August 2010 Archives



Here's a piece I wrote on my experience in Turkey.


I am sitting in a café on Urgup’s main street. The humous here is somewhat overloaded with pomegranate molasses but it doesn’t seem to matter. The Efes beer is cool, ‘The Smile on your Face’ is playing at the bar, and I am looking back on the work we have been doing during the last ten days here in Cappadocia. It’s hard to believe it was only a week ago.


They say I circle around you.
Nonsense. I circle around me.


It is my first cello class. Dotted around the room are eleven cellists aged between ten and twenty-one, from beginner to graduate level. Many of them do not meet my eye. One is cowering behind his instrument. Another is playing a muscled version of Haydn’s D major concerto to the wall. Yet another rolls up her sleeve and flexes her biceps in a show of cello prowess. Clearly I am not alone in feeling nervous.

We create a circle. In the first exercise I ask the group to stand and let their arms swing around their torsos in response to the torso’s movement around the spine’s axis. This, I point out, is the natural movement we make when we walk, and also the root of the bow-swing.

‘Look ze waves!’ I say, quoting my late Hungarian mentor, Sandor Vègh, sketching, with one hand, an impression of his six wobbling chins whilst with the other the swell of the ocean. ‘Avery sing in nature is cuuuuuuuuuurved!’

There is silence. I wonder if, during the following week, I will manage to communicate anything of my circular approach to cello playing in my non-existent Turkish. On this first day I very much doubt it.

That night, the student concert takes place in a cave that serves as a tea-house and sometime concert venue. The name, Sakli Vadi, means Hidden Valley and indeed the venue feels so secret it seems unlikely that anyone will come. However, while Ellen choreographs the last of the student’s rehearsals, local families arrive and set up picnics. Other visitors stand and enjoy the spicy sausage sandwiches and Cappadocian red wine that are for sale at the entrance to the cave. Two of the faculty waltz on the sandy cave floor as the violists play their Strauss dance. Exhausted from a long opera season back in England I lounge in a hammock strung from two apricot trees. Sounds of a quartet for Ud and string trio, Handel’s water music and Gershwin’s Summertime whirl round the curved enclosure before rising up into the purple evening sky. Candles are lit and the place becomes an alchemical grotto, framing the music and yet setting it free. I contemplate my inevitable return to square concert halls, not to mention flat beds and, without the usual warning of tightness in the throat, I shed the first of many tears.


Drumsound rises on the air,
its throb, my heart.


In the second cello class we work on the connection between breath and bowing. Inhaling deeply, filling their rib cages with air, the students observe how their arms can float weightlessly up and away from their bodies on the in-breath. I immediately translate this into the movement of the bow arm. The sound in the room opens up and doubles. Subsequent exercises bring smiles of recognition. Nervousness is replaced with ease. Our hearts start to open.

That afternoon the faculty concert takes place in the caravanserai ‘Saruhan’, an immaculately renovated thirteenth century stopping place for camel trains along the silk road. Before the concert I sit for a while in meditation just off the courtyard. In the quiet concentration it is as if this space has been prepared for us. Only afterwards do I find out that it is the home of the Mevlevi sect, inspired by one of my great heroes, Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi.

When the concert ends we stay for Sema, the Mevlevi whirling dervish ceremony. After a eulogy to the prophet and a drum sound symbolising the divine order of the Creator, there follows a simple improvisation on the reed flute that, I discover later, represents the first, the Divine breath. At this point I know nothing of the sect, nor of their whirling. I do not know that their turning prayer is based on what they believe and indeed contemporary science has found to be the fundamental condition of our existence, to revolve. The skirts start to twirl, the arms float weightlessly up away from their rib-cages and the dervishes start to spin, orbiting around their heart centre.


Every moment and place says
‘Put this design in your carpet!


