We talked to Cenk Erdoğan, fretless guitar virtuoso, composer and arranger, about his album “Fermata” which left us speechless. Accompanied by bassist Baran Say and drummer Mehmet İkiz, we didn’t forget to send our respects to all the musicians Cenk Erdoğan has played with as well as his albums “İle”, “Kavis”, “Karakutu” and “Lahza”.
“Fermata” is a Baroque music term that means to stop or to pause; how did it become the title of your album?
Actually puandorg means to stop and to breathe. For example, you play do re mi; if you put the fermata sign on top of mi, then the whole orchestra stops there, breathe, and then continue. I pause and then move in my pieces a lot. I use this sign frequently. It has a great energy. For me as well since we are so separate now; Kurdish, Turkish, Laz, Circassian, Armenian… We are at a point where we see a three-year old Syrian child and say “The Syrians are here”; I am very bothered by that. I thought, let’s meet under “Fermata” and breathe together. We all breathe the same air, we are no different from each other. I want people to come together while listening to this album and to breathe together.
That is all good, but how did you first come to terms with the feelings that became the title of this album through this motivation?
The title of my first album was “İle”. “İle” is a conjunction word. I wanted to connect the listener with myself, guitar with music and fretless guitar with jazz. I never made music without thinking about the listeners. I try to figure out whether I was successful in expressing my feelings, however abstract they might be, after writing a composition. If I am not successful, I delete that recording. I am not a man who makes marginal music; free improvizations and such. But this title was what brought things together in this album. I love the puandorg sign because I know it means stopping together, moving on together and breathing together. But puandorg is a rather bad name. It wouldn’t make a good album title. I looked into it more and came across “Fermata”. The ‘a’ in the middle is pronounced openly since it is Italian. It reflected what I had in my mind and was phonetically musical so I thought yes. Let’s come together, play and listen together.
The opening piece, “Kara Gider”, starts off as a melodic piece just as can be expected from you, but then it transforms into something progressive, even psychedelic. It then retraces its steps to where it started off. Where is “Kara Gider” leading towards?
The studio of one of my friends was flooded last year. They called a guy from the municipality. He told them “Move from this place, the pipes go into the darkness here, there won’t be any good coming from this area.” He told me about this and I thought it was a rather strange way of putting things. They asked him what it meant. He said that the tunnels in that area were made in the Ottoman era and that it isn’t known where they lead. I was moved by this. We don’t know where we are led in this country and as the humankind. It doesn’t go anywhere. It goes into the darkness and doesn’t reemerge. You think it leads to somewhere and bam! You face a wall. That is why the piece comes in such waves. It starts with a repeating signal, the melody comes in gently, then the waters are let loose and they don’t lead to anywhere. Then it calms down and moves on. It proves how deep what a municipality worker’s words can be.
The pieces in the album are instrumental, evoking different and personal feelings in everyone. Looking at the theme and the structure of “Her Yolun Vardır Bir Yolcusu”, the first half of the six-minute piece is preparing for the road, which is followed by the journey itself.
Yes, this piece has a lot of stops, pauses and fermatas. Everybody’s life drags them in a direction, good choices, bad choices; we all made them and we will continue doing so because it’s life. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t work out in the direction of greatness and success all the time. Bad things do happen. They have their own passengers. It is a path as well. You win some, you lose some. I am on moving on the path of the composer more and more now. I moved on from being an instrumentalist a bit, I aim to leave better things for this instrument or for the Turkish music database… Maybe someone will follow this path just like how I listen to the masters today. It is great if you do, and if not, you will find your own path. All roads lead to somewhere.
By the way, we are enthusiastically following Kabak&Lin Records, but this album sounds more in the vicinity of Hermes Records from Iran. The reason why I am mentioning this is because I hear Mesopotamia ECM’s sound in “Fermata”.
It is interesting that you mentioned Iran. I went to Iran to give a solo concert in December. This was the first time I was visiting. I was greeted by such a great audience there. They memorized my compositions and asked for them during the solo concert. There is a place called Hatra Institute there, they already ordered 100 copies of “Fermata” to be sold there. Iran is a fantastic place. There are incredible musicians. I did a workshop there. 60 musicians came. It was a two-hour event but it lasted 6 and a half. I couldn’t leave. They asked such great questions, none of them were empty. Those guys want to free themselves from the regime there and question the possibility of starving in this profession; about life in general. It was a very interesting experience.
Since we mentioned Iran a lot, let’s reminisce about Golnar Shahyar. She came from Viana to perform at Baba Sahne with you during a single piece and you were great. How did you two meet?
I came across Golnar Shahyar during one of her concerts at Nardis Jazz Club and fell in love with her voice. We kept in touch and played together at the Austrian Cultural Office, we did wine evenings etc. Then I said, I should write a piece for this girl, and she would write the lyrics for it and we will have a piece together in this life. I wrote it in 15-20 minutes. I wanted to write a long piece that would suit Golnar. One that brings together the vocals with the guitar. We met at a studio in Turkey and simultaneously recorded it. Drums and bass recorded on top of that.
