You are here

East meets West in music – in Toulouse

10 Jul 2018
Michael Ellison (centre) at ESOF in Toulouse

ERC researcher Michael Ellison brought classical Turkish and Western musicians together at a big scientific conference, to show the intersections between two very different musical traditions. Ellison and his musicians played live music in Toulouse on the Place du Capitole, at the Euroscience Open Forum conference. 

For several years, musicologist and composer Michael Ellison has been working to bridge the cultural gap between Turkish and Western music. Under a grant from the European Research Council, he has been organising workshops and rehearsals to combine the two different musical traditions. Here, he describes his work to Diane M. Fresquez of ScienceǀBusiness.

Q: In your East-meets-West workshops, how did the musicians initially react to one another, and to you as a conductor and composer?

One of the things that surprised me when I first arrived in Turkey in 1997 was the amount of political information an average person tended to ascribe based on whether one was “Westward-leaning,” musically speaking – Classical music, jazz or Rock – as opposed to “Eastern leaning,” Ottoman or Turkish folk music. I've had to explain to people a number of times that my interest in Ottoman or makam music doesn’t have anything to do with a political agenda; it simply had to do with the music.

What was really fascinating though, when I began this research, was the realisation that it was the difference between oral and written tradition that was the true barrier between western and makam musicians understanding each other, and the very different sets of values each group of musicians tended to have.  We are still uncovering more layers of these differing aesthetic values. One generalisation being that Western-trained musicians in general seem to be a lot more concerned about execution of precisely written material, whereas makam musicians are not so specialised about execution. They are, rather, always creating, whether it is a path through a makam, or producing their own interpretations of the more skeletal notation one finds in makam music notation.

Q. How do you get around practical problems, such as the fact that Eastern instruments are generally quieter than Western ones, and Western music is generally more dominant globally?

Very true, and in fact the makam instruments would be better matched to gambas and “early music” Western instruments than violin-family instruments and wind instruments.  But the simple answer is we amplify them, which is perfectly easy to do nowadays without sacrificing naturalness.  

The fact that Western music is not only seen as dominant but, on the whole given more prestige, especially in Turkey, is a much more difficult situation to address, because Western structures dominate everything. Two years into this project what I have finally realised was that the Western hegemony, together with mostly unconscious (let's call them) superiority complexes were so strong, that I would have to actively undercut them to get these two different musical styles on a truly equal, intercultural or transcultural footing.  

So my approach now is to say to our Western trained musicians – “Ok, let's see you play like a ney or a kemençe player, including ornamentation, improvisation and all the things you learn in an oral tradition.”  And mutual respect has increased enormously as a result of these challenges, as has, most excitingly, the capacity and range of what my group, the Hezarfen Ensemble together with its makam musician friends, are able to do collectively or as individuals. 

Q. Through the workshops and rehearsals, how are you exploring the culture of the music?

Our ethnographic work is especially about discovering the ways musicians from different backgrounds are thinking, learning, approaching and transmitting music to begın with, and then how these ingrained ways are affected when they interact with each other, and when they have to approach something transcultural.  Usually it is actually seen in reverse – that is, the underlying tendencies and assumptions come clear when faced with something outside a musicians' comfort zone; or when something that is so obvious to a musician from one culture is completely opaque or a great challenge for a musician from another culture.  

Listen to Ellison’s workshops – and his East-West fusion opera.

More pictures from ESOF



Subscribe to read about Europe's next eureka moments!