I would like to thank you for agreeing to this written interview as I know how busy you are. This will serve as an addenda to the post on your album ‘Pacif.ist‘ and give context to the Pacifica/Turkish connection. Above all it will provide an insight into the charts and your choice of ancient and modern instruments. (read in conjunction with previous blog)
Q. Can you tell me a little about the harp you played at the launch? It seemed smaller like the Celtic harp and wonderfully ornate. Was that the one that you played on the recording?
The harp I played at the launch is a nylon strung harp made by Andrew Thom in Tasmania. It is a standard size for larger celtic harps – 36 strings – though they can come in any size. The ornamentation is actually quite industrial – a silver aluminium frame with black dots, and some subtle functional wooden detail. It has a carbon fiber soundboard and an aluminium soundbox covered with leather. But the shape of the arch and column itself is amazingly organic, comparable to dripping glass, with a koru curl. The “Holden Red” colour makes it quite sexy, like a stiletto.
I played this harp on one piece on the album – Time. Although most of the pieces were written on lever harp, when it came to recording I preferred to use the concert harp – the sound is richer and deeper. I used the lever harp on Time because the composition includes string bends that are a sounds you get particularly with levers. For the rest of the recordings I used my Lyon & Healy Style 23 Concert Grand (a big classic ornate wooden harp like those you see in the orchestra).
Q. Is some of that music improvised or were you following a score (or Jazz chart)?
There is improvisation in all of the pieces except for Interlude for Grozda
, which I wrote out very quickly one day and I played that from the notes because I really liked them. Usually I make a kind of jazz chart with melody, and we go from there. Generally my aim is to improvise, so we’ll play the first round from the sheet and then expand on the ideas after that. I love the way Aksam Duasi
turned out because there’s so much improvisation in it. It had one of the most minimal charts. Greenstones
is a piece that is usually ‘set’, ie, I usually play pretty much the same thing every time. In this version on the album, there was an extra melody chasing me all the way to the studio that day. It wanted to be included in the recording. So when I got there, I tried to make room for the extra phrase. It resulted in an improvised introduction of 2 or 3 minutes which I think worked very nicely with Richard Nunns
I love improvising, and if I’m not improvising, I don’t mind making mistakes so that I have to improvise my way out of them. Even if I’m playing the set tune, it’s still got to feel like an improvisation. That’s the good music. That’s what I’m chasing.
Q. Were those compositions originals or created out of traditional motifs?
That begs the question ‘Is there such a thing as a completely original work’? I try to keep things as original as possible. I try to let the music tell me how it goes rather than the other way around.
The only piece in which I really used a particular template is the first part of Akşam Duasi (Evening Prayer). That melody came about one day when Izzet and I were looking at a traditional Turkish rhythm called Hafif which is a single bar of 32 counts. You say “Dum tek tek, Dum tek tek, Du-um te-ka du-um tek tek-a…” like this. I made up a melody to help me remember the rhythm, we liked it and it became one of our tunes. The second half of that piece came about when we were having a lukewarm jam one afternoon and the ezan (call to prayer) began. Suddenly the instruments got hot and took off as if on their own accord, jamming along with the ezan. It’s simple and it feels good – familiar but from where?
Certainly in my early compositions, I used things that were ‘evocative’ for me, colours and feels from genres I’m familiar with. Greenstones has obvious Celtic influences, but begins with what for me is a bassy Polynesian rowing rhythm. I recall now that it’s melody was influenced by speech and the motivic nature of the Kanun (Turkish zither). As I got more comfortable with composing, I became more excited by melodic or harmonic movements that would surprise me. These days I spend more time trying to figure out what it is that I wrote.
Q. The quality of the percussion work was extraordinary and I gather that your husband is the drummer. How many percussion instruments were used apart from a normal drum kit.
