Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Hearing the Ottomans in London: a guest post by Professor Rachel Beckles Willson

Musician and researcher Rachel Beckles Willson, Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, is about to launch a new project tracing the different musical traditions in which this exquisite instrument plays a central role, and the stories of migration that go with it. I asked her to tell us all about it... JD

Hearing the Ottomans in London

“So tell me, which singer does she aspire to be?”
“Almost all the famous singers. But always with the same voice, the same makam, and interpreted in exactly the same way.”
“That means she is a true original! It’s solved. Unique and new. Pay attention here! I mean new, new in capital letters! For when it’s a matter of the new, there’s no need for any other talent. Now we need only choose which direction to take: folk music or classical Turkish music, or folk music with a hint of alafranga, or perhaps alafranga with a hint of folk?” (The Time Regulation Institute, trans. Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, Penguin Books 2013.)

Rachel Beckles Willson (oud) and Nilufar Habibian (quanun) in concert

Music threads through the novels of Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar in a tapestry of love, ambition, nostalgia and ambivalence. For a society newly ruled by clocks, radios, and popular song from Europe, what use were Ottoman repertoire and classical modes (makam)? Tanpinar’s protagonist bemoans his sister-in-law’s disregard for tradition (‘she knows nothing about music’) whereas his friend dismisses it: ‘Today who would ever think of trying to distinguish the Isfahan from the Acemasiran?, he asks.

While in Europe, classical music institutions flourished beyond the collapse of empire following WWI, in Ataturk’s Turkey, the centuries-old repertoire of the Ottoman courts and dervish houses was sidelined in favour of music that could embody the new Republic. In Greece the situation was similar: the focus fell on music that could express essentially European qualities of the modern state.

But the last decades of the 20th century saw a new growth of interest in Ottoman music, and public support emerged as well. So much so, in fact, that one can now study classical Ottoman repertories in Turkey, Greece, Germany, Holland, France and beyond. There are printed scores, recordings, theory books, teachers… and of course there are many concert performances.

On 13 April, one of London’s most beautiful salons, Music at 22 Mansfield Street, is hosting an evening of Ottoman classical music.

The concert will begin with some of the earliest Ottoman pieces of all, several of which are attributed to Persian musicians at the court of Selim I (1512-1520). We draw the music from scores prepared by Wojciech Bobowski (1610-1675), a Polish slave-musician and translator who converted to Islam and took the name Ali Ufki; and Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), the Moldavian Prince, musician and man of letters who lived in exile in Constantinople from 1687 to 1710. Their scores and other remarkable notated sources reveal the continuous development of Ottoman musical styles from around 1630 right through to the present day.

Our programme then moves on into the late 19th century and shifts south to present the tradition in the Egyptian Nahda (Renaissance). We exchange kemencheh for violin to demonstrate the flamboyant Arabization that was part of that development. We also present Egyptian settings of Andalusian poetry, muwashshahat, along with a range of more recent music from Turkey, Armenia and Iraq.

At the heart of the concert is the oud, which is the predecessor of the European lute and reminds us of Europe’s debt to Al Andalus, the Muslim rule of southern Spain, Portugal and parts of France 711-1492. The oud itself is still played throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and increasingly widely in Europe and North America. I first discovered it by chance while I was researching western style music education among Arab communities of Palestine and Israel. I was increasingly captivated by the sound of the oud, its beauty, and by the way it could transform a social event, triggering laughter, song or tears – or all three of these.

I bought an oud in East Jerusalem, hoping my Arab friends would play it when visiting me back in London. But I found myself trying to play myself, initially grappling with the Iraqi tradition, then slipping into the music of Egypt, Turkey and Crete. A couple of years further on I started to integrate oud with my professional life, drawing it into undergraduate teaching and research. Gradually I’ve found myself performing in public again, many years after leaving my career as a pianist behind.

In the London concert on 13 April I am joined by several brilliant musicians (their origins combine Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine and Turkey) to launch a website that is part of my current research [www.oudmigrations.com]. The website illustrates how ouds can be keys to unlocking stories of migration, and how they offer us fresh perspectives on the ever-changing relationships between Europe, Asia, and North America. The UK’s oldest oud was sent as a gift from the Khedive of Egypt to the South Kensington Museum in 1867. But Europe’s oldest surviving oud probably arrived in Brussels from Alexandria 28 years earlier, ordered by a Belgian researcher.

Several writers will be contributing to oudmigrations.com, so there will be stories from a range of places and in a range of voices. Please visit to watch the project develop. More details about the concert will be posted there shortly.

13 April 2016, 19.30 (welcome drinks served from 19.00).
22 Mansfield Street, London W1G 9NR.
All the artists are giving their services free, ticket prices cover costs only.
Welcome drink and concert: £20 (students and under-18s £10)
Welcome drink and concert, drinks and canapés after: £30 (students and under-18s £20) Book by email – boas22m AT btinternet.com

Rachel Beckles Willson