Imagine a jazz stage that has transformed into a theater. It has everything from the curtains, the spotlights, the decor, costumes, actors, lines, to the prompter. However, let’s note down something important: This is neither Broadway nor a scene from the West Side Story musical… Nâzım Hikmet stands on the stage in all his glory and tells us about the ultimate fairytale; he tells us about life itself. This is exactly what “Yürüyen Merdiven” project, founded by pianist Yiğit Özatalay and drummer Mustafa Kemal Emirel, does. Forgive me if I sound like I spoke in code. I hope that the lines below will help you figure out these codes.
Maybe a majority of you have heard about Yiğit and Kemal’s “Yürüyen Merdiven” project through their cooperation with Ülkü Aybala Sunat. But who are Yiğit and Kemal? Yiğit Özatalay is the pianist of Dostlar Tiyatrosu, he has worked with Genco Erkal for many years; he actually is a jazz musician and a composer. He graduated as the top of his class (from what I have heard) in Bilgi University’s Jazz Department. Kemal, on the other hand, is a drummer who has worked with artists like Dodan, Murat Çelik and Briken Aliu for many years. He has regarded his music as a big question mark that he has to pursue since his years as a student at Bilgi University.
Their band’s name “Yürüyen Merdiven” is derived from the initial letters or Yiğit and Mustafa Kemal. But the ‘yürüyen merdiven’ (meaning ‘escalator’) metaphor isn’t a simple acrostic. What we are confronted with isn’t a metal escalator stuck in a perpetual circle, like the ones in shopping centers. On the contrary, it is a dynamic wooden ladder on two legs. Its power isn’t derived from electricity, but from a deep musical friendship and experience that spans in 13 long years.
I got to listen to “Yürüyen Merdiven” for the first time at Nardis Jazz Club last month when they played with my Swedish bassist friend Kristian Lind. Yiğit’s compositions were already unique and attractive, but I also witnessed how they took pieces like “Nature Boy” and took them to another level. In addition, their stage performance was, as jazz musicians call it, incredibly tight. They almost transformed into a single organism with 4 hands and 20 fingers when they plated.
I got their album that night. Its title is “Çınar, Güneş ve bir Deli”. It is an album embellished with the smoky voices of Genco Erkal and Tülay Günal, one that pursues a girl in a red coat through the mystery in Ülkü Aybala Sunat’s voice, reminiscing about those who are lost or left behind while also relaying the screams of those who are learning to live through resistance. Now let’s continue on to breaking these codes and ask Yiğit and Kemal our questions about themselves and their newly released album.
Nâzım Hikmet and his poem “Masalların Masalı” let out the first spark for your first album “Çınar, Güneş ve bir Deli”. Since we are wandering in the ultimate fairytale through your music, let’s stay there and ask: Which heroes, wise people and even old guide men with long white beards did Yiğit Özatalay and Mustafa Kemal Emirel meet during their musical adventure, and with what kind of gifts and treasures did you bring back? Kemal?
The first hero I met during my journey was Cem Aksel. I was in high school and my bassist friend made me listen to his ‘Bas Şarkıları’ album that he recorded with Gürol Ağırbaş. I cannot forget how I got lost in one of those pieces, I am still affected by it. It made me question “Can I play the drums like this one day?” and it helped me in making the decision to enter the entrance exams of Bilgi University. The most important hero I came across during my school years was my teacher Cengiz Baysal. I watched his drumming, mature attitude and humanism with great admiration and wonder. I found myself among many deep questions and answers during the period when I was communicating with him as his student. The first question was: “How is it possible to be a human being and a musician like this?” I got the opportunity to take composition lessons from Selen Gülün when the classes got smaller after branch requisites got pooled together. I used to play melodies I heard on the TV on my father’s small keyboard when I was little, but I didn’t have the opportunity to improve myself in that aspect in the years that followed. So I did my best not to fail in Selen Gülün’s classes. But she never allowed me to get demoralized, and approached me with great patience and encouragement. Şenol Küçükyıldırım also gifted me his support in all his sincerity.
“One should know how to lost a treasure as well when they find it.”
Yiğit your journey took you to Italy and Poland as well, right?
My teacher Selen Gülün has been one of the most important people who has guided me when it came to being a pianist and a composer. She was very generous in sparing her time for me, and she shared everything she knew. Her guidance was so effective that for our first album we recorded my piece “Aralık & Nisan” that I wrote years ago for her class. I met Tuna Ötenel at another pit stop during my journey. He didn’t talk much; he just made his music. He helped me understand what cannot be expressed with words in music. My composition teacher in Poland, Wojciech Widlak, taught me how to shape the essence of an idea while not becoming a slave to it while composing; to move while listening to the requirements of the music. On the other hand, İlhan Usmanbaş is my old guide man with long white beard, in your words. Since we are talking about the gifts that we received, I should share something. Usmanbaş gave me an advice: “One should know how to lost a treasure as well when they find it.” He meant that once you possess the treasure, one shouldn’t cause it to lose its value, instead he should take what he needs from it and contribute even more value to it. And of course, Genco Erkal is one of the main heroes I met during my journey. He didn’t only expanded my musical vision, but also my general perspective on life. He taught me many things that I wouldn’t be able to learn in a conservatory, like stage stance, making stage music, the position of the artist on the stage, his responsibilities and thought process, and the time flow on the stage.
