I would like to introduce you once again with a band you might have been hearing about from left and right. The name of the band is Gagarin Jazz Band. It consists of Orkun Akyol on the keyboard, Barış Taşçıoğlu on the guitar and the keyboard, Atahan Çiftçi on the bass guitar and Fırat Şık on the drums. Orkun graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Boğaziçi University, Barış Boğaziçi with one in sociology, Atahan Galatasaray in industrial engineering and Fırat with a degree in mechanical engineering. We are therefore talking about a band which came together under the roof of Boğaziçi University Music Club (BÜMK). The muse which the band takes its name from is Esbjörn Svensson Trio’s memorable piece “From Gagarin’s Point View”.
I also met Gagarin Jazz Band via BÜMK. It was two years ago. I came face to face with this band as they were having a heated discussion when I walked into the laminated walled ground floor room of the music club. The eyebrows were raised and the voices were so tense that I remember thinking “Oh no, there is an argument brewing. Should I just walk back out from there I came from?” However, I learnt my lesson and understood what democracy within a band means as I watched the tension subside within two minutes and the music continued flowing peacefully as if nothing had happened; there were no enemies here.
Gagarin Jazz Band continued on with their rehearsals and concerts without a break since that day and expanded their pool of compositions to became an established jazz band. They did not sacrifice their sincere enthusiasm and democracy within the band in this process either. They are now a team supported by an increasing number of jazz authorities including IKSV and Nardis Jazz Club.
They recently had a recording session at Istanbul Vodafone Park Freezone Studios and presented their compositions. I met with Gagarin Jazz Band in the light of these recordings soon to be available online and conversed with them in order for you to get to know them better. Here you are…
Let’s start with the usual question. How did this band come together?
Fırat: I was the first conductor of the BÜMK Orchestra that we formed in 2011 in order to play jazz. There was another member who was active in the music club at that time, that was our friend Orkun who gave concerts with his own chamber orchestra at Albert Long Hall.
Orkun: I knew Atahan from Istanbul Highschool for Boys (Istabul Erkek Lisesi). We dipped our feet in jazz together during the high school years. We even had a trio with another drummer. But we formed a new union with Fırat at BÜMK.We formed the main team of Gagarin with my high school friend Atakan after returning from studying abroad with Erasmus.
Gagarin, The Jazz Band of Conductors
Fırat: Our aim was initially to play the jazz standards only. We saw that things were going well after a while and invited Alp Paksoy, the third conductor of the BÜMK Orchestra, so that he would play the saxophone. We became a quartet with three members who had experience in conducting. They started calling us “The Jazz Band of our Conductors Gagarin”.
Barış: This meant one thing. Three of the band members had other talents than just having mastery over their instruments. For example, Fırat could focus on the harmony in addition to playing the drums; Orkun had conducted a chamber orchestra. Atahan played the oud in addition to the bass guitar.
Fırat: This multi-purpose situation became one of the biggest driving forces of the band. We were joined by our friend Barış, who was the second conductor of the BÜMK Orchestra, after Alp left.
So why weren’t you involved with Gagarin from the start Barış?
Barış: Because, as Fırat also pointed out, the repertoire initially focused on standards that occasionally included vocals as well. The they moved in a different direction with their own compositions; became more electronic and ambient. That’s when I came in.
Fırat: We don’t want to be too acoustic. That’s what it’s all about.
Orkun: I wanted the sounds to have more sustain as we played the compositions. We will be closer to that sound if Atahan plays the double bass one day. In summary, Barış was the right person to help as achieve this desired texture.
Barış: We actually wanted to use these sustaining sounds as a cushion on which we could comfortably place our music.
Fırat: We weren’t looking for a virtuoso but a multi-faceted and talented musician who could translate this abstract concept into a solid one with a few chords. Barış was the perfect choice for us. The fact that he played the guitar as well was a plus.
Then when was Gagarin Jazz Band reborn as a unusual music project?
Fırat: We could say around the end of 2015. Barış joined us in the fall of 2016.
How would you summarize your music in a few words?
Fırat: I think we make contemporary music and Orkun has a great part in the foundation of this. Because he studies composition at ITU MIAM and is very interested in contemporary music.
Sanat: Orkun, do you share the pieces you write for the band with your teachers?
