mutlu Turun, one of the acknowledged masters of the instrument and also undertook private studies in composition with Cemal Reşit Ray (1904-1985), one of the major Turkish pioneers of Western classical music, who had studied with Fauré in Paris. After graduation, Beken soon established himself in the musical world of Istanbul – he worked as a soloist, he was a founding member of a state-run ensemble playing traditional Turkish music, he was writing music for films and teaching at university. However, at the age of 23, after some hesitation, he took up a fellowship to study for a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. Arriving in 1989, he completed a doctorate in ethnomusicology, while also acting as Executive Director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Turkish Music. He also taught at the University of Washington (Seattle), and Siena College in Upstate Washington. In 2007 he joined the Department of Ethnomusicology at the Herb Alpert School of Music, part of the University of California, Los Angeles. For some years he directed the World Music Center there.

In the USA, Beken has given many recitals as a player of the ud, while also furthering his compositional studies with figures such as Stuart Sanders Smith, Lukas Foss, George Crumb, Charles Wuorinen and Steve Reich.

In the 2019 interview cited above Beken says, “I continue my activities as a professor, composer, performer, conductor, and scholar. I have been truly lucky to see what is out there, hear and feel the other rhythms. My compositions have been performed all over the world in such countries as the US, Germany, China, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Albania, Bulgaria, France, Italy, Portugal, Cuba, and Venezuela.”
Much of this is to be heard in Beken’s music, whether in his Concerto for Turkish Ud and Orchestra (which can be heard on North/South 1054-64) or in the works on this present CD. Beken is a true internationalist. Even his training in Western music draws on two rather different traditions – the French tradition out of which his teacher Cemal Reşit Ray grew (in the 2019 interview cited above Beken describes the Concervatory in Istanbul as also being in the “French style”) and what one might, for the sake of brevity, describe as American postmodernism. Add to that his extensive experience both of Turkish music and of other world musics, and the mixture is, to put it mildly, a rich one.

I find the first work on this disc the most interesting, and will discuss it at greatest length. The Turkish element in Beken’s music is at its most overt in Memories of a Shoehorn, on which the composer (with his ud) joins the ISSA Sonus Ensemble (made up of Emily Ondracek-Peterson – violin, Laura Falzon – flute, Erik Peterson – viola, Moran Katz – clarinet, Adrian Daurov – cello and Aysegul Durakoglu – piano). This is the only work on the disc which uses a Turkish instrument. The work is in two movements, marked Moderato and Andante. The title initially sounds somewhat whimsical – rather like one of those light Victorian novels with a title like The Story of a Feather (by Douglas Jerrold, 1844). In fact, like many of Beken’s titles, it refers to a very personal memory – not one that it is vital (though it may be interesting) for a listener to know about. In this case it refers to a habit of the composer’s father . As in most Islamic countries, in Turkey a guest is expected to remove his or her shoes when entering another’s house. Beken’s father often attended musical gatherings in other people’s homes and always carried his shoehorn with him to make taking his shoes on and off easier. Beken’s father died shortly before he completed the writing of this piece in 2008. (The composer now preserves the shoehorn at his home in Santa Monica). In a sense the resulting work, which sounds affectionate and slightly amused, looks back not only to the composer’s father but also to the rich variety of music to be heard in the Istanbul of the composer’s youth. It is a work in which Beken revels in juxtapositions of instruments and idioms. The ud is very much part of the ensemble, the piece being no kind of mini-concerto. The ud sets a two-note rhythmic pattern early on in the first movement, which underlies what happens in the next phase of the movement, when it is developed and presented in what follow, until there is an abrupt pause, after which a brief cadenza for the cello contrasts with the higher pitches which have preceded it. The rest of the ensemble gradually returns in a dance-like section in which the rhythms are decidedly ‘western’ (if, that is, Bartók’s Hungary or Stravinsky’s Russia are Western). Quietly fluttering strings calm things down before flute and clarinet enter to draw the movement to a close, a close in which the ud and the other strings repeat the rhythmic figure of the movement’s opening. In the second movement the rhythms are intriguing in their drive and complexity, with some fascinating sounds and textures. When the pulse drops, Beken constructs a slower contrapuntal passage, followed by a quiet conclusion in which nothing much is concluded. It seems as if things ebb away rather than end – perhaps a memory of the relative casualness of those Turkish musical evenings. Though the work lends itself, I believe, to the kind of interpretation I have just offered in the light of Beken’s title, it is also fair to say that it would remain an interesting and rewarding work even if it were called something like, say, Composition No. 54. That is to say, it is not dependent on any extra-musical programme.

