Anjelika Akbar

Anjelika Akbar first set foot in Turkey on 4 December 1990, a day the artist sums up in three words: “I was reborn.

When she was 8 or 9 years old, musician Anjelika Akbar came across the following question: “If you had a magic wand and your wish would come true when you waved it, what would you wish for?” The first thing that came to Akbar’s mind was that her grandmother should live long and that she might get a dog. But she thought more about it and in the end came up with an answer. Her wish was for a box full of magic matches. A match for every problem in the world, and when it was finished, a new box. Akbar got her dog, and her grandmother is still hale and hearty. As for her other wish, instead of matches she has musical notes in her hand, and among her accomplishments are inspiring people with a love of classical music and making them happy.

If being deprived of the piano was your punishment for being a naughty girl, why do you not want a piano in your photographs?
This is something I’ve insisted on for several years. A lot of people have seen me seated at the piano in photographs and assumed I’m a pianist. It bothers me to be thought of as ‘merely’ a pianist, especially among musicians. The piano is just one of the instruments through which I express myself. Above all else I am a composer. I started composing when I was four, and I had lessons in composition from the age of ten. I have hundreds of compositions including even symphonic works.

So if I asked you what you call yourself, your answer would be ‘composer’?
Yes, I am a composer first of all and that is how I regard myself. Don’t assume however that I say that to boast. Quite the contrary. I am also aware that I am a means. Music is not inside us but in the universe. I merely perceive the music that already exists, thanks to talent, sensitivity and good training. I am simply a medium. I extract music from somewhere and convey it to the other side by ‘translating’ it through musical notes.

What are you conveying in your album-concert-book project, ‘The Turkey Inside Me’?
In this project I am going to convey what I love, what has astonished me, what has made me sad, in other words everything that has left a mark on me. To do that, after Istanbul I’ll be traveling to Eskişehir, Ankara and Izmir. And after that to Kars, Van, Adana, Hatay, Antalya and Kaş. Later I may even go abroad. This is a long-range project.

And the book must be the most long-range aspect of it...
Yes, because in fact the project began with the book. I took three years to write it, bit by bit. Then I realized that I was also composing music in parallel with what I describe in the book. So I thought, why not try doing a dual narrative?  The book is coming together, the album is under way, and the concert dates are firming up. I am happy.

How did the writing process get started? How, for example, did the opening sentence of the book come to you?
I was taking notes all the time about the things that astonished me, that made me happy or sad. When I started taking notes, Turkey felt like a foreign country, but the more I wrote the more I began to feel I belonged here. I filled notebook after notebook. But that first sentence that would turn my notes into a book just didn’t come. Something had to happen first... I could sense that. And then one day it did.

What happened?
It was three years ago. The St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra had come from Russia to give a concert. I went to the concert and sat in the audience as a listener from Turkey. But on the stage were Russian musicians with whom I had grown up, who had trained in the same school as me. I was extremely moved. When the concert ended, the Turks started applauding wildly. The Russians stood up to take a bow. Each side was eyeing the other with astonishment. The Turks were amazed at the sublime greatness of art in Russia, the Russians at the depth of the Turks’ appreciation. I was proud of both sides. On the one hand I was thinking, ‘Yes, we have a tremendous musical culture and school’; on the other, ‘Yes, we have a great love of music.’ I felt like a fan who cheers for both teams at a soccer match. That concert, that story and those emotions became the first sentence that I’d been waiting for.

So are you one of them, or one of us? Or, as we like to say, which do you feel closer to, the place where you were born or the place where you earn your bread and butter?
I am the child of an international family. I grew up thinking the world was my oyster. But everyone has a city they love best in their country, just like a favorite corner in the house. A place where they feel completely at home... I can say without hesitation that for me that place is Turkey. The corner of the world when I feel most comfortable.

Let’s go back to the first day that you came to this corner of the world...
I came to Turkey as a member of UNESCO to shoot an international documentary about ecological problems. I was eight months pregnant at the time. I had to stay for the delivery, and it changed my whole life. Two or three months later when I was ready to leave, the Soviet Union collapsed. My family said, ‘Don’t think of coming back, things are very unsettled here.’ I was stranded, and a good thing too. Not long after that I began to feel at home here and completely gave up on returning. In 1993 I became a Turkish citizen. That first day was 4 December 1990, a very special day for me. I still celebrate it...

A Chagall exhibition opened recently in Istanbul. When Chagall was 20 years old he had to leave his country and he went to Paris. Later he said of it, ‘I was reborn’. Is 4 December 1990 a date like that for you?
Exactly. A new path, a new life... It had never entered my mind that I would settle in Turkey, speak Turkish, even write a book in Turkish. That I would complete my higher education here and become a teacher in a university.  Can you imagine? I’ve even become a civil servant!

What surprised you most about Turkey in those years?
What surprised me most was how Turks were just like everybody else. Russians, Europeans, Africans, Tibetans, Tatars, Central Asians... Because until then I had thought Turks were like Arabs. One of the questions I asked myself was who in fact Turks are. Another thing that amazed me was that we have to pay for the delivery. This came as a complete shock to me. It was then that I understood how the capitalistic system works.

You tell these stories at your concerts as well. Why? Because you feel comfortable on the stage, or because you want the audience to feel at home in the concert hall?
Yes to both. I feel completely at home on the stage, and I want the audience to feel that way too. There is a wall between the classical music audience and the performer and I want to break down that wall. If a person lives in this world, then he should make some contribution... be it bread or compositions. We must join hands and make something together. The world is slipping through our fingers in both the ecological and the moral sense. ‘Let me compose on a mountaintop and maybe one day somebody will understand me’ is a very egoistic way of looking at things. Definitely not my way. The closer I can bring classical music to the listener, the happier I am.

From the fırst days...
We had just moved in. The doorbell wouldn’t stop ringing.  Such warmth, such hospitality, such bounty... there was no end to it. There were women here who didn’t work. What a supreme luxury... They would go to great lengths to organize what they call ‘days’, when they gather at each other’s houses. I had never before witnessed such conversation, such neighborliness, such a spread. Their tables seemed to have been set by the wave of a magic wand...