“Orada mısın” takes me to different places and makes me feel different things in these places. You are already there and you make the double bass sing. Peel it layer by layer.
It is actually a piece from 2013. I wrote that for a TV show. It was played with the cello there. I played it in the trio format a couple of times. I felt its energy. But it was recorded on the last day. I sent the score to Baran (Say) and (Mehmet) İkiz on my mobile phone and said let’s go over it once. İkiz played that rhythm right away. It is actually the well-known rhythm of the rhyme “Civciv çıkacak kuş çıkacak”. But İkiz played it marvellously with a Northern accent. I wasn’t supposed to have a guitar solo in it. But I wanted Baran to play a solo in this piece, and I would play the effects. But İkiz has strong intuitions. I feel the same in Lahza. Sometimes he motions me to halt when I am about to move in with the melody. I waited because I trust his instincts, Baran played an incredible solo and I started to play a solo as well. We said that we weren’t ready to record it after we were done, we thought it might have gone into distortion. And yes, unfortunately I was. I tried to play that last part again and I couldn’t. I have a friend in Cypress called Emre Yazgan, he cleaned up the distortion for me. So we used that first take. It came to be one of the most open-ended pieces in the album, we didn’t imagine such a solo to be in it.
I know what “Candireği” means when string instruments are concerned as a musician who has played classical kemençe and I think it is more of a romantic words than functional.
Exactly. I don’t know if it has corresponding words in other languages but its Turkish name is really beautiful. Candireği (dowelstick roughly translated into English as “life column”) is a tiny part of the instrument that conducts the vibrations of the strings to the body. An instrument wouldn’t be able to make a sound without candireği no matter what a great instrument you make. It is important for me here because I play a stringed tambour here. Sibel (Gürsoy), Tuba (Önal) and Dünya (Kızılçay) were my actual candireği here. I started to write this piece in a hiking trail in Antalya’s Geyikbayırı and completed it in Bodrum. I realized I was in the territory of flamenco. I am in love with that music. Here the guitar plays the tune and vocal waits for its turn. This trio sounded amazing, they are incredible. I realized they were the third vocal band since MFÖ, GMG being the second. I pressed pause suring the recording and said “I will write such pieces for you if you’d like.” All three are incredibly singers and soloists. I have been accompanying singers for many years and i cannot imagine a better harmony.
Your music is very valuable both artistically and functionally as a driving force for life; do you think these contradict each other at times?
I am a musician, I serve music. I can make arrangements. I can write orchestrations and lead them, I more or less know about human relationships. I am around 39-40 years old now, I have learnt, I can tolerate or get on top of things. Therefore all the arrangements I make keep me warm. They force you to research and to be more creative. That singer entrusts you with their future after all. You can make them similar to the others or make something different and help their career. I learnt to view my own works as an outsider, I am able to critique them. I will never give up on this attitude, I enjoy this.
Let’s end this interview with the subject of fretless instruments as you are a master. What differences does playing a fretless guitar versus playing just any guitar made in your career?
I actually started playing the fretless guitar by mistake. I asked a friend for a guitarist album, he brought me the cassette of Erkan Oğur’s “Bir Ömürlük Misafir”. I thought, what a print, the frets of the guitar aren’t even visible. I put it on to listen and I lost myself, of course. Everybody has a similar relationship with Erkan Oğur. Then came a point where it didn’t make sense to be similar to Erkan Oğur; it isn’t appropriate for my career. There is a burning man inside of me. Even though I have spiritual aspects, I am not as spiritual as him. Erkan Oğur says “Fretless guitar is my gift to mankind” on the cover of that album. I should take good care of it if he entrusted me with this. Therefore I thought whether my flamenco roots would take me to this genre while researching what I could do, and then realized we have many common points in Turkish music and maqam music. I tried to use the flamenco technique on the fretless guitar, but it is a tough stringed instrument and doesn’t respond to everything. I got interested in folk music in those years. I got confused while contemplating on the fretless guitar, Anatolian music, ‘şelpe’ technique. Aegean attitude etc. I have always enjoyed different genres and never limited myself to a single stile. I used to play my own pieces when I started to play the guitar in my young ages. Then I forgot that era during my university years. Vicente Amigo was the one who opened those doors again. He came to give a concert once, I went and realized that I had to start writing for the fretless guitar. This process took about 7-8 years.
Albüm Release Date: May 25th, 2018
Cenk Erdoğan: fretless guitar, stringed tambour, acoustic guitar
Mehmet İkiz: drums
Baran Say: double bass
Velican Sağun: percussion
Golnar Shahyar: vocals
İsmail Tunçcilek: bağlama
Vocals: Sibel Gürsoy, Tuba Önal, Dünya Kızılçay
Vocal Mix: Berk Kula
Mastering: Thomas Erberger
Cover Design: Anıl Sam