We sit down with director Serdar Kökçeoğlu in Istanbul to discuss the 2013 Gezi Park protests, how the sounds of the city have inspired his work as a film maker, and how composer İlhan Mimaroglu was inspired by the activism of his wife, Güngör. Kökçeoğlu has recently completed his first full-length feature film, Mimaroğlu. Going beyond a biography of Turkey’s most famous composer, the film explores İlhan and Güngör’s relationship and the cross-pollination between avant-garde music and radical politics.
Plus an Istanbul scene report, a special mix, and an interview with Touch artist Ipek Gorgun.
“You know, there really are many under-appreciated composers. But being under-appreciated doesn’t make someone special! [Laughter] The world is full of them!”
Mimaroğlu’s influence is myriad and far-reaching, even if he isn’t a household name. Some may recognize the name “Mimaroglu” from Keith Fullerton Whitman’s sadly defunct Mimaroglu Music Sales. I first encountered the name Mimaroğlu as the third composer along Cage and Berio on the Electronic Music (1966) compilation. I must have downloaded it from Mutant Sounds or some other naughts-era mp3 blog, and remember first hearing “Agony” on the way to Cage’s “Fontana Mix,” and finding the work very challenging. In fact, I’d encountered Mimaroğlu’s work before in Federico Fellini’s Satyricon. As an electronic composer, he contributed to the pioneering Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and beyond that as a producer of jazz for Atlantic Records, working most notably with Charles Mingus and Freddie Hubbard. At Atlantic he launched the Finnadar imprint, publishing a wide variety of records which speaks to his catholic taste.
Mimaroğlu was a musician, composer, and producer, but also a writer. Even now, he is perhaps best known in Turkey for his music journalism. As a writer and radio programmer, he introduced Turkish audiences to jazz and popular music, and is well remembered for Müzik Tarihi, a series of books on music history first published in 1961. He began contributing regularly to Turkish newspapers again in the 1990s, finding a new generation of fans, including Serdar. Mimaroğlu’s music wasn’t well-known to a popular Turkish audience, who knew him better as a writer and critic with an emphasis on music pedagogy. But in the at the same time that he returned to Turkish newspapers his music was becoming more available, through CD re-issues and through internet file-sharing. Serdar was studying in İzmir at the time, a big fan of Warp records, so he was curious to discover Mimaroğlu, a Turkish composer who had been making electronic music since the 1960s…in New York.
İlhan Mimaroğlu (1926-2012) was the son of a famous late-Ottoman architect who played an important role in the early Turkish republic, so much so that he is depicted on the Turkish lira. In fact, his surname, “Mimaroğlu,” means “son of the Architect,” reinforcing this relation. The son never met the father, however, and while he was expected to pursue architecture he failed the university entrance exam. Somehow the Law faculty was the only school that didn’t require an entrance exam, and so Mimaroğlu graduated with a law degree. But it was always music that he loved, and he was more interested in writing concert reviews and playing records on the radio.
He first came to New York in 1955, when he was sent to study musicology and composition at Columbia University on a Rockefeller Scholarship on his reputation as a critic. He returned to New York in 1959, this time with his wife Güngör. In the early 1960s, Mimaroğlu studied with Vladimir Ussachevsky and Staphan Wolpe, but it was his relationship with Edgard Varèse that may have made the biggest impact on his work. Columbia allowed him the opportunity to work in the studio afterhours, pursuing his own vision. New York would essentially remain Mimaroğlu’s home for the rest of his life. Refusing to travel anywhere that would not permit him to smoke at all times, he found post 9/11 air travel impossible. His only late appearances in Turkey took place via teleconference.
Güngör Mimaroğlu returned to Istanbul following her husband’s death, after over 50 years in New York. Kökçeoğlu happened to meet Güngör, and in speaking with her realized how important a role she played, that in fact we must speak of the Mimaroğlus. Güngör was very interested in politics and current events, an activist who participated in rallies across New York with the likes of Yoko Ono. She was firmly anti-war and anti-imperialist, shaping her husbands politics and political interest. Güngör even supported the Young Lords Party, a Puerto Rican movement inspired by the Black Panthers (Some readers might recognize the movements via chairman Felipe Luciano, one of the members of the original Last Poets) But Güngör also played an important role in organizing Turkish culture and community in New York, and in promoting and communicating the importance of the work done by her husband, who was less inclined to be sociable.
