The following interview took place in Montreal on the morning of the 25th of November 1998 following two days of short recording sessions for "Remembrances of Ottoman Composers & Improvisations (GHP 011-2)".
Ates Temeltas: What did you hear musically as a child? What has remained with you from your childhood?
Ihsan Özgen: My late father and mother used to play instruments at home. My father was an amateur musician, but he was very talented. He played a variety of instruments such as violin, oud and kanun. He used to play popular folk and classical songs as well as regional material from Southeast, especially from the cities of Adana and Urfa. I was born in Urfa, but we moved to Adana when I was a year old. My father was the Director of title deeds and we had a house with a big garden which he built himself. It was a special place. I heard songs from my father and mother and my older brother was into singing. He was around eight years old. They used to say he has a beautiful voice and he used to sing the same songs sung by Muzeyyan Senar. Singers like Muzeyyan Senar and Perihan Altindag represented those times and my brother used to try to sing like Muzeyyen.
AT: When you were introduced to music, was your interest for it born immediately?
IO: No, but I wanted to play. They got a kanun ( a zither like musical instrument with seventy-two strings) for me with a pick specially made for a child. I was trying to play but I also liked to paint and to draw and was attracted to drawing portraits.
AT: Where did you hear music when you were young?
IO: We used to listen to the radio. In those days, radio had a special place as there was little beyond radios. In Adana in the 1940s, there were 'saz' places which later turned into places like Maxim in Istanbul. Saz had a variety of acts - music fasils, theater and attractions in between. In Adana we used to go to them as a family, it wasn't just for men. Perhaps we no longer have such a special environment. They were held in an open-air theater with a stage and tables to sit at. You could eat and drink coffee, tea or alcohol, or you could simply watch and listen. Everyone came with his or her family, including children and these family places also featured folk singers like Aziz Senses. For me, these 'saz' sessions were very important and the fasil groups, and the sounds of clarinet, cumbush ( a stringed instrument resembling banjo) and violin have remained with me permanently.
Later, when my father was assigned to Kilis, I was drawn to baglama (folk lute). There was a master who built baglamas named Arif Usta. His looks, aesthetics and folk character effected me a lot and one day he brought a saz all rapped inside clothing. My father has ordered it for me but I did not know about it. There was a knock on the door and the baglama arrived! I played baglama until I was in the middle school, teaching myself through trial and error.
AT: Do you still feel the influences of this region?
IO: Of course, definitely, because you cannot really separate classical sound from folkloric sound. This is not easy. To be able to know, to understand makams and sounds, in order to hear them well, one needs to know the folk music of the region he lives in. To be able to hear it, to be able digest it. Today, it is difficult to teach makam Ussak in the conservatory because new generations, affected by western music and unfamiliar with Turkish Folk Music, do not play quartertones. Music is really a local, a family thing, it is not really international. To claim that music is universal is an exaggeration, music is not the universal language.
AT: What happens when a Westerner is effected by this music?
IO: Playing is different than listening. For example, I can understand English or another language but I cannot use these languages in the same way I use my native language to express myself. I am talking about fine details. Of course, in more general ways, such playing is possible. These days, students from Istanbul - the ones who do not know Anatolia or her music - are having a hard time understanding classical music.
AT: What is your view regarding the efforts to separate classical and folk music? There are differentiations, as if musicians from folk genres and classical genres cannot cross over to the other side. Can't we call this music 'traditional' music?
IO: If a musician remains local, this will occur naturally. If a musician stays in one genre and does not have a vision or does not have a desire or opportunities to try to reach out, then this separation will be natural. But, even if we only travel to other places musically in our views, outlook, or intellect, there will be influences from these other genres.
AT: When did you come into contact with Tanburi Cemil Bey's music?
IO: During high school.
AT: A short while ago, we talked about categorizing music. How can we classify Cemil Bey? Classical or folk? Traditional?
IO: Now we need to ask who Cemil Bey is. First of all, he is person who plays and composes Turkish music which frees him from concerns such as being classical or folk. In addition, he travels and plays not only in the Turkish music world, but also beyond that in the worlds of Mediterranean, Thrace and Balkan music. So now he is freed from categorization of nationality but, of course, he has roots and is a Turkish musician, which we should not forget. What does his musical identity include? Turkish music, folk music, nationality and his being from Turkey. He is a musician with all these factors.
