Blog Entry 1:
I begin writing this first blog entry on creased line paper, my body cramped over an unfolded tray table, on the overnighter from NYC to Istanbul. It’s about 5am there now; the sun should just be peeking cautiously up from its gutters as I pass with the rest of the Haverford and Bryn Mawr College Chamber Singers miles over Ireland, en route. We’re expected to arrive at 9:30 AM Turkey time, 2:30 EST. Everyone is exhausted. When we finally arrive at Ankara after another connecting flight, we will have been ‘on the road’ for close to 24 hours.
So, this is a blog, and you’re reading it! But you might like to know why. I’m Andrew Ross, a Junior (as of Spring 2010) at Haverford College, and a member of these so-called Chamber Singers. We’re embarking on a 10-day trip to Turkey over, above, and beyond our spring break, in which we will sing, sightsee, and engage in some good old fashioned cultural diffusion with Turkish university singers.
One of the great virtues in traveling to & interacting with people a in country like Turkey is that we have not one but two cultural hurdles to overcome. The first is of course the general interactional and ideological gap between our taken-for-granted assumptions and those of our hosts.
The second is a musical one. While most people’s musical language does vary consistently from place to place, at least in the Western hemisphere we tend to share a certain musical alphabet. In our music theory courses we are taught to think in terms of 12 tones in an octave and the intervals between them: seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, octaves, and their minor, diminished, and augmented cousins. Chords are defined in terms of “root” notes and various intervals above them, and musical passages are thought of in terms of chord progressions, melody often being secondary.
Turkish music, however, operates on a pretty fundamentally different basis. First of all, an octave is not divided into 12 tones. Instead, musicians are taught to hear semitones between the half steps that divide our twelve simple tones. According to one of our guest lecturers who came to Haverford about a week before our trip, in most Turkish modes (makams) there are approximately 17 tones in an octave. Expert musicians can parse a whole step (of which there are 6 in an octave) into 9 distinct tones, meaning that, theoretically, there are 9*6 or 54 tones available in Turkish music. Furthermore, while Western rhythms are generally in 3/4 or 4/4 time, much of Turkish music operates in 7, 11, or 12. This incredible complexity in rhythm and pitch is systematized in styles called makams, similar to the Western concept of mode.
However, almost as if to make up for the intricacy of makams, Turkish music is generally simple with respect to chord progressions. Most of the melodies and chords in a given piece adhere strictly to a single makam and never leave it. Transposition is rare. Yet key changes of various sorts are almost fundamental to Western classical music, jazz, and even some Western pop music.
So, within this double cultural hurdle to interacting with music and musicians in Turkey, we seem to have another double hurdle inside the musical one. Obviously we don’t come here expecting to become completely music-literate for Turkish styles; but we would like to learn at least a little bit.
Is it a blessing or a curse that our task is so formidable? I hope the former. Sometimes, when you are faced with such a huge mass of confusion and novelty, the pace at which you learn about it is incredibly rapid to begin with. If your mind is empty, then the first few drops wet it dramatically; whereas a great bathtub full of water changes the ocean not a bit. This intense stimulation in the presence of novelty is one of the best things about travel.
Yet, it is also possible that, without understanding the whole of Turkish music and culture, the fragments we obtain so quickly will be of no value, like machine parts without a battery. Indeed we may even misunderstand the knowledge we get and, when we try to put it to use, end up misrepresenting, parodying, or objectifying the people and emotions of Turkey, much like 19th century minstrels.
However, we are sensitive to this possibility, and hopeful that we can reach at least some kind of unity or intersubjectivity with those we interact with. It may be that we will only be united by our desire to learn about each other, and not by any true common knowledge; but we are trying, and that is wonderful and beautiful.
More updates to come.