It is day three and in class we are working on the opening phrase of Beethoven’s A major cello sonata. Despite her obvious vivaciousness my student plays with a flat sound. When I ask her to sing the phrase she does so with one vowel and no consonants. ‘Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah’ When I ask her to sing it as if speaking it she does so in Sol Fège: ‘La Mi Fa, Do Mi Re Do Re Sol La Sol….’ When I ask her, as a jazzer would scat, to draw on the sounds of her own language to find consonants and vowels both hard and soft, long and short to express the contours and percussion of the phrase, she sings. ‘La di lohm? la ri do loh di la dah dihm’. Now she is speaking a language we all understand.

The evening event is a jam session held at the adopted headquarters of Klassik Keyifler, the rooftop of Nuray’s elegant ‘Ziggy café’. Below us in town, carpet and dried fruit sellers pack up. Stray cats pad over cobbles. A wedding party hoots and wails. On our table a series of delicate meze arrive including okra, the pulp of wood-fired aubergine and a creamy bean purée. A Turkish jazz singer, an Ud player on guitar, and a kid from the viola class on the electric piano waft through some jazz standards. The food, aromatic rather than spicy is a perfect accompaniment. The next course consists of liver and pastrami that, Ellen informs me, would originally have been cured in the midday heat under a horse’s saddle, and just as the meat arrives at our table, so it does in the musical feast, with Anatolian folk tunes. These are soloed heartily at first by Guc Basar Gulle. Then by Esin Gunduz. Then by the chap at the next table, and then by all the students. On that rooftop in the early hours of the Anatolian morning, the language of music and indeed the Turkish language, seem so intimate. ‘Iyi Aksamlar’ I say to Nuray as we leave. At three o’clock I can almost taste the words for Good Evening in my mouth along with the smoky remnant of aubergine.


Any movement or sound is a profession of faith,
As the millstone grinding is explaining how it believes in the river.


‘Oranges and lemons from the Mediterranean are stored at the perfect temperature in the local caves here’ Suha, our host at Esbelli Evi informs us.
As we sip their juice over breakfast a colleague asks me what ‘school of playing’ I come from. I look at the curve of the cave wall behind him, and the delicately drawn lines of strata hinting at its history. My history, or ‘school’, feels more like this sandstone than any institution or method. In my class that day, I think, I will doubtless quote Julius Levine (who coached Ellen and I in the US), Steven Isserlis, Timothy Eddy, Sandor Vegh, Andras Schiff, or Sascha Schneider. Or quote any one of them quoting Pablo Casals. I might ask one of them to teach me an Anatolian tune that may have been recorded by Bela Bartok in the fifties, transformed in to one of his string quartets and played by Sandor Vegh to Bartok himself in Budapest or at Casals’ festival in Prades. I will yet again talk about rainbows and waves, tree trunks and wings, gurgling streams and twittering birds, volcanos and natural springs, searching within the images to find the way to move a hand or shape a phrase. The ‘school’ I come from, it occurs to me, does not belong to any country, creed or culture. It is all around us, in nature.

After my spontaneous and almost incomprehensible lesson in Turkish microtones with Guc, we pile in the bus for the day’s concert in Goreme Open Air Museum. At the entrance I resist what one of my students describes as ‘bubble gum ice cream’ in favour of melon juice and we make our way to the cave church where the students will play solo Bach. Unfortunately Husam could not get permission this year to play in any of the many churches that house the Byzantine frescoes. He was particularly keen on Tokali Kilise in whose chambers are painted the account of the life of Christ in sea greens, powdery blues and ochres, and over whose entrance is painted the transfiguration. When we visit I can see why. As if planting a seed of hope for next year, Esin sings a few notes, and all of us imagine phrases of Bach strung between the painted pillars and swelling under the vaults.


We rarely hear the inward music,
But we’re all dancing to it nevertheless


The day of our penultimate cello class has arrived. Over my penultimate salad of feta cheese, hot peppers, lettuce, cucumber and yoghurt in Club Urgup’s restaurant, Ellen has been telling me more about the dervishes. I am particularly interested in the hat they wear being the ‘tombstone of the ego’, and in their hand positions, the right hand turned up towards the sky to receive God’s gifts, and the left turned down towards the earth to deliver them back. Inhalation and exhalation. Inspiration and expression. My students are not the only ones making new connections.

I walk across the hot astro-turf, past the loungers and the signs to the swimming pool. I descend the stairs to the poorly lit and barely air-conditioned basement rooms filled this week, not with conferences or business meetings, but with children making music. I have a spring in my step as I enter the room and see eleven people arranging the chairs in the circle. Eleven people whom, at the beginning of the week, all seemed to be called variations on an Italian designer, but whom I have now come to know as Gulce, Gokce, Gokhan, Pinar, Pelin, Hazel…

Today I ask the students to voice thoughts they have had recently whilst performing. ‘How beautiful this music is!’ says the first. ‘How nice the cello feels!’ says the second. ‘Same.’ says the third. Then the fourth cellist speaks: ‘During my performance yesterday I thought: My teacher has just taught me this bow stroke. He is sitting over there and must be angry because I can’t do it yet. I am a failure’ There is a silence. ‘My vibrato is pathetic’ says the first. ‘I wish my mum could see me play’ says the third. ‘I am ashamed of my sweating brow’ says the seventh. When everyone has spoken I ask whether thought serves merely a distraction from hearing and following our inner music. I leave the question in the air.

That night we are back in Sakla Vadi for the last concert. On the stage under the arc of the cave, violinists and violists squat on scatter cushions and ledges, tandoor pots huddle in every nook, and Turkish teapots hang from the ceiling. I am leading the cello ensemble in an arrangement of Dido’s lament. I look at the smiling faces encircling me, the softened shoulders and the feet planted on the floor of the stage. We draw a breath together, and play.


Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
How it sings of separation.


Saturday was to be a day of rest but, inspired by how Ellen ‘closed’ her violin class, I ask the cellists to gather one last time. Instead of taking up separate poses and playing concerti excerpts, the eleven students are sitting in a circle, breathing calmly when I arrive. When I ask them what it is they would like to take away with them from the week’s work, the boy who hid behind his cello says he has learned to sit proud. The youngest member of the group says she thought classical music was deadly serious but all week she has seen people laughing so she has changed her mind. Another says she has realized how powerful the support of a group can be. Most of them say, apparently with some relief, that they have learned that there is a more natural approach to playing. I, myself, find it difficult to speak at all, but I hope I convey how deeply their openness and humour, and their willingness to explore what essentially are new ideas to them, have touched me.

Tomorrow I leave my colleagues and students, and we leave Cappadocia. In the bar 'The smile on your face', is still playing on the stereo, but now it has a twist. The muezzin has started up in exactly the same tonality. ‘You’ll catch me whenever I fall.’ sings Ronan Keating, and the muezzin rises on the syllable ‘Al-‘ before tumbling in a series of minor intervals on‘-Lah’. ‘It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart.’ sings Keating, and the muezzin holds ‘bar’ right to its guttal end over the broken guitar chords. ‘Without saying a word you can light up the dark.’ The caller twirls his micro-tones in and around Keating, transforming the East-West mix into one urgent call to love and prayer under the stars. As I listen I realize that, in Klasik Keyifler, Ellen and Husam have created something absolutely unique. With their joint knowledge of Turkish culture, history and geology, and their passion for the International language of music, there is no watering down here. This is not a cross-over festival. This is a real attempt at listening to and understanding each culture, finding what binds and separates them and, just like the muezzin and the ballad singer, allowing each to sing its song fully and passionately side by side.

Ellen Jewett is an internationally acclaimed violinist and teacher, and member of the American-based Audubon quartet. Husam Suleymangil has worked for 30 years in the tourist sector guiding for archeological projects, film crews, educational, family and business tours throughout Turkey.

Klassik Keyifler holds courses in Turkey from June through September.

Croissants and a surprise visitor

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