Black Pencil is an international contemporary ensemble that consists of Jorge Isaac on the block flute, Matthijs Koene on the pan flute, Esra Pehlivanlı on the viola, Marko Kassl accordeon and Enric Monfort on the percussion. The band, which was founded in 2010, is named after the Turkish painter Mehmet Siyah Kalem who lived in the 15th century. The band has given concerts concerts in various countries like Holland, Turkey, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Ireland and Venezuela since their formation. They perform the works of contemporary composers from the 20th and 21st centuries written for 5 musicians, such as Roderik de Man, Martijn Padding, Klas Torstensson, Wim Henderickx, Klaas de Vries and many others. Their concerts usually end up feeling like a stage/theater performance that is cleverly written interwoven with music, more so than just a concert.
The band’s first album “Buffoni” was released in 2014. The album consists of the compositions of Roderik de Man, Guus Janssen, Nico Huijbregts, Chiel Meijering, Georg Philipp Telemann, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and Unico-Wilhelm van Wassenaer. The source of inspiration for this album was the group of professional artists who performed visual humor pieces with different fictions in the 16th century. Their second album “Kaiseki” was released in 2017. This album includes compositions of Roderik de Man, Arnoud Noordegraaf, Florian Maier, Robert van Heumen, Vanessa Lann and Ayuo and has the theme of “composed dishes”. This album focuses on the traditional aspects of the Japanese Kaiseki cuisine such as “attention to details”, “the use of space”, “avoiding repetition” and “symmetry”. Their 2018 album “La Volta” feaures new compositions by John Dowland, Thomas Morley, William Byrd ve Klaas de Vries, Roderik De Man, David Dramm and Oene van Geel and the contemporary reflections on early period music can be heard in it.
We were set to listen to Black Pencil’s latest project and album’s namesake “Sit Fast”, named after the works of Christopher Tye who lives in the 1500s, at one of my favorite vanues, Borusan Müzikevi, on the 21st of February, Friday. Black Pencil was to interpret the works of Klaas De Vries, Martijn Padding, Klas Torstensson, Roderik De Man, Wim Henderickx and Louis Andriessen and they will bring a fresh new perspective on these contemporary works through a variety of genres and composition techniques. I had the opportunity to converse with the Turkish musician Esra Pehlivanlı before their concert and got to ask some questions. Here they are.
How was “Black Pencil” formed? What is the origin story of this band?
Black Pencil’s founder and artistic director is Jorge Isaac. Jorge and I met during K. Penderecki Music Competition in Poland in 2001. We shared our music and our lives. His first rule was that any band he would form would be extraordinary. A chamber ensemble that didn’t exist yet, different instrumental combinations–different colors, working with contemporary musicians, that it would produce new works, new projects. Block flute, viola and what else? Pan flute instead of any other wind instrument! Matthijs Koene is in love with his instrument and is very talented, and they knew each other for a long time. And making contemporary music with pan flute, which is known as a folkloric instrument! Beat and rhythm wouldn’t be complete without percussion, Enric Monfort. I have been performing regularly as a viola and accordeon duo (Duo MARES) with Marko Kassl since 2004. We needed harmony and it couldn’t be anybody else but Marko Kassl, who is an accordeon wizard. We have a unique chamber ensemble that we all passionately and patiently work for since 2010, constantly creating new projects and spending hours on it.
Venezuela, Spain, Holland, Turkey and Austria. All the band members come from different countries. Does this colorfulness have any positive effects on your work together?
Yes we all were born in different countries. Jorge (Venezuela), Matthijs (Holland), myself (Turkey), Marko (Austria)and Enric (Spain) and Holland is the country that connects us. We continue a majority of our works and activities here. Having different backgrounds, cultures, putting these together and understanding one another. This is another richness of Black Pencil.
“Sustainability” almost an utopic concept in our day, how does it feel to play and create projects with the same people for a long time period like a decade?
It is great with Black Pencil! We are 10 years old. Change is our omnipresent driving force. Pieces written for block flute, pan flute, viola, accordeon and percussion didn’t exist when we started out 10 years ago. Now there are more than 100 pieces written for Black Pencil. These compositions contain all the color ranges; written by esteemed composers, young composers (from 25 different countries if I remember correctly) from various different cultures. It is a big spectrum. In addition to this, the musicians we heard individually during our first years now sound like a single person. This is an important step towards becoming a real chamber ensemble; we breathe together. Of course, this only happens thanks to regular practice and concerts. Concerts, countries we visited, festivals, CD recordings, 14 projects, these are what come to mind right now… There could always be more to be done. Success is when you regularly do something instead of just doing it once. I believe we managed to achieve that during these 10 years and our path is a long one, we keep on traveling on it. We just got started!
All your albums are like designed individual concepts, from the stage performance down to the album itself. How do these projects come about? What is the decision process like? How do you choose the pieces? How are the arrangements made?
Absolutely. All these projects were born out of the will to create something new. These different contexts and everything else were taught out to the minutest of the details. You won’t merely see 5 musicians on the stage during many of our concerts. The decors, costumes, masks, lights, videos, “virtual reality”… The aim is to always create something different without compromising on originality and quality. We made the choice on working on a project-basis from the get go. This was slightly due to the choice of the combination of instruments. As I said before, there weren’t any pieces we could play together when we first started out. We didn’t have the opportunity to choose which pieces we could play among many great pieces just like other chamber ensembles. That’s why we chose this path. We decide upon a concept first and choose how to frame the project. Of course, developing this rather hard. It starts with the reseach process. We started with Mehmed Siyah Kalem’s miniatures and developed many different projects afterwards. We choose the composers depending on these projects and give them the theme, details and necessary details of the project as their source of inspiration. They write their interactions with these elements in their compositions. Black Pencil took an interest in older period music pieces in addition to contemporary music since 2013. Combining the old with the new was already being done. Our aim is to find their common points and see their interactions; to being a new breath to the old and a nuance to the new. We wanted to see what could be done to abolish the concept of time. Commedia dell’arte themed “Buffoni” was our first project with this in mind, “Chanson de Geste” J.S Bach and L. Berio, “La Volta” based in the Queen Elizabeth era in the 16th century, , “Totaliter Aliter” Hildegard von Bingen and Cantigas de Santa Maria, and “Sit Fast”, ‘John Baldwine El Yazması’ (15th century) as continuations of these projects. , John Baldwine, Nathaniel Giles and Thomas Woodson especially force the limits by using odd meters in their works. There is a greath rhythmic and harmonic labirynth in that. Cantus firmus (a musical form that consists of the repetition of the variations of a melody on a bass partition) is in the center of this project within a musical metamorphosis or composition. The pieces we choose also serve as sources of inspiration for new compositions and our own arrangements. There are intense rehearsal periods for each project. Learning new pieces and then working on the performance as a whole; on the concert program. Combining other disciplines if they are to take part in the project. And arranging older period pieces if they are to be performed. We write the arrangements together. This requires a long period of working and trials. Which instrument is to play which part, which one would work better, how will Black Pencil’s signature be visible in the final arrangement…
How does it feel to perform this international project in your own country?
I gave many concerts in various countries with various musicians so far. What is interesting is that I experience a different kind of excitement during my concerts in Turkey. It is hard to explain… It is great to be back in Istanbul with Black Pencil. Also, first time in Turkey with SIT FAST. The firsts are alluring but also embody elements of risk. Unknown, unheard, undone… It is important to take this risk during concert orhanizations, that is the only way to step outside of the boundaries of a usual program and to give the audience this opportunity as well. We would like to thank Borusan Muzik Evi.
Do you have any upcoming album projects?
The projects for the upcoming 4 years have already be decided upon. There are 2 albums that are planned; Back to Bach and High Pressure. We focused on Bach, Kunst der Fuge recently. We think we achieved a beautiful sound. That will be the content of Back to Bach album. High Pressure is an album that consists of pieces written for Black Pencil, it is contemporary music.