AT: Last night we listened to old 78 rpm recordings of Tanburi Cemil Bey. What did you feel?
IO: I felt what I always feel when I listen to him. And, in addition, new things I did not feel before. Every time, I feel new things. We should not create myths about everything, we should think of everything humans do in terms of human capability, but here he is legendary.
AT: In the liner notes of one of our releases, we use the word 'genius' to describe Tanburi Cemil Bey. This is a big word. What do you think of this? Sometimes we need to use terms like to these to differentiate such composers and musicians.
IO: Yes, sometimes it is necessary to use such terms but I am not sure if this will directly describe anything. For me, he is a special individual. The description 'genius' is a bit harsh, it is not fitting. We need a word that is smoother, 'Istisna' or 'mustesna' (exceptional). In the old language there is the word 'faik' which means above everything, superior, someone who goes beyond everything, a person who is faik in his profession both physically and spiritually. There is a word 'evliya' (saint) which is usually associated with the spiritual world. He is not an evliya in a religious sense, but as an artist.
AT: American jazz musician John Coltrane was constantly chasing after new things and experimenting. Wherever he played, he played to his best ability. Even when he was 'practicing', it was a true performance.
IO: Exactly the same. Cemil Bey died when he was 43 years old. He fit a long life into this short duration.
AT: Coltrane died young as well. Music requires a lot physically.
IO: Of course. For example, over the last few days I was involved in really beautiful work, but I feel the physical cost. It tires you physically as well as spiritually but we need to tire. Perhaps we should measure life with what we accomplish and do. If you accomplish a lot in a short period, you have lived more and then it does not matter if you made it to 40 or 80. But, when we live intensely, our body does not handle it well. Cemil Bey did not sleep much. He would leave a musical gathering late at night or early in the morning and then go home to think about what he did, and did not, do musically that night. He could not sleep. He would want to stay alone, to live within himself. When a person meets himself, when he is happy with himself, then he wants to be alone more. If he is going to produce something, he needs to be alone.
AT: Who are the followers of Tanburi Cemil Bey school?
IO: There are many musicians who are directly influenced by him but we can see the influence of Cemil Bey on every [Turkish] musician, regardless of their instrument. For example, Nevres Bey, Yorgo and Mesud Cemil.
AT: They call you the new Cemil Bey.
IO: Everyone has some images that they would like to associate with particular musicians and artists, this is an example of that. For me, I carry the love and admiration for Cemil Bey inside me and this is reflected in my outer appearance. This is really a beautiful thing for me, but I do not know how much I deserve this association. I really prefer and wish for Cemil Bey to remain unique.
AT: What do you think of the role of music today in Turkish society?
IO: Music should not be an item on its own, it needs to be used by society as an object, a thing. Otherwise, it can be thrown away. It needs to fulfill some of the needs of the society. Of course, this is not a material need, but it needs to be used and in fact, there should be a return to this way of thinking about music. People should pay for it. If you want an orange, you buy it. In the same way as an orange feeds us, music should be part of our lives. This means that it exists and it is accepted by the society. When a novel is written or a painting is made, it can be sold. This is beautiful, a painter whose works do not sell is not in a good condition. There is no point in producing and putting it aside all the time...then it becomes nothing more than environmental pollution. I am not a materialistic person, but I think it needs to be this way. Painter Nazim Ziya in his biography writes that a painting should be like furniture. It should give delight to the purchaser and every time the purchaser looks at it, he should benefit from it.
AT: What do you think of music that is fashionable for a short time?
IO: A good novel is permanent where a newspaper or magazine is not, it is similar for music. We should have all of it, music that is permanent and music that is temporary.
AT: How do we promote music? For example, some musicians propose that musicians go to the schools and play for young people.
IO: It is different in different societies and tribes, but music always exists. In the past, there were no concerns about making children love and enjoy music. In time, music changed its nature and is now considered as an art form. It used be to similar to eating, dancing, laughing and living. With the rise of large cities, these things got separated. Now, we say there is dance here, music there, etc. Art comes out, it has many branches and things become more difficult and separate. Paintings, theatre, music, literature…which one should we like? All of it.
Golden Horn Releases with Ihsan Özgen
GHP 008-2 Masterworks of Itri and Meragi
GHP 011-2 Remembrances
of Ottoman Composers