The biggest gift I received from Onur Türkmen, our teacher at Bilgi University, was the lesson that I shouldn’t limit myself with singularities in my approach to contemporary music. He helped me realize my own melodic identity and opened a door for me.
Can we hear how you met Genco Erkal in a little more detail?
Yiğit: Emin Fındıkoğlu facilitated my meeting with Genco Erkal. We gave a concert at Nardis Jazz Club with Kemal, Ahmet Türkmenoğlu and singer Mercedes Casali in January 2012. Emin Fındıkoğlu came to the club because he was curious about Mercedes Casali’s vocals, and then he met us. It turns out that Dostlar Tiyatrosu was looking for a pianist for the play Ben Bertolt Brecht (I Am Bertolt Brecht) written and directed by Genco Erkal. Emin Fındıkoğlu then called me and asked me “Would you be interested?” I accepted with pleasure and started to work at Dostlar Tiyatrosu. I am thankful that Emin Fındıkoğlu introduced me to Genco Erkal and opened such a beautiful door for me.
Kemal: Both of us also got the opportunity to work with Genco Erkal for the “Yürüyen Merdiven” project. We asked him to read “Bugün Pazar” for a piece in the album, and he said yes. That’s how his organic unity with our band was born.
With the inspiration of Nâzım’s lines
Every single piece in this album, whose story goes back more than 10 years, must have touched you like a friend and left its mark on you. Let’s assume that you see these pieces as your friends. What if we ask you to say a couple of words about these friends…
Kemal: I could tell “Masalların Masalı” that it was as compassionate as my mother.
Yiğit: I thought about the piece first as well. We like that piece.
This friend touched a lot of composers’ lives as well. Ayşe Tütüncü, Ruhi Su and Fazıl Say, they all transformed with poem into music in different time periods.
Yiğit: Yes “Masalların Masalı” caught the attention of many people, it is a very special poem. The form and content go hand-in-hand in a perfect homogen unity. It grabs the listener immediately and tells about a very deep philosophy with everyday words and expressions. It is almost like a holy book. If we managed to express that with music, how great. It is one of my oldest pieces we have performed with “Hüseyin” Kemal. We have been performing it since 2004 and it means a lot to us.
Kemal: Hüseyin was one of Yiğit’s friends. The initial name of the piece was “Hüseyin’e Umut”, because Hüseyin has an illness. Its name changed to “Hüseyin” when Hüseyin passed away. I actually wasn’t initially able to play the piece, and took it to Cengiz Baysal. It is a 7/4 piece, it has triplets. He looked at the score and played it, and then asked :Who wrote this?” in surprise. He really liked it.
Yiğit: We still struggle while playing “Hüseyin”, this is a good thing. But not being able to play it doesn’t demoralize us, on the contrary, we enjoy that, it is a learning experience. It reminds us of the essential value of the piece. We hear something else regarding Hüseyin every time we play it.
Kemal: Yes, we dressed Hüseyin in different clothes every time we played it. Its story puts me in a different mood every single time.
This reminds me of how a person’s memory doesn’t stay static just like a photograph…
Yiğit: “Haydarpaşa” is a piece that unifies us; we play it as if I am playing the drums and Kemal plays the piano. These pieces are much more to us than a combination of notes, melodies and harmonies. They are memories that formed while composing and playing it for years. There is so much to these memories that we could write a book on each one of them. Similarly, “Bugün Pazar” and “Direndikçe” have so many memories. I started writing the score for “Bugün Pazar” in 2014, when I was thinking about writing music for Genco Erkal’s play called İnsanlarım. Of course, it was written with a Nâzım Hikmet poem in mind. The last line of the poem is “Toprak, güneş ve ben, bahtiyarım” (“Soil, sun and me, I am happy”). Kemal said that we should somehow use this line in the album’s title. This is how the album came to be titled “Çınar, Güneş ve bir Deli” (“Oak, Sun and A Madman”). I am thankful this piece made it to the album, because we only have one life in contrast to our many projects. Combining these projects sometimes protects that unity.
Kemal: And that unity makes us who we are.
We heard that you will work with Edip Cansever’s poems in your next album project. What was the particular reason that you picked Nâzım for your first album?
Kemal: Actually, we are currently working on Edip Cansever’s poem called “Yok mu Var”. We perform it during our concerts as well, we played it during our latest Nardis concert. We even thought this poem could lend its name to the second album.