Mimaroğlu arrived in New York just few years after Turkey had joined NATO, when Turkey was looking West, as evidenced by the scholarship that first brought Mimaroğlu to Columbia. Jazz represented a kind of US soft power, and so it was through jazz records that Mimaroğlu was able to make his most direct political expressions. The Republic of Turkey was a new nation, and Mimaroğlu’s position (famous father, Ivy league institution) meant he had access to a different strata of Turkish émigré society in New York, invited to give talks at the Turkish consulate and stay connected to cultural life in Istanbul as well. Güngör’s role in cultivating this Turkish émigré scene in New York in the 1960s and ‘70s is explored in the film, particularly how her activism informed the work Mimaroğlu was making.
Mimaroğlu’s relationship with Atlantic Records was perhaps even more important than his association with Columbia University, as it was Atlantic that gave him the opportunity to make a career and free reign with his Finnador imprint. Atlantic welcomed Mimaroğlu to the team, allowed him his imprint to release music that was not necessarily commercially viable but still very important, everything from the work of classical composers to Jean Dubuffet’s art brut, electronic music from titans like Stockhausen to the early work of Suzanne Ciani, and even records from Herbie Mann and Whirling Dervishes. Atlantic was also run by Turkish émigrés, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, whose father was a friend of Mimaroğlu’s father. The Ertegün brothers had a privileged upbringing in London and Washington, DC as the sons of a Turkish diplomat, but quickly came to sympathize with the struggles of Black Americans. Ahmet Ertegün recalled a moment of intersectional awakening as a teenager, seeing how the figure of “the Muslim Turk” played a similar role in European racial imaginaries. In his memoirs Ahmet emphasizes how he learned more from his Black friends at R&B and jazz concerts than he did in his fancy education. Due to this enthusiasm Ahmet pushed Atlantic records towards those genres, making the small independent label into a major player in the music industry.
The role of jazz as American soft power has well been documented, for instance Louis Armstrong and many other artists’ State Department-funded world tours. (Danielle Fosler-Lussier, Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy) But at home, jazz’s popularity increasingly drew attention to the racism endemic to American society. If one couldn’t hear the politics implicit to swing or be-bop, in the 1960s free jazz made it explicit. Mimaroğlu’s politics come into clearest relief when we consider his contributions to free jazz, often working at a distinct intersection with electroacoustic composition. One of his most explicit political works is Sing Me a Song of Songmy (“A Fantasy for Electromagnetic Tape”), (1970-71) an anti-war statement directly evoking American atrocities in Vietnam, made in collaboration with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. One can hear the influence of Luigi Nono’s anti-war piece A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida (1965-66), which featured vocal contributions from The Living Theatre, the anarcho-pacificist theatre troupe recently in exile from New York. A foundational piece for Nono, it set the template for a politicized mode of composition, utilizing texts, voices, instruments, an dramatic use of tape manipulation.
Mimaroğlu worked at a very interesting nexus between electronic music, musique concrete, and free jazz, space which has often befuddled critics in refusing categorization. In very different ways, this was a space also pursued by Anthony Braxton and Frederic Rzewski, and others collected on the roster of Finnador. Mimaroğlu kept up with Stockhausen, corresponded with Pierre Schaeffer and was in contact with the GRM, but it is Luigi Nono he holds up as a model, in his essay “Political Music,” for the strength of his compositions and political engagement. He wasn’t interested in what serial composers were doing in those years, he wasn’t interested in melody or harmony. He used his late nights in the Columbia studio to devise his own unique method of composition proceeding from his own exploration of sound.
Above all, Mimaroğlu made records. He wrote compositions for acoustic instruments, but is perhaps best known for his tape music compositions, which used concrete and electronic sounds in addition to live instrumentation. Regardless of the mode he was working in, he seemed to understand his creative role as making records, not necessarily compositions for live performance. His role is probably easier to conceptualize today, with our modern understanding of the creative role of the producer.
The documentary MİMAROĞLU (2020) is formally experimental to match its subjects, an audio-visual collage that draws various facets of İlhan and Güngör’s activities, incorporating photography, street art and cinema in addition to music from Mimaroğlu’s archive. This record of their life together is also a record of five decades of New York culture. Kökçeoğlu’s interviews with Güngör from her family home in Istanbul are interspersed with photography and 8mm film, presenting a complex narrative of the lives of Mimaroğlus in between both New York and Istanbul. The film is scripted by Serdar Kökçeoğlu and Elif Dizdaroğlu, and the music direction is by Erdem Helvacıoğlu. You can follow the project on Instagram.