Personal memories also underlie Pottery Shards and Holes in the Japanese Lamp. The booklet essay by Benjamin Court, presumably drawing on information provided by the composer, tells us that “the inspiration for Pottery Shard [sic] arose from a visit the composer made to his brother in a provincial town in Western Asia Minor. While on a walk together, the brothers noticed an unusually colored field and, when they inspected more carefully, realized the field was full of pottery shards covered in painted letters and word fragments appearing to date back to antiquity”. Beken’s work is written for flute (Laura Falzon) and piano (Aysegul Durakoglu). The work, in one relatively short movement, creates a sense of thoughtful wonder and distance (temporal rather than spatial). It is predominantly Western in manner, at times reminding one of the indirect French influence on Beken and, at others, of his awareness of American minimalism, since “the musical materials all emerge from 2 notes – C and D” (Benjamin Court). Laura Falzon’s tone is beautiful and precise and Aysegul Durakoglu fulfils her role admirably. Court finds a sense of fear in the music, but I don’t hear that; the sense of wonder and reflection at the ‘discovery’ of a ‘lost’ world, tinged with a plaintive sense of those whose only surviving mark in the world is through fragments of the pottery they used, seem to me to dominate this well-crafted piece.

Holes in the Japanese Lamp grows from Beken’s memory of a period as a teenager when, as he rehearsed with friends, the violinists would, as a joke, use their bows to poke holes in a Japanese lamp he had. The piece starts simply, in relatively solemn fashion but gradually grows more impish, with lots of asymmetric rhythms. This rather tantalizing piece (which, I feel, just escapes my full comprehension) seems to be based on modes of a quasi-Turkish kind, rather than on purely Western scales. Beken’s writing makes subtle and effective use of the duo of violin (Emily Ondracek-Peterson) and cello (Adrian Daurov) to produce some engaging and distinctive sonorities.

Beken’s Sonata for Piano was composed, according to Benjamin Court’s booklet essay, for the composer’s cousin Blake when she was 9 years old and studying classical piano. Initially, the piece seems to have the kind of simplicity a 9 year-old of ability might be able to handle and understand, but gradually one realizes that the score (which I haven’t seen) contains difficulties and dissonances which disrupt, with some frequency, the dominantly classical idiom. The music seems designed to ‘tease’, as it were, a young performer. In the hands of the accomplished Ms. Durakoglu – who was born in Turkey, undertook postgraduate studies at the Juilliard and is now Professor of Music at Stevens Institute of Technology (New Jersey) it sounds very different - and has a different kind of meaning - from any performance one can imagine a 9 year-old giving. Not for the first time in listening to Beken’s music, words like ‘playful’ and ‘teasing’ come to mind.

The disc closes with its title track – A Turk in Seattle. Scored for violin, flute, clarinet and cello, the piece begins with a rather dissonant ‘fanfare’, perhaps announcing a Turk’s arrival in an alien environment; out of this (mild) dissonance however, there emerges some striking counterpoint between flute and clarinet which is, in turn, succeeded by a brief vaguely ‘Islamic’ sounding vocal passage sung by the instrumentalists. Seattle has a thriving Turkish community and the use of Turkish rhythms throughout much of this piece surely indicates the way in which what might have been an alienating experience for Beken soon became a more welcoming and comfortable one. Again, the structure seems to owe more to the modal traditions of Turkish music (without I think imitating any of them directly) than to the conventional structure of Western scales. A Turk in Seattle closes in beautiful repose.

I have, perhaps, things in my own background that predispose me to enjoy Münir Beken’s music. I have visited Turkey more than once and have a basic, unscholarly, familiarity with Turkish traditional music. Being married to an Iranian, I have visited Iran on a number of occasions. When I read Beken’s account of the plurality of musics to be heard in the Istanbul he grew up in, I was reminded of my first time in Iran, in 1972 (i.e. some years before the Islamic Revolution). I remember the random joy of listening to the driver’s radio when in a Teheran taxi – when one might hear in quick succession (and with no sense that these were strange juxtapositions) Tom Jones singing ‘Delilah’, a current Iranian ‘hit’, sung perhaps by Googoosh, a Bach Chaconne and a piece of Persian classical music played by, say Mohamad Heydari on the santur. But I don’t believe that such experiences are a necessary prerequisite for the enjoyment of Münir Beken’s music. As Benjamin Court puts it in his booklet essay, Beken has created a coherent idiom from his mixed backgrounds and influences, “a truly imaginative musical language” which is both coherent and distinctly personal. That ‘coherence’ should make the music understandable and pleasure-giving for any listener who approaches it with an open mind (and open ears).

The recorded sound is perfectly satisfactory throughout this album, and Benjamin Court’s interesting booklet essay is perceptive and sensitive, though a bit light on hard information, such as the dates of the recorded compositions (which except Memories of A Shoehorn I have not been able to find elsewhere).

Glyn Pursglove

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