RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Interview with Seda Röder

img  Tobias Fischer

Tell me about the first time a piece of 20th century New Music really blew you away.
“Black Angels” by George Crumb really did blow me away! I heard this piece for the first time in a live-performance in Salzburg almost ten years ago, and was mesmerized by its strangeness and beauty!

Why, then, has contemporary composition remained so impenetrable to many listeners?
This is a very difficult question. Before I start answering it, I would like to emphasize that there is a lot of contemporary music being enjoyed without any problems by larger audiences. Music by Pärt, Britten, Messiaen, Ligeti, Ades, or the American minimalists, just to name a few.
I believe there are two important components to consider here. Firstly, the music itself and the audience’s reaction to it, and secondly our general attitude as performers and composers of new music. The music of a new era requires new listening habits, especially when everything sounds so different from anything we have heard before: a substantial part of New Music is extremely dissonant, makes use of noise a great deal, and there are no recurring patterns - or, even if there are, they are very difficult to identify. This can be frustrating, sometimes even for us professional musicians. It is okay, if people cannot warm to this kind of music immediately. And here comes the second important point: as composers and performers, we need to help our audiences acquire these new listening habits, and share with them what we think makes this music worth composing, listening and playing.

How do you do that?
My approach is to go out there and talk to the audience; let them ask me questions, let them take part in my fascination with the music I believe in. There is no reason why someone who is open-minded about this music shouldn’t be able to understand and enjoy it.

Relatively speaking, how do you see the importance of going out there and performing the material and speaking and educating about it in projects like Blackbox?
I want to share the music that moves me with the people, and want to let them know why I think something is important to me. Most of my concerts are in venues that are not specializing in contemporary music, and my audience knows that even if they know nothing about contemporary music they can still attend a performance and have a fulfilling experience. I designed Blackbox in order to extend this dialogue with my audiences beyond the typical concert experience. In many cases I introduce new pieces in a short podcast so audiences can acquaint themselves with the most important and interesting aspects of the compositions before coming to a concert. This way, the experience with the new piece during the concert is more of a recognition of something familiar than an overwhelming first encounter.

What can listeners gain from this music, rather than from rock or hip-hop, if they are prepared to go beyond that first overwhelming encounter?
I don’t think that there is any inherent difference between classical music, contemporary repertories or rock, pop and hip-hop in this respect. In the end what counts is how you listen to the music, not so much what it is you're listening to. I think that one can gain equally from both. What is important is to come to the music with an intense engagement and an open mind. Then every music has the potential to transform your perception of the world around you. I think that a really successful performance takes me to someplace new, and the audience feels that and goes with me. A successful performance will change the way how I see things and hopefully this feeling will be contagious.

Listening to Istanbul is exactly one of these projects designed to build a personal rapport with your audience. How did it come about?
In 2008, I met Tolga Yayalar, a Turkish composer, at Harvard. After a concert performance of Bert van Herck’s Méandres, he approached  me and said that he would like to compose a piece for me. After the premiere of „In the temporal gardens“ at Harvard, I realized that virtually none of the exciting contemporary music from Istanbul’s younger generation finds its way to audiences outside of Turkey. And so, I began to explore the rich musical world of this city, first on my own, but then with an idea to share what I found with the rest of the world in the form of a CD recording and a series of concerts.

What interested you about Istanbul in particular?
When you travel to Istanbul, one of the first things you will notice are the busy character and overabundance of sounds, noises, and music. The entire city is basically overflowing with sonic stimuli; it really provides a lot of food for imagination to those who are fascinated by sounds and music. It is probably no coincidence then, that poets and novelists, when describing Istanbul, often make reference to the fascinating soundscape of this city. There is, for instance, a very famous poem by Orhan Veli, “I am listening to Istanbul”, which is inspired by the myriad of sounds that he heard emanating from the city on the Bosphorus. And maybe because of this vivid soundscape you find musicians and composers almost everywhere you turn! There is an array of fantastic music schools and universities in Istanbul where you will meet performers and composers who come from virtually all regions of Turkey and whose music is just as vibrant, diverse and exciting as the city itself!