Orkun: Sometimes I do.
How are your music and compositions received at MIAM?
Orkun: There aren’t anywho who objects. Actually, there are others who play jazz in the department. For example, we have a friend called Ayberk who plays the percussions. He played some standards during the second part of his graduation exam and I accompanied him. The teachers like the voicings they heard.
It is great to have musicians who play different genres come together. BÜMK brought students who liked different musics together. There would be more people working with jazz if a similar dialogue were to happen at MIAM. Nobody is against jazz there. There is only some miscommunication.
On the other hand, we also discuss this within the band: How different should my compositions for the band be compared to those I write for a contemporary music band at MIAM?
Fırat: Orkun’s compositions usually don’t consist of AABA parts or ordered forms in 16 scale. I would be drawn to the better known forms if I were to write them. But Orkun brings us material that is out of the norm and we work on it, which I believe results in unique and easily-digested music.
Atahan: In other words, we take Orkun’s contemporary compositions and bring them to the jazz fusion dominion through our communication within the band.
Maybe you will have more opportunities to reach bigger crowds with your unique music this way.
Barış: This interaction will help build Gagarin’s unique sound more so than to help it reach more people.
They don’t shy away from arguments.
Could you explain further about how Orkun’s compositions connect to the Gagarin sound? How is this meal cooked? For example, do you have everything written out as you go on the stage or do you play whatever is in your minds as head arrangements?
Fırat: As we said, Orkun comes up with the melodic idea and we polish it as the orchestra.
Barış: Ideas are solid in Orkun’s head. Then we intervene and transform them to head arrangements.
Atahan: We all have many other things to do in addition to music, so we don’t have the time to write things out in detail.
Orkun: We usually keep the melody and harmony as they are. Sometimes I leave open spaces for the band members as far as the melody goes; they make comments; or I ask Fırat for a specific rhythm at a specific time and Fırat plays that with his own interpretation. Therefore we polish the piece together.
Fırat: We have been playing together since the end of 2014. We got familiar with one another and each other’s musical perspective, therefore we don’t clash much while working on the compositions.
But you don’t shy away from having arguments among yourselves.
Who starts them?
Fırat: I do.
Barış: Fırat is our alpha. But all these arguments ultimately take the band to a better place.
Fırat: Sometimes there are moments that we talk to each other without making eye contact for 20 minutes due to the tension.
You also are one of the rare bands that rehearse regularly.
Fırat: Both Barış and I work as consultants in the morning so we usually move the rehearsals to late in the evenings. But we always manage to schedule a rehearsal per week, whether we have a concert or not, except for the summer months.
Orkun: We try to schedule the concerts to encourage us to regularly rehearse.
Fırat: So we try our best to accept all the concert requests.
You didn’t play the namesake E.S.T. piece “From Gagarin’s Point of View” at Vodafone Park Freezone Studios. Why not?
Orkun: We didn’t record it due to copyright reasons. Even Sibelius’s arrangement is currently not included due to this.
E.S.T is where we converge.
So will you record this piece your band is name after in the future?
Fırat: We actually really enjoy playing that piece. We had practiced that piece for two hours over and over and lost ourselves in it with Atahan and Orkun before Barış came. We actually play it differently compared to the E.S.T. style. We don’t use a bow with the bass, for example. But this piece has another significance for us. That is: Even though we all have different musical chacters as band members, this piece and the sound of Nordic jazz brings us together. That is why we decided to name our band Gagarin after all.
Will all of the recordings at Freezone Studios be included in Gagarin Jazz Band’s launch album?
Fırat: Actually yes. We plan to record these pieces, with the addition of a couple others, at the end of this year. We can even split them into 3 EPs and release them like that. But our aim ultimately is not to become popular and to reach big audiences. The nature of our music wouldn’t support this. Our only concern is to receive constructive feedback from an audience whose members possess musical gusto, knowledge and culture. On the other hand, our music is different. That is why we will try all the publishing and distribution venues so that people can reach this different music easily.
Which musicians influenced you until now?
Fırat: I usually listen to Pat Metheny, Esbjörn Svensson Trio. I also play the guitar. I follow many acoustic guitar players.
Barış: I have been friends with Fırat for 6-7 years since I joined BÜMK and we have always shared the music we enjoy with each other. That’s why I also heavily listen to guitarists’ music. My list goes on like Jim Hall, Pat Metheny. However, I have recently started to listen to electronic music as well.
Are there any musicians or producers you would like to work with while keeping the fundamental Gagarin members together?
Fırat: I would have loved to work with Pat Metheny. Of course there are dreams and then there is the reality… I would really really like for him to listen to us, comment, and even join us for a solo. It would be enough if he spared us 15 minutes.
It seems like you guys are ready for your Vitrin/Showcase performance. Let’s relay this information as an open call here.
Atahan: I imagine coming together with a strings section for a project in the future. It could be a quartet of strings. We could even include winds and a brass section.
This one seems to be a call for CRR Big Band. Sounds good, let’s go on…
Orkun: My short term goal is to get rid of the schizophrenic world which I live in due to the convergence of my academic and the other world.
Atahan: We would of course like to play at prominent jazz festivals, especially those in Europe. We plan to take action in this direction in short term.
Barış: I have similar dreams to play with Pat Metheny and Julian Lage. I cannot help but dream evolving into a more political stance where worries can be expressed through words and not stay hidden in the music alone.
Orkun: We will have an argument if we start talking about politics.
Barış: What I mean is the individual expressing his background and stance.
The Aesthetics of the Moment in Music
What do your current compositions talk about? Most of you are engineers, you know about the mathematics of music but what is told beyond these mathematics as Barış also mentioned?
Barış: This is a really hard question.
Fırat: At one point I wondered a lot on why we listen to this thing called music and why it affects us so. Art is actually formed in two ways: 1-To solidify emotions. For example, when you hear a love song, it makes you feel love and you remember an old flame. 2-For the aesthetics. For example, you view an abstract sculpture. It doesn’t necessarily talk to you emotionally. But it has a certain aesthetic, you cannot take your eyes off of it. Therefore I cannot tell you “There is a lot of aggression in our music.” But I can say “All of its curves call for the gaze just like that statue.” with the aesthetics it present.
Orkun: I actually am not aiming to present a material structure like a statue with the contents of this music. There are some quotations in our compositions and we follow its path that leads to somewhere else. For example, there was a quote from Chopin in one of our recordings at Freezone Studios. Or I start out with concepts like momentary symmetry-asymmetry, dissonance-consonance. But I have never sculpted or formed a political sentence like what Barış said. I wasn’t concerned with provoking emotions.
Fırat: You are describing the aesthetics.
Barış: By the way, what I meant with politics isn’t something similar to a Taylor McFerry performance. I am not talking about lyrics that directly touch upon political subjects.
Fırat: But our music currently doesn’t have any political messages. We create a solely aesthetic content.
Orkun: I am actually in the pursuit of the moments within the piece.
Atahan: Yes, Orkun writes his compositions through a sound, form, rhythm or harmonics that he stumbles upon in a moment. This is the same for me as well.
I have such a scene in my head hearing about what you said: Orkun finds a weirdly shaped stone while walking down the road one day. It might be a piece of a sculpture or something that fell from a building. Maybe it has its own story. But Orkun is unaware about any of there. It is the shape that attracts his attention. That’s why he brings the stone and puts it on a table, saying: “Friends I found this stone.” You gather around and make observations about the stone. Therefore a new work of art, new music, is born from that stone.
Fırat: The aesthetic concepts of our day don’t look for meanings. There are many accounts on Instagram with similar content. People cannot help but look at those photos and videos. But not because they see a meaning in it. They simply cannot resist the visuals.
Barış: Ultimately the aesthetics of the old days were different than those now. We feel that different because of external factors. A man is currently looking at that Instagram photo and gets hypnotized. People would think he had lost his mind if a man did the same in the past. There are political dynamics behind this change, that is why political expression is interesting to me.
After talking about how techno music culture came about…
Barış: We are in the era to create music for live performances.
Fırat: Yes, our music is written to be performed. To be played differently each time… Because our aim isn’t to tell a certain story over and over again. It is to present an idea. We create variations of that idea during every rehearsal and concert. So what do you feel Sanat, when you listen to our music?
I feel more of a flow rather than emotion in your music. I hope that the music you write to be played live will reach more and more music lovers soon. We will curiously follow the steps you will take on your spontaneous and aesthetic journey.