It was an encounter with Erdem Helvacıoğlu during the Gezi Park protests in 2013 that lead to Kökçeoğlu’s first short film, LISTENING THROUGH İSTANBUL (2018). While protesting at Gezi, Kökçeoğlu noticed Helvacıoğlu with his recording gear, and struck up a conversation. As Kökçeoğlu explains in this episode, he wanted to contributed to the protests in a way he knew how, and moved to make a short film documenting Helvacıoğlu’s work. (Also available as an album.) Kökçeoğlu established an online label called Ses Kitabı, to bring attention to experimental work being made in Turkey.
Istanbul is a city that fascinated me long before I finally set foot there. Not unlike Mexico City, which I’ve written about before, it is a cosmopolitan mega-city with a rich history yet also one that Americans often know very little about, are perhaps even apprehensive about due to scaremongering films like Midnight Express (1978). And yet anyone I met who had spent time there had nothing but positive things to relay. While traveling around Eastern Europe in 2007, I had an aborted plan to visit, and have been looking for an opportunity to return ever since. This desire was reinforced when I interviewed Esmerine in 2013 about Dalmak, a record they recorded in Istanbul which would become the winner of the 2014 Juno Award for Instrumental Album of the Year. The incorporation of Turkish elements into their sound inspired me to dig deeper into Turkish music. So while I was based in the south of Italy last year I was I determined to visit. We found cheap flights via Pegasus, and off we went. The Turkish lira was also weak against the Euro, and we found a very economical ground-floor apartment in Beyoğlu for two weeks.
This episode focuses solely on Serdar’s work on the Mimaroglu project. I originally had in mind a second episode with interviews with other musicians I met while in Istanbul, but for a variety of reasons not everyone was comfortable speaking for audio, there are linguistic barriers, or we were otherwise unable to find an opportunity to record. Save polished corporate aesthetics for the professionals, this podcast is more interested in something else. İSTANBUL EKSPRES is my attempt to share some of this music. I don’t claim any expertise, or pretense of exhaustive knowledge, just wanted to share the music and voices of the amazing artists I met in Istanbul, weaving between classic psych and contemporary genres like ambient, drone, and hip-hop.
In the 1990s international music publications like the Wire became hip to Turkish rock from the 60s and 70s, often known as Anatolian Psych. Artists from that era were often incorporating folk instruments from around the region into a rock ensemble context, and singing in their native Turkish rather than catering to an international market. Histories of psych and prog tend to be Anglocentric, emphasizing a few British bands or scenes. But in recent years popular criticism and scholarship has complicated that narrative, documenting the emergence of psychedelic and prog rock as a European meta-genre, with a variety of styles emerging simultaneously in a variety of contexts, from Krautrock in Germany, to Zeuhl in France and rock progressivo italiano in Italy. We might easily situate the history of Anatolian psych into this narrative. And while there is a lineage of Turkish psych and prog rock that traces its roots to that moment, it is of course just one facet of Turkish music.
Others have mined the history of Turkish music in different ways. Hip-hop has become a form of global folk music, with vernacular versions found virtually everywhere in the world. In Istanbul, there is now an underground of sample-based producers like the enigmatic Grup Ses. Working in styles influenced by hip hop, trap, and the LA beat scene, there is a vibrant scene of crate diggers in Istanbul mining the rich history of Turkish recordings. Grup Ses has made several mixes diving deep into obscurities like psychedelic cassettes from 70s and 80s, made especially for Turkish foreign workers in Germany. Following an earlier mixtape of Turkish New Age on Discrepant sister label Sucata, Grup Ses joined forces with the MC Ethnique Punch for Deli Divan for Souk, Discrepant’s imprint for weird beat music alongside artists including Muqata’a’. Even though label-head Gonzo is Portuguese and often based in the Canary Islands, Discrepant has become an important label gathering artists from around the eastern Mediterranean, with artists from Egypt, Crete, Lebanon, Turkey, and Palestine.