Is listening to the city in a way also listening to yourself, your own past and the way you've been shaped by your influences?
Absolutely! The working process of Listening to Istanbul was full of associations to my past. While I was studying the new scores, I would often catch myself thinking about my old friends, or the books I read on the ferry while crossing the Bosphorus on my way to the conservatory. As in every music program in the world, in Istanbul the primary focus of music studies was also on learning the repertories of the great masters from cities like Salzburg, Munich, Vienna and others. Later, I was lucky enough to go to these cities, study and live there to absorb the great culture of Central Europe. From this point of view, Listening to Istanbul was an important turning point in my life, for it has revitalized my awareness for my own cultural heritage. Not only did the project bring me back to my former conservatory where I gave workshops for pianists and composers, I was also very fortunate to win the Turkish composer Özkan Manav as a collaborator for the album. Many years ago when I started my musical education at the Mimar Sinan University, he was one of my professors. For Listening to Istanbul, he composed a piece that makes reference to the great 19th century composer Haci Arif Bey. So, suddenly I was looking at the cultural past of my own country through the music of a contemporary composer who taught me how to read music when I was a little child.

Was there a sense of homecoming?
Yes, every single time. Not only because my family still lives there but also because I can then reunite with old friends, and enjoy an afternoon tea at the Bosphorus or take a walk in the crowded streets of Istanbul. It is beautiful and feels liberating.

What was the process of cultural acclimation like, when you moved from Turkey to Austria and from there to Germany and, finally, the USA?
There wasn’t a big acclimation for me. The only big change was a very positive one: finally I didn’t have to waste any more time in traffic jams which are a big problem in Istanbul. For someone who has lived in a mega city for years this was a huge convenience. No more stress! Everything was on time! In Salzburg, for instance, I could actually walk everywhere within twenty minutes. Seriously, it was great to have enough time to be exposed to many different things very intensively. I could spend my time on things I was interested in, like history, performance practice, great concerts … with people who were absolute experts in their fields.

In which way, would you say, does your Turkish background shine through when performing a piece by Mozart or Berg or, as on your current one, a piece by Zeynep Gedizlioglu?
Here is a very Turkish thing: I think I am a very emotional person. I try to be very logical when making decisions, but in the end I tend to listen to what my heart says.  I guess it is almost impossible to overhear this tendency in my performances of Mozart or other composers, especially Berg. This doesn’t change when I am looking for a new piece to add to my repertory. In the end, I have to be moved. I think, another “Turkish” quality might be the well-developed sense for irregular rhythms and accents. This was a particularly important aspect for Zeynep Gedizlioglu’s piece „Along the Wall“.

How did these cultural impressions change your interpretations – as for example, on your disc of Mozart.Brahms.Berg?
When I was at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, I was still very young, but I tried to get as much exposure as possible to things that went beyond the mere limits of the standard repertory. I studied early music on period instruments and choral conducting - I actually learned the Brahms Klavierstücke op. 118 on a 19th century Bösendorfer. Then I moved to Munich, and worked very intensively with Gerhard Oppitz. Our discussions about music would last for hours! In Munich I was primarily focusing on piano repertories after 1890, while also visiting Bruno Weill’s conducting class. After a year of intense engagement with Brahms and Wagner, the fascination with Berg’s music followed naturally. And finally, when I got an invitation from Harvard University, the environment was an entirely different one than that of a school of music. At Harvard I taught music history, covering topics from Gregorian Chant to New Music, and was surrounded by excellent musicologists and musicians such as Robert Levin, Christoph Wolff and Lewis Lockwood. I was very lucky to have had a chance to meet with these people before having recorded my first CD, because in all these years I learned that artistic freedom and independence are only possible through an intensive intellectual engagement with a piece of music and its surroundings. Only with truly cultivated ears and minds it will be possible to interpret a score beyond a mere realization of the notes on the paper. 

Why precisely is that?
Because through such an engagement one learns the specific sonic ideal of a specific musical era, geography or composer. Comparing and contrasting the different musical vocabularies of different times and places helps you expand your own color palette and create your own sonic ideal which will make your interpretation unique. As performers we are always searching for that “sonic ideal”. This search is also what makes a piece of music personally relevant, because in the end it becomes truly “yours”.

What is the position of contemporary composers or musicians in Istanbul and Turkey like today?
The New Music scene in Turkey is right now mostly centered around Istanbul and is extremely vivid. There is an extraordinary effort by the audience, performers and composers to keep New Music culture alive and to spread it to other cities. The attention by mass media also amplifies these efforts and creates a lot of echo. While I was in the process of looking for composers to work with for this project I became increasingly aware of an emerging contemporary arts culture in Turkey. In the recent years great venues and museums were opened in Istanbul, and these now are contributing a great deal to musical life. Also in the masterclasses I gave, I have met many young and talented composers and performers, who will definitely be shaping the Turkish and the European music scenes a few years down the road. For instance, soon after I arrived in Istanbul, I was invited as a featured guest to the Turkish National TV for a live-interview about the project. It was a great experience to go back to Istanbul and play an all Istanbul program in a sold out concert hall last December. Being part of these developments was a very special experience for me and the public attention we received for the concert shows that contemporary music will be holding an important place in Turkish society in the near future. 

Is there such a thing as an Istanbul sound or school?
What binds these composers together is their multi-cultural background and the geography, of course. All of them have lived or still live in Istanbul, but they also spent a remarkably long time abroad studying and researching. In spite of having similar backgrounds, however, their sounds are fundamentally different from each other. The primary goal of Listening to Istanbul was to show the diversity of unique styles existent in contemporary Turkish music. I don’t think that we can talk about an Istanbul sound here right now, but well-established music institutions in Istanbul such as MIAM, Bilgi University or Mimar Sinan University definitely have different sonic orientations. Listening to Istanbul provides some great examples from all of these different orientations.

Istanbul has often been described as a bridge between Orient and Occident. Do you feel as though this duality is also reflected in the work of these composers?
Definitely. In the works of Erçetin, Tüzün, Yakın and Yayalar we see a more dialectic, even critical discourse that seems to break with oriental traditions on the surface, while taking the primary musical material from traditional sources, i.e. an Anatolian chant melody in Tüzün’s Permanence. In the other pieces the critical discourse leads to an embracement of traditional elements. The most striking piece in these terms is probably Movement 6 by Özkan Manav. In this piece, Manav masterfully fuses Oriental elements with the Occidental, and composes a microtonal melody that makes use of Turkish makams Uşşak, Neva and Hüzzam for a non-microtonal instrument. We had to re-tune some of the higher notes on the keyboard to achieve this effect.

Listening to Istanbul will undoubtedly raise awareness for contemporary Turkish composition. How does one, however, go from a momentary project to a wider penetration of this material into the general canon?
The project’s website, has now been launched and is designed as a platform for Turkish contemporary music that goes beyond the repertories presented on the CD and the concerts. The idea is to provide a website on which interested audiences can explore some of the fabulous music that Turkish composers are creating today. Of course the website will be continuously growing while composers add new music and CDs. Maybe the greatest benefit of the site is the concert calendar we are planning. It will let users find performances of Turkish music in concert venues all over the world and thus invites a wider audience to experience music from my native city Istanbul!

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Dana Tarr

Seda Röder Discography:

Mozart.Brahms.Berg ( 2008
Listening to Istanbul ( 2010

Seda Röder
Listening to Istanbul

Related articles

Interview with Bei Bei He (aka Bei Bei)
People tend to see Chinese ...
15 Questions to Lisa Bielawa
Lisa Bielawa's life does not ...
15 Questions to Los Angeles Electric 8
The Electric 8 see themselves ...
15 Questions to Iiro Rantala / Trio Töykeät
Foremost, Iiro Rantala is a ...
15 Questions to Paul Moravec
Complaining about both the artistic ...
15 Questions to Eva Fampas
Where you're from and where ...

Partner sites