Melancholy and the Musician: An Ethnographic Study of Classical Turkish Performers

There are dozens of terms in Turkish and Turkish-Ottoman that are translated in English as the word “melancholy,” says ethnomusicologist Denise Gill. There’s kara sevda, or “black love”; keder, a kind of melancholic grief; melankoli, the “black bile” appropriated from Hippocratic medicine; and hüzün, a kind of imperial nostalgia that comes about for contemporary Turks who today negotiate the painful reminders of the former greatness of the Ottoman Empire. Culturally, melancholy is omnipresent and multidimensional.

In her current book project, “Melancholic Modalities: Affect and Turkish Classical Musicians,” Gill, an assistant professor of music and a fall 2015 Faculty Fellow in the Center for the Humanities, considers a wide spectrum of melancholic feelings communicated via Turkish classical music. A musician of classical Turkish music herself, she breaks new ground by focusing her study on the people who play, compose and teach the music themselves. Below, she gives an early glimpse of her research.


How do you describe Turkish classical music to people who have never heard it? What are some of the instruments used? 
I would suggest that they go to YouTube and listen widely all the Turkish and Ottoman genres they can find!

Instruments used in performing classical Turkish music.Specifically, Turkish classical music generally features the voice (in chorus) and instruments important in Ottoman court music, such as the ney (end-blown reed flute with deep associations to the Mevlevi sufi order), the tanbur (long-necked plucked lute), and the kudüm (double kettle drum played with mallets). It also includes instruments that gained popularity in urban entertainment environments in the late Ottoman period, such as the ud (short-necked plucked lute), the kanun (trapezoidal zither played with picks, which is incidentally the primary instrument played by your author), and, by the 20th century, the kemençe (short bowed fiddle played vertically on the knee that was widely understood as the instrument of Istanbul’s Greek population).

Generally heterophonic and based in melodic modes (makam) and rhythmic modes (usûl), the genre of “Turkish classical music” denotes a canon that continues the intricate Ottoman musical practice of instrumental improvisation (taksim). When you go to a concert of a solo musician, for example, improvisation is so important (as is modulating from one mode to another) that the concert might be mostly improvisations and very little compositions or previously written pieces.

Who are some of the performers and/or composers you’re including in your study — and why did you select them?
My study included professional musicians from multiple state-sponsored ensembles in four main urban centers in Turkey (Istanbul, Ankara, Konya and Izmir), as well as musicians who are the headline performers for multiple municipal performances. I also worked with Turkish classical musicians who have successful careers as touring performers and recording artists outside of the state-sponsored artistic realm. Finally, as one of my chapters is particularly concerned with issues of pedagogy, I worked with a number of master-teachers who educate students in private studios, as well as examining music lessons in conservatory and university settings.

I do spend considerable time focusing on important figures that continue to serve as pedagogical and spiritual guides for contemporary Turkish classical musicians. In particular, I interpret the legacies of composer and virtuoso Tanburi Cemil Bey (1873–1916), composer and Mevlevi sheikh Ismail Dede Efendi (1778–1846), and the ney (reed flute) musician Neyzen Tevfik (1879–1953), among others.

Your book breaks new ground as the first book-length ethnography of Turkish classical musicians. What does it contribute to the debate in ethnomusicology about music and affect, particularly as it relates to melancholy?
My ethnographic research with Turkish classical musicians allowed me to study how affect — in particular, melancholy — emerges as one of the primary practices musicians engage with in the processes of musicking. In other words, when musicians get together to make music, what they are primarily cultivating is affect. They come together to feel together and deploy particular kinds of feelings through sound.

In scholarship on music and affect, we still tend to focus first and foremost on “music” itself as some sort of object — a disembodied force that can act on a listener in a particular way. My book disrupts normative questions about the relationship between music and affect asked by music studies scholars who prioritize the music object and assume its capacity to act. Focusing on melancholic musicking as affective practice means that asking the questions “does music elicit affect?” or “does music express affect?” are the wrong questions. Instead, I focus my research on the musicians themselves, locating how they talk about and sound out affect, how they police other musicians’ descriptions and performances, and, importantly, how they learn the correct ways to feel through the intimate, dyadic and long-lasting bond in a master-apprentice relationships.

Turkish classical musicians themselves are quick to explain that melancholy lies in a person, in a person’s faith ideologies, and in a person’s ideologies and ways of listening — not in the uncanny or ethereal sounding of a disembodied music object. The melancholic modalities cultivated by Turkish classical musicians are not necessarily painful: Descriptions of ecstasy, joy, communitas, attunement and elation accompany philosophical articulations of separation and suffering. My aim is to understand the kinds of social politics that enable contemporary Turkish classical musicians to generate particular affective practices, and to explore how ideas and expressions of pain, sadness and loss are experienced by them as deeply pleasurable.

How did you become interested in Turkish classical music? Do you perform it yourself?
I first encountered Turkish classical music as an undergraduate student in the classes, music ensemble and mentorship of ethnomusicologist Donna Buchanan, professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. At 22, I took my first trip to Turkey to buy a kanun, a 78-stringed trapezoidal zither played with finger picks. As a mostly self-taught kanun player performing light Turkish art pieces, I was invited to open for a master-musician visiting from Turkey in California, where I was doing graduate work in ethnomusicology. That headlining musician, ud (short-necked lute) master Necati Çelik, ended up accepting me as a student a few years later, after I demonstrated enough dedication and sacrifice to indicate my invested interest in learning. Since 2008 I have been performing professionally either with my teacher or as a soloist, and my solo concertizing has brought me to concert salons throughout Europe, Turkey and North America.

PERFORMANCE: “Harmonies for Healing”
Denise Gill gives a solo performance at a benefit concert for Syrian refugees. All proceeds donated to the International Institute of St. Louis for resettling refugee families.
Sunday, March 13, 6 pm
Central Reform Congregation, 5020 Waterman Ave, 63108