The label also gave Koray Kantarcioğlu’s gorgeous Loopworks a well-deserved vinyl release in 2018. Expert, connoisseur, record collector with deep knowledge, Kantarcioğlu gives Turkish music The Caretaker treatment, “taking care” of this old music and giving it new-found life, re-using and re-inventing, breathing new life through new context. The integrity of the loops are maintained enough to suggest the character of the original, but the repetition and processing transforms each loopwork into a unique soundscape. Kantarcioğlu works in multiple media, including drawing and photography. Through his drawings he met Atay Ilgun, who released a monograph of Kantarcioğlu’s landscape drawings on his Wounded Wolf Press accompanied by a CD. Wounded Wolf also gave Loopsworks its initiate release in an edition of 100 cassettes in 2016. Ilgun records as Ashberry among other monikers, producing very lovely and soothing music, released in beautiful small run art editions via his press. Ekil Fil works in a similar space, conjuring strong impressions with her washed out melodies and distant vocals. She’s released notable recordings on Students of Decay, Bathetic, Helen Scarsdale, and Longform Editions. Her limited 2016 cassette Heavyrecently received a vinyl re-issue.
Like Ekin Fil, Ipek Gorgun transitioned into working as a solo artist following stints in bands. Gorgun was born and raised in Ankara, the Turkish capitol, moving to Istanbul to pursue graduate studies. She earned a Master’s degree in philosophy, with a thesis on silence and Heidegger, and recently completed her PhD in Sonic Arts. Her two albums for Touch, Aphelion (2016) and Ecce Homo (2018), demonstrate Gorgun’s skill at creating dense sonic worlds, and the latter in particular comes highly recommend. “Bohemian Grove” samples Alex Jones, a most powerful manipulation of political speech and fearmongering that calls to mind Alvin Curran’s cut-up of George Bush I in Animal Behavior. We were unable to meet up during my weeks in Istanbul, and since Ipek only does written interviews, I reached out to her recently for an interview by email, to check in on how Istanbul is dealing with Covid and what she has in the works.
INTERVIEW WITH IPEK GORGUN
Congratulations on completing for PhD in Sonic Arts. Can you explain what the “Sonic Arts” department is about?
There are programs that cover sonic arts in numerous universities, but sometimes they give different names under communication/media arts or sonology departments. The program I graduated from is conducted by the Center for Advanced Studies in Music (MIAM) in Istanbul Technical University. Even though the department is called “sonic arts”, the program provides a wide spectrum that includes electronic music composition and history, audio programming and multimedia design. Students were encouraged to take classes in other fields such as performance studies, music theory, musicology or audio engineering, as well.
Even though I have also taken classes from these fields, my focus was more based on electronic music composition and the philosophical background of sound studies, alongside music cognition.
After playing bass and vocals for so many years, what drew you to electroacoustic composition?
The field of electronic/electroacoustic music was not exactly new to me as I was continuously looking for further ways to experiment with sound while playing in Bedroomdrunk. Also working in projects such as Vector Hugo, Coquelicot and Slowcore Sunset have helped me get familiar with softwares such as Max/MSP, Ableton, Cubase and Logic.
I have always had a passion for learning more about the nature of sound itself, alongside a lot of hunger for experimentation and improvisation. As time went by, this led me to dig deeper with sound studies, while discovering the world of composers, synthesizers and computers. And at some point, I decided to fully immerse myself in this area.
The Turkish psych rock scene has gotten some international attention in recent years, but there’s so much more happening. Would you care to mention some of your favorite Turkish artists who have influenced your work?
Well, this scene has been around for around more than four to five decades and I am glad to see that there’s finally growing attention towards it. This is a time when modern rock has reached an impasse and the music business is having trouble hyping-up comebacks from the 90s any longer (don’t get me wrong though, I adore the 90s). So the timing makes sense as well.
Also I’m proud to see new bands and artists getting international recognition, as they are successfully representing a wide legacy. But in my opinion, Köledoyuran (2000) by Replikas was the last great Anatolian psych album, and today’s brand new Anatolian psych is only echoing what was done in the past, to a great extent. Especially with Anatolian psych, there is usually a depth of narrative context that needs to be transmitted. So it’s not just about making that particular sound, but making the narrative feel equally powerful as well. For example, there is a track called “Yol” in this album; it has set the standard so high that nobody in our local psych scene can channel that amount of emotional complexity these days. Yet I believe we will be hearing great works from our generation in the upcoming years, too.