Yes, Izzet Kizil is an extraordinary percussionist, and is my husband, and is a big influence on my work. He has a very advanced, distinctive, intuitive personal style. In fact he is not really a drummer, even though he played kit on these recordings. He specialises in Middle Eastern hand percussions. His main instrument is the Turkish Darbuka. The other instruments he used were Turkish Bendir (a frame drum similar to the Irish Bodhran, which he plays with hands and brushes), Daf, a Kurdish and Persian frame drum like the bendir but with dangling rings on the inside of the drum which makes the thunder sound that I love. You can hear him play Kanjira (a small hand-held Indian drum with one zil) and Kup or Gattam (Indian clay pot) on Uc Adim. He also plays a number of small effects percussions like clusters of seeds and bells. He sets himself up a little kit made of the above instruments and a small snare and cymbals, which he plays with hands, brushes and sticks. In Butterfly Effect he also plays percussion with his voice and fingers hitting his mouth and throat.
There is another drummer on the album and that is Riki Gooch. Because Izzet isn’t a regular drummer, Riki noticed that some of the grooves could use some firmer ‘laying down’, (Gul Cayi, Sunshine Sister, Uc Adim), and he added in some very sensitive cymbal and highhat to complement what Izzet had already done. Riki and Izzet met in Wellington, spent time and played together, so it was a nice vibe rhythm section even though the recordings happened on either side of the globe.
Q. Is there any connection between your music and the Sufi musical tradition. Many Jazz groups in southern Europe now use an Oud (Italy especially) and some extraordinary Sufi trained musicians like Dhafer Youseff are having an impact. I have seen him perform twice and it was a profound musical experience.
I have been very influenced by the sounds of Sufi music
and musicians in Turkey, primarily the guitarist Erkan Ogur, and his albumsFuad
, the title of which is a Sufi concept meaning ‘anything and nothing’. In fact Mevlana or Rumi, the father of Sufism, was based in the town of Konya in southern Turkey during his enlightenment period with the philosopher Şemş. Today Konya is called ‘the kitchen’ of pure Turkish classical music particularly because it is connected strongly with the study of Mevlana. When I first came to Istanbul, I played mainly with Turkish classical musicians in Sufistic concerts. I will add here that the reason I was very attracted to Turkish music was not only for it’s beauty, but also the fact that it is an artform which melds improvisation with the written note. Recently I performed repertoire from the Sufi composer Yunus Emre with a singer at a Mystical Music Festival. At that performance I was encouraged to improvise deeply and generously, because this is one of the expressions of union with the divine.
Izzet comes from a Sufistic tradition – his father played percussion for religious reasons. Sufism is a liberal and mystical branch of Islam. Living in an Islamic country with lots of philosophical artists around, Sufism is an underlying feeling. I think it has been entwined in the development of Turkish music over the centuries, recognisable in the sense of expansive space and melodies of emotional longing for the divine. I work towards deepening this kind of energy in my music.
Q. Is there a strong Jazz community in Turkey?
Yes there is. It’s relatively small but dedicated. There’s a club in Istanbul called Nardis which is a dedicated seven night quality jazz place where lots of great Turkish musicians play. Izzet plays for a group called “Ilhan Erşahin’s Istanbul Sessions” which is a New York-Istanbul jazz triphop outfit which is very popular. A lot of international jazz artists tour through Istanbul. There are lots of great Jazz festivals going on, musicians coming over from Europe and the states.
Q. I understand that you were born in New Zealand and are of Samoan descent. Is that correct? Is there a Pacific influence in your music?
I was born and grew up in Wellington, witha seven stint in Los Angeles in my childhood. My mother is Samoan and my father is Australian – Scottish English descent. The album is entitled Pasif.ist because I think of it as Istanbul through a Pasifikan’s experience. The music is my response to the local environment as someone who is from ‘somewhere else’ and far away. This is the manner of the Pacific influence in my music. It is also in the concept of feeling the vibe of the environment and being in harmony with it. Taonga Puoro is the ultimate example of this in my opinion. If I’m in Aotearoa with a harp, I’m inclined to play clean air music with intervals inspired by tui calls. In the Pacific Islands I’m inspired by the warmth and rhythms of the water and trees. In fact, these experiences are my references. The antipodes are fierce with nature. So moving into the densely populated, polluted, urban environment and foreign soundscape of Istanbul, I both absorbed the experience and reacted to it.