Yiğit: We picked Nâzım Hikmet for our first album, because Nâzım internalized Turkey with all his longing. That is why he is so good at expressing the world of images that surround us. He has a world view that fits in so well with our approach to life and music.
Philosophy behind “Direndikçe”
I have a question regarding the piece called “Direndikçe” in the album. Do you think the state of resistance leads to learning or is it something ridig that protects all those that you have learnt until then? In this sense, how can we learn while we are resisting?
Kemal: The process of learning (just like in all the artistic branches) is a little troublesome, because one has to confront his own mistakes once that process starts; he can lose his self esteem and his psychology can get messed up. When we say “We learn through resistance”, we mean resisting through this painful process. Life changes once you accept this as a philosophy, and you become more constructive. For example, someone who has confronted his own mistakes stop seeing them as mistakes. Just as Yiğit says in “Bir Deli’nin Hata Defteri”: “Kabahat eşit midir hata?” (“Is fault equal to a mistake?”)
Yiğit: Resistance is actually a life-and-death situation during which one questions being alive. That is exactly when the path of resistance intersects that of the process of learning. American author Richard Bach wrote: “Nobody can teach you anything, you can only learn when you want to.” So we learn once we get to that life-or-death situation, in that moment of resistance.
This is reminiscent of the law of adaptation to nature and the evolutionary theory. We need to evolve to survive. Speaking about evolving, will “Yürüyen Merdiven” remain a two-men project in the future?
Yiğit: Yes, we formed our core as a duo, on the unity of drums and piano and we plan to continue on like this. On the other hand, we sometimes are accompanied by bass, vocals or a wind instrument and we take great pleasure in sharing that on the stage.
Where does jazz stand when your musical past, concerts and this album is concerned?
Kemal: Jazz is important when a musician needs to find his internal flow. There is a new field called flow psychology in scientific literature now. Its research area includes a variety from sportspeople and musicians to people from many different fields. Jazz allows the musician to experience that flow psychology with its improvizatory nature and aim.
Yiğit: We were talking about a similar topic with my bassist friend Özgür Salıcı the other day. This is an orderless order, it is the concept of “The Open Work”. This is the biggest effect of jazz on my life. For example, Kemal and I perform a plan we have prepared before. But that is always an open-ended plan. We enrich that through our interaction. We embellish that order with some disarray and ambiguity. Going with the flow of coincidences corresponds with the flow psychology.
But don’t you think that you overcome some obstacles here? You are only two people and you always play together. However, the communication between two people and their music, this flow psychology, can get distrupted due to certain physical or psychological reasons and withdrawals and sticking to memorization can happen.
Kemal: We cannot claim never to have fallen into that trap. Music embodies a lot of psychological elements and a lot of effort. Maybe the action of ‘resistance’ comes to our help at the end of the day. One has to think on and evaluate the problem if he is confronted by an artistic block.
Yiğit: Yes, we have to ‘resist’ against the templates and prejudices in our minds as well. Ultimately, jazz requires going outside these templates, or at least to stretch the limits, to draw a different path that leads to a particular result. This is what we try to do to some extent.
This album should especially reach people who aren’t musicians.
Of course, you probably want this album to reach everyone, just like all productive musicians who turn that productivity into an album. But who do you want it to reach the most?
Yiğit: I would like “Çınar Güneş ve Bir Deli” to reach everyone without any language, class or race limitations. But I would like it to especially reach people who aren’t musicians. Because I believe people outside the profession have a stronger sense of judgement. These people perceive the topic while drawing similarities from life. While creating music, I personally want someone “who doesn’t understand from music” to be able to listen and enjoy it. Nâzım Hikmet is a pioneer in that aspect. Those “who don’t understand poetry” can also enjoy when they read a poem by Nâzım.
Kemal: I agree with what Yiğit has said. If I want people to listen to this album, for them to love it, for us to get closer, I don’t want this out of my ego but with a childish enthusiasm. I actually immediately thought of two people when you asked this question. One of these people is Cem Aksel, who caused me to lost my path only to help me find it again. I think it is a great feeling to want to share what we create with those we feel indepted to. The second person is my aunt who has passed away. She was an incredibly compassionate person. She helped me see a bright light in a dirty world ever since I was very young.
Lastly, I will ask you to recommend a book each for our readers.
Kemal: One of them would be Kenny Werner’s ‘Effortless Mastery’.It hadn’t been translated into Turkish when Teacher Şenol recommended it.
Yiğit: Umberto Eco’s ‘The Open Work’. It is the topic of my doctorate thesis and a masterpiece that everyone from every artistic branch should read.
Upcoming Yürüyen Merdiven concerts
12 April 2017
XJazz Festival: Yürüyen Merdiven and Kristian Lind Trio concert at Nardis Jazz Club
28 April 2017
Kanyon Friday Stage: Yürüyen Merdiven and Ülkü Aybala Sunat concert