For influences; aside from the likes of Erkin Koray, Kurtalan Ekspres, Mazhar-Fuat and Bunalımlar, those who were bold enough to experiment with the rock-solid framework of these legends have inspired me a lot. For example, Zen’s 1998 album Tanbul has made a great impact on my music- if we’re talking about psych rock in a more experimental/avant-garde sense. Also, despite its heavy tendency towards the progressive/metal side, Nekropsi’s monumental album Mi Kubbesi (1996) has a deep and intense psych vibe that I still enjoy revisiting. Last but not least, anyone who would like to unleash the gates of hell can dig deeper into the works of 2⁄5 BZ, which extends beyond the psychedelic while experimenting with industrial, dub and glitch.
Aside from all of the above, the works of Neşet Ertaş and Bayram Aracı, or anything sung by Kamuran Akkor, Esmeray and Esengül have always shaken me to the core. These are all on a different side of the spectrum, but for sure, great sources of inspiration.
Can you share your impression of the music scene in Istanbul? Particular artists, labels, venues, etc that make the city so vibrant, that have had an impact on you personally? What is exciting you in the city these days? (Pre-Covid, perhaps, given that things have slowed down.)
Both Covid and the current economic and political climate of Turkey has made its impact on the music scene in Istanbul and Turkey. Many artists are moving to Europe and the US, and it seems as though we are still in a sort of transition which reflects on the scene. There are some collectives gathering and dissolving alongside webzines and local blogs. However, most of them are having trouble keeping up, as it has already become very tough to survive on a daily basis. Same for local venues; there’s almost no funding or sponsorship. So, the only way for them to survive is to prioritize the comparably mainstream acts, which would guarantee their survival. There are indeed a few venues who still do their best to support underground acts, but it’s not easy for them either.
However, people are still making music no matter how hard things are right now. The albums of brilliant producers and composers such as Hüma Utku, Erdem Dicle (a.k.a. DVAL), Berke Can Özcan, Reverie Falls on All, Sair Sinan Kestelli, Enis Gümüş and Şevket Akıncı came out a while ago and gave me a lot of joy. For some great DJ’ing on the other hand, I love Merve Öngen’s (a.k.a. HOWL) and Kaan Akay’s (a.k.a. Golem) radio sessions on Sub FM and Noods Radio.
Speaking of radio, there’s a new initiative called Root Radio, which celebrates diversity and solidarity, that’s surely worth checking out. Oh and finally, I enjoy the works of Gantz for grime/dubstep and Sami Baha for hip-hop and electronics. Aside from his great music, Gantz’s Boiler Room sessions in London and Cairo are a must-see whereas Sami’s NTS sessions are quite inspiring.
I’ve heard from friends and many people I spoke with while there that the city has changed significantly in the last few years, particularly following the protests in Gezi Park in 2013. I think I recall hearing that Kadikoy has become more of a center of activity since then. What are your impressions?
The thing with Taksim/Beyoğlu (where Gezi Park is located) was that it really didn’t matter if you were completely broke or filthy rich to be there and hang out. For this reason it was an area that embraced everybody from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. There was a plethora of local shops, restaurants and taverns, music shops, wig shops, erotic shops, bookstores, venues, galleries and very, very weird places which contributed to the amount of an already high diversity. This made the streets of Beyoğlu so vibrant and beautiful as the neighborhood was able to bring the people together regardless of their social stature. It’s no surprise that Gezi Protests have started there, not only because the Park was actually located there, but also because the protests were embracing every layer of society, which also reflected the spirit of Beyoğlu.
In the last few years, Kadıköy has become the epicenter of coolness; gentrified, reconstructed, third wave coffee shops, or second hand stores that triple their prices to pay the rent, gathering so many artists and intellectuals alongside people behaving in certain repetitive patterns. And once a neighborhood turns out to be “cool” in such a way, it also becomes expensive, and thus, exclusive.
So I come over to Kadıköy occasionally, because the amount of artistic activity is creating its own gravitational pull and it’s deeply inspiring to interact with people who are art-lovers. But in my daily life, I still prefer places where people are absolutely “uncool” and nobody is taking boring Instagram photos with fucking Yeezys, Supremes or whatever.
Lastly, with regards to your work, do you have anything coming up you can mention? Any upcoming releases or projects you can tell us about?
Every time I say that I’m going back to photography in an interview, I end up jinxing it and something else comes up. So this time I’ll only mention the new edition of Organ Reframed in Union Chapel London, where I’ll premiere a new work for the Willis Organ, violin, cello and electronics, which will be performed by the beloved members of the London Contemporary Orchestra and the organ virtuoso James McVinnie. Sadly we had to delay it twice due to Covid-19, but I’m still hopeful for Autumn 2021.