A Percussionist Pays Tribute To Itri

Performing Since Age Six, Burhan Öçal Is A World Musician By Any Standards.

What’s more, he’s an artist with a mastery of the music of these lands, a musician who was already learning the works of Dede Efendi as a six-year-old, which, he believes, makes him different. The artist, who owns four pianos, also plays many western instruments as well as the instruments of Turkish music. But, describing himself as a rhythm artist in the last analysis, he says he is a drummer at heart. What we discovered was a modest and self-effacing yet top performer who describes Bach and Itrî as two musicians with a direct line to God. We hope you too will like what you see. You have a soft, tender side in your music. Outwardly however you exhibit an intense charisma. Yes, that’s self-confidence. I did two stints in the army. I’m a bit of an adventurer, a risk-taker. I’ve been beaten up, and I’ve done my share of beating. Later I regretted it. I admire Sultan Selim III for being both a statesman and a musician. He even has a song in the bûselik mode. Sometimes I make fun of myself. But I am a percussionist, and I also own four pianos. I’m from Selanik (Thessaloniki in Greece) on my father’s side. They were well-versed in Ottoman culture. My father really liked Turkish music, but I also listened to American music. Listening to it opened my ears to the West. There was davul-zurna (traditional Turkish fife and drum) music at my circumcision ceremony. My father asked me what I wanted, and I said a davul and zurna! I tried hundreds of things. I think I’m always searching for something new. I always wanted to play Bach. I love his music. Finally I got to play with the musicians who play Bach best. Are there any absolute conditions for a good stage? The hall has to have excellent acoustics. And the best microphone, but not necessarily the most expensive. I don’t want any intermediary. I get my sound by direct contact. I don’t like electronics intervening. It should be my real sound that comes across. You have an international side, but you also have a side that sets you apart in the world of music. There is no doubt that you also have a thorough knowledge of the music of your own land. How do you balance the two? With the training I received at home. My mother took a dim view of all nonsense. My father was a highly cultured, sophisticated man. My mother was religious but modern. She prayed, but we went swimming in summer. She was that sort of woman. She was very disciplined. I get my musical side more from my father. We would have evenings of Rumeli music in our home (Rumelia is European Turkey, including Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Thrace and Macedonia). Isn’t is strange that this is the year of Itrî and yet there is no systematic performance of Itrî’s works? Bach and Itrî (Ottoman composer and near-contemporary of Bach) are both musicians whose music has a divine source, a transcendental quality. How do we arrive at that conclusion? From the works they composed, of course. The fact that those works have survived for centuries is the most significant indicator of that quality. Both Bach and Itrî are prominent composers of religious music. Take, for instance, Itrî’s music for religious services, those tunes and melodies. There’s no way another composer could have done that. I’ve never heard of another in the Islamic world. Perhaps there is one but I’ve not heard of him. We don’t have to get into a comparison of Bach and Itrî here, but there is such mathematics in Bach that it’s indescribable. So evidently Bach has a side that speaks to you… Why does Bach speak to me? It’s not just the religious music, Bach has secular works too. He produced so much music that there’s something of everything for you to play. You can’t spoil it either. You can pound Bach with a hammer or play him with electronic amplification, but you can’t spoil him. Our tambour is the same. Nobody can make it sound bad because it won’t allow itself to sound bad. Itrî’s call to prayer in the segâh mode is untouchable as well. It has such spiritual depth that you can’t ruin it whatever you do. One thing we know is that the whole world is familiar with Bach today. But nobody knows our Itrî. OÇAL’S SUFI-BACH ALBUM “It’s the Bach Orchestra playing. Everybody played his own religious music, and we played ours too. What was the point? To bring together the works of composers who lived in the same period. In our music there is whirling, rhythm and many instruments but no polyphony. In religious music in the West there is polyphony and many instruments, but they don’t have whirling or rhythm. They also have harmony; we don’t. We said, why not bring them all together? My works are also on the Concerto Alaturka album. We also found Turkish marches that were composed before Joseph Haydn by the French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, and the Austrian Joseph Fux, who lived in Vienna. They were already transmitting Ottoman influences in the marches they composed in the Baroque style. That’s the original.”