“He is authentically a citizen of the world of culture equally at home in the East and in the West. In that sense his last name is symbolically significant as well: Aracı means mediator or intermediary. Dr Aracı mediates between Ottoman and European, Turkish and British, Eastern and Western”, the late Professor Talât Sait Halman, GBE, once described Emre Aracı.
A graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s Faculty of Music, where he gained his BMus (Hons.) and PhD degrees, Dr Emre Aracı pursues an idiosyncratic musical career bringing together his passions in art, old buildings, literature, history and diplomacy through an output of concerts, illustrated lectures, books, articles, CD recordings and documentaries, principally focusing on the European musical practice in the Ottoman court in the 19th century. His CDs in collaboration with Ateş Orga include "European Music at the Ottoman Court", "War and Peace: Crimea 1853-56", "Bosphorus by Moonlight" and "Istanbul to London", also released as compilations under the titles of "Invitation to the Seraglio" (Warner Classics) and "Euro-Ottomania" (Brilliant Classics), which The Gramophone praised as “an unexpectedly attractive collection, and the musical presentation is expert, idiomatic and alive”.
Aracı is also the author of six books, all published in Turkey: "Ahmed Adnan Saygun" (1999), "Donizetti Pasha, Master of the Sultan’s Music" (2006), "Naum Theatre" (2010), "Kayıp Seslerin İzinde" [In search of Lost Sounds] (2011), "Yusuf Agâh Efendi, the first Turkish Ambassador in London" (2013) and "Elgar in Turkey" (2014). A regular contributor to Cornucopia and the Turkish music magazine Andante, Emre Aracı had articles published in The Musical Times, International Piano Quarterly and The Court Historian and as a public speaker gave lectures at various institutions such as the British Museum, the Royal Academy of Arts and the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, New York, Vienna, Sarajevo and London. As a conductor he worked with orchestras including the London Academy of Ottoman Court Music, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, Musica Viva, Portuguese Symphony Orchestra, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Cairo Opera Orchestra, Sopot Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, State Hermitage Symphony Orchestra, Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra, Presidential Symphony Orchestra in Ankara, Antalya State Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Aşkın Ensemble, Istanbul Chamber Orchestra and Borusan Chamber Orchestra.
His creative output includes among numerous compositions, a violin concerto, "Bosphorus by Moonlight", recorded by the Turkish virtuoso violinist Cihat Aşkın in Prague's Rudolfinum, as well as the libretto and part arrangement of the ballet score "Murad V", based on the life and original compositions of one of the most productive composer sultans of the Ottoman Empire, premiered by the Ankara State Ballet in 2012. He also finished the score of a symphony entitled "In Search of Lost Sounds" in 2015. Based in the United Kingdom, Emre Aracı continues his research under the patronage of the Çarmıklı family / Nurol Holding, Inc and gives concerts and lectures at embassies and historic venues around the world for the Turkish Foreign Office.
An interview with Emre Aracı...
Hande Eagle’s interview with Emre Aracı published in The Mediterranean Opera and Ballet Club Culture and Art Magazine (AKOB), issue 27, November 2014
You have been living in the UK since 1987. You are a music historian, a composer, a conductor, a music writer and a meticulous researcher. You are also known for your albums, books and conferences and speeches you deliver in some of the world’s most respectable universities and establishments. All of these activities you have been undertaking are closely related to one another but it must make for a very busy schedule. Are there times when you find it difficult to keep up with the pace of it all?
Thank you Hande. You may think so, perhaps because of my accumulated work, but in reality my life is not as hectic as you imagine. It would be more true to say that racing thoughts and ideas in my mind go at a much faster pace than my physical life perhaps. I am not an artist who rushes from one concert to the other, who publishes many articles and books and who works with an agent or an assistant. I don't use Facebook or Twitter either; there isn't an account that I have personally created. As evident in the title of my book, "In Search of Lost Sounds", I am someone who tries to journey alone, at a slow and calm pace, to the aesthetic beauties of the past. If I had the least bit of anxious desire in a competitive mood to catch up with today's fast tempo, then my life would have been really difficult. But because my areas of research and interest take me to the past, like in physics, I feel that as the world spins forward, I move in the opposite direction, towards a past full of memories and in moving in that direction, I sense that time is actually slowing down. Instead of saying my path is the correct path in life, I prefer to say that this is the correct path for my life. I always wish that the art I create in the process will also take people in a similarly slow pace on a sincere journey in their own inner spiritual worlds
What is a day like in the life of Emre Aracı?
This very much depends on where I am and the kind of activities I have planned for that day. If I am staying at my home in England, an apartment in an old Grand Hotel by the English Channel, first thing in the morning, I will either jog or take mile-long walks by the sea. On the other hand, if I am staying at an embassy residency for a concert or lecture, my day might start over formal breakfast (I also remember greeting dawn with a rifle in my hand during military service in Burdur). From the residency I go to the rehearsal and in the evening there is the concert. Because I like diplomacy very much, these concerts organised by the Foreign Office are very important to me. If at the time I am preparing an article or a book on an historical musical topic, I use the advanced powers of the internet to go the past and by browsing the newspapers of older centuries, I live the past events day by day and look ahead through the eyes of people living at that time and sometimes even feel myself like a medium who can see the future, their future of course. I also enjoy to blend present observations of life around me with real stories from the past. That is why sometimes I feel I receive messages from a spiritual world; just as I was in search of Wagner and the Bavarian King Ludwig II, who lived 150 years ago, I met the descendants of the King and stayed at their castle. In actual fact, these messages are like invisible stars in daylight. They are present in all our lives and occasionally become visible to us and when that happens, they make us feel that no day in life is an ordinary day. Holding the hefty volumes of Proust in my hand, every day I try to live these experiences and aim to record them cryptically in my diary. Perhaps these are the "Enigma Variations" of my life.