Some things that are particularly Pacific to me are the introduction of Migration, inspired by bird calls and contemporary NZ classical music. Greenstones is another one. Seeing the social-political situation between Kurdish and Turkish communities here, it made me think about Maori and the other communities which have journeyed to Aotearoa. In that piece I always imagine the West Coast of NZ, clear starry skies and cold air. Sunshine Sister (my homesick song) is a sunny island tune about laughing and joy, as is the second part of Aksam Duasi. Like that, the influence weaves its way through the music.
One of the reasons I started writing tunes here was to find a middle ground where I could communicate better with my Turkish musician friends. One time at a first gig, I said to the band, “let’s just jam this one on a dub groove.” Well, I started, the bass player came in with something slightly different, the drummer joined with something different again, the violinist changed it more and by the time it got to the second tabla player, I had no idea what we were playing, but it wasn’t any kind of dub that I recognised. There were suddenly all these alien rhythms my ears were trying to process. It was pretty funny. So I figured out that we all have different vocabularies according to our experiences. I wrote music that mixed my perspective with a local vibe – where there weren’t too many preset rules and everyone could bring their own interpretations.
Q How many strings on the violin like instrument? It sounds similar to the Chinese Erhu.
The violin like instrument is the Classic Kemençe (keh-men-cheh) played by Sercan Halili. It has a three string and a four string version, and in Time, Sercan plays an Alto Kemençe which he had designed for himself. It is the first and only recording of that instrument. I love it because it sounds like a raspy old man. I love all the kemençes for their soulful vocal sound – so etheric. The instrument is played with a bow, but balances between the knees rather than on the shoulder. It has gut strings, and the tones are created by pressing against the strings with the backs of the fingernails. It is a very highly regarded Turkish instrument for its delicate and emotional nature. Mostly it is played in Turkish classical music settings; Sercan is quite adventurous. He is a talented young player fluent in the Turkish classical world and working on a number of cross-over projects.
Q Have you considered doing an even more Jazz influenced album one day? Your music on Pacif.ist swings.
Thanks man. I like swinging. I love jazz. I’m doing a Masters degree in Jazz at the moment, so I reckon there will be a few new tunes popping out that are more jazz influenced.
In fact the first piece of the next album is a jazz tune already. We were going to put it on this album but felt it needed more time to mature. That was a session with the great bass player Dine Doneff (aka Kostas Theodorou) from Thessaloniki. I met him out in Skopje which is where I study jazz with the guitarist Toni Kitanovksi. Dine later came to Istanbul to record on some pieces and it was such a great experience working with him.
Q. Could you tell me your link with Rattle Records? Steve is doing a fabulous job of recording NZ Music and a number of those albums are absolutely world-class (‘Zoo’ by Tom Dennison is my very favourite).
Steve Garden and Rattle Records have been fantastic. I approached them with my demo a couple of years ago and asked if they’d be interested to release it on their label. Happily, they said yes, and they’ve been really supportive throughout the process. There are many artists for whom I have huge respect and admiration on the Rattle label, so I’m honoured to have my album in the same catalogue. The recent output by Rattle of artists and new music is phenomenal and gorgeous. Really a cool support for art music in NZ. Many thanks to them.
Q. What is your connection to Bic – I gather that you have been recording with her?
I’ve been playing with Bic Runga since about 2006, when we did the Acoustic Winery Tour and I played in her band. Since then we’ve worked together when we get the opportunity. I recorded on Belle, the title track of her new album. She invited me to play support for her recent national tour. So I did the support performance, releasing Pasif.ist, and then I joined her and the band on stage for a couple of numbers. We had a great tour, with Kody Neilsen and Michael Logie in the band. I admire Bic’s stellar output and her musicality. She’s always encouraged me to get my music out there.
I must thank you for the thought that you put into your answers Natalia. I look forward to your next visit home and to any future albums.
John (Jazz Local 32)