The Istanbul music scene is unparalleled. The variety of genres, instruments and vocal styles comes alive in the mixing pot of East and West. Each neighborhood has its own style — a distinct architecture, fashion, religious expression, art, and street life. Music plays a part in making a neighborhood's culture come alive.
Üsküdar, a sprawling neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul, has a distinct taste for tradition and preservation and evokes the more conservative aspects of Turkish religious expression. On any given weekend, one can be easily overcome by all the delicious music to listen to. It's played with an intention to evoke a spirit of divinity and togetherness, or at times, the deepest reflection of the musicians' souls.
On Friday evening, I had the pleasure of visiting two gatherings. One with a music teacher in Üsküdar, by the name of Hasan Kiriş, famous as a tanbur player, but known to be well-versed on practically any Turkish instrument put before him. The tanbur is a long-neck fretted string instrument of Turkey, famous for its derivation in the Ottoman Empire, used to play palace music. The musician must have a highly sensitive ear to distinguish and carefully play around the microtones on the instrument. Not only is the instrument complex in its appearance, but the sound also gives a sense of flying off of the instrument. For the sake of imagination, it is closer to the Indian sitar, instead of the high pitch from the sitar, the tanbur constantly resonates a base tone, with its seven harmonic strings.
Hasan Kiriş is constantly working on composition, and in Turkish music, composition is highly detailed and must always be written within specific forms. For instance, Kiriş is working to create a ayini, I piece that can last anywhere from half an hour to an hour that is played during traditional Sema, a whirling dervish ceremony. The intricacy of the ayni Kiriş is composing not only must follow the form that is suitable for the opening of the whirling dervish ceremony, but in his case, he is experimenting with the transition from one Makkam (or musical mode) into another Makkam that has never been done before. Imagine the idea of two jazz scales that are highly distinct and even incompatible, but that through the course of an hour, the composer will intricately and delicately change the pathway of the music to lead to its finishing point. This is the level of detail that is present in Turkish music. The knowledge required to play, compose, and improvise (called taksim), takes years of listening and practice.
One way Turkish musicians practice is by joining meshk, something between a rehearsal and a ceremony. In a meshk, a certain series of pieces are selected to elucidate a Makkam (musical mode), to show the full range of its variations and moods. Sometimes in a meshk several makkams are placed side by side, slowly and carefully transitioning from one musical mode to another, just as a composer may be required to do in a long composition.
Meshk not only denotes a time for musical study, it is also for the purpose of bringing elucidation to individual and communal spirituality. Each of the songs is of a religious nature, and the lyrics are both subtle and deep. In this way, a meshk is both a meditation on the subtlety of musical feeling for the musicians (and audience) and also a meditation on a series of poems that speak of divine love and human destiny.
A very famous composer in the Turkish sema and meshk tradition is Yunus Emre, who is known to have composed thousands of Turkish Sufi songs. As both a farmer and poet, his lyrics speak of love and earth in a way that always implies the element of going beyond the world and human-to-human love. Of course, we can only know what is in front of us, so as most poets do, they speak of the worldly aspects of life to imply the feelings behind our usual feelings. In this example, Yunus Emre composed what might be initially read as a love letter, only to expose a hunger for the intensity of lived knowledge: "My name is Yunus, Each passing day fans and rouses my flame, What I desire in both worlds is the same: You're the one I need, you're the one I crave." Yunus Emre's compositions can be found in nearly every meshk, and with this example, it is clear that the meskh also intends to rouse the flame of its listeners.
Styles of meshk differ considerably, usually reflecting the culture of the group that is playing the music. Meshk is usually hosted not by a lay person, but at least by one person who is either initiated in a Sufi order or by the master him/herself. As such, the style of meshk will directly reflect the type of connection that the Sufi order desires to arouse in both its students and its visitors. For instance, if a master desires for his students to understand the musical complexity of each musical mode, he will arrange the music pieces in the meshk to expose the changes in each piece that can lead to subtle inner feelings. Another master who values the high energy and communal aspect of a meshk, may opt for simpler songs that many people can sing without a knowledge of music, much like simple folk songs or lullabies. In each case, the one who arranges a meshk does so intentionally to rouse specific feelings in the musicians and the participants.
Each meshk or composition intends to bring out or refresh a feeling in the music, musicians, and audience. As we know, in a performance, the performer and the audience mirror each other. If the musician is bored, so too will the audience. If the musicians build a space of collaboration, friendship, and creativity, the audience will also be given a key to access these feelings within themselves.