You have conducted some intriguing research on Ottoman palace music in particular. You also focus on this subject in your articles and books. I remember when I was your student and you were developing an archive on this subject; visiting old bookshops in Charing Cross and other areas of London. I am almost certain that you now possess a remarkable archive. Could you please tell us a bit about this passion of yours and your archive?
As you know, I research the hybrid European music of the Ottoman Empire, when the Ottomans got interested in the music of Europe in the 19th century. As I used to tell you in my classes at Sawston Hall and bring along the originals, my interest in this field was aroused when I began discovering and collecting Victorian sheet music scores published in England in the 19th century with Ottoman themes. Then I started arranging these piano scores for orchestra and made recordings. These are mostly short popular pieces in dance forms and marches; even though for some people they have no artistic merit, historically I was fascinated by them. To be able to find elements of one's own culture in a foreign tradition and then to mould these in a unique personal form of artistic expression showed me the way for future. I don't have a vast archive, but when I perform these compositions from sheets of printed music, where they have been kept dormant for years, I feel, almost against Darwin's "Theory of Evolution", that their time is not up yet and that they are not extinct. And when these forgotten pieces find new lease of life in my CDs, I get a great satisfaction that they will one day have the chance of unexpectedly finding their way to other people's lives. Perhaps this is the psychology of an artist who always feels himself alone even in crowds. You may be a reserved person, but you can also have the courage of putting your heart into a CD and expose it to the entire world
What do you pay attention to most when conducting your research? What are the angles you are most fastidious about? What kinds of factors play important roles in your choice of subject?
I try to work in an academic framework, I have an academic formation, but I never feel part of the academic world. I try to be as objective as possible in my research, but when I deliver, I cannot help not being subjective. Everything I live through, see and hear finds its way like a "mischievous" child in my "vagabond" life on paper even when I am writing about some original research topic. For example, this could be a little detail in a portrait I happen to see in the National Portrait Gallery, the details of a musical score or an object held in the hand of the person in that picture, may form the genesis of a new article in my conscience. A brief conversation about Proust with a ticket inspector, who happens to have a degree in French Literature, when he sees me reading a book about the great novelist, on board a train in the English countryside, or to have morning coffee with Puccini's granddaughter at a Milanese cafe once patronised by her grandfather, the melody of a Keats poem ringing in my ears, or remembering a piece of music once heard in the background of a Merchant Ivory film on my way after a concert from St Petersburg to Klin in thick snow; all these emotions, "the involuntary memory" in other words, give the creative impetus to many of my articles. But I think in essence alternative ways of exposing the musical contacts between the land I was born and the land I live now make up the subjects of most of my articles and books.
I would like to talk to you about your ballet, Murad V. What reaction did you receive from the audience when it premiered at the Ankara State Opera and Ballet? Is there a possibility that it will be staged again?
I dreamed for a long time to turn the life of the Ottoman Sultan Murad V who reigned for a very short time, three months to be specific, and spent the rest of his life in Tcheragan Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus in captivity, composing waltzes on the piano, into a choreographed ballet based on a score created from his original compositions. Ankara State Opera and Ballet Company turned my dream into reality in 2012. I am grateful to them. Last year it was also staged by the state company in Antalya. I think it will again be performed this season. It aroused great interest; but I hope one day it will also find interest beyond Turkey too. Unfortunately polarized societies may easily fall into the trap of labelling in an opinionated way people and their ideas according to certain cliché viewpoints, but when you say "here is an Ottoman sultan who composed waltzes on his Erard pianoforte" these biased stereotypical preconceptions are bound to disappear. The fact that I know living descendants of Sultan Murad V and felt the excitement of touching the keys of his Erard pianoforte and that there is an original manuscript score in his handwriting in my personal archive, gave me great impetus towards creating the libretto and the partial score of this ballet. To remember the instance I took the photograph of the ceremonial gate on the quayside of Çırağan Palace, which also appears on the poster design, and then to see the set depicting the same scene in dark mist as the curtain rose will be one of the most special moments in my life. Appearing like a lietmotif in our conversation throughout, I feel that these are instances when the road map of our future life briefly reveals itself before our eyes.
I would like to find out more about your recently published book Elgar in Turkey. In 2012 you delivered a talk followed by a recital on Elgar at the Turkish Ambassador’s Residency in London. Since when has this subject been on your agenda? Could you please provide us a summary for our readers who have not yet had the opportunity of reading the book?
Sir Edward Elgar has been one of my favourite composers since childhood. I decided to go on a day visit to the composer's birthplace museum house in Lower Broadheath near Worcester, 170 km by train from London following a very special dinner with a friend at the Savile Club, where Elgar also used to be a member. I was unaware at the time, but the seeds of my book "Elgar in Turkey" were sown during that dinner and the following unforgettable visit the next day. At my visit I discovered a diary Elgar kept during a sojourn in Istanbul and Izmir in 1905. I mentioned this to our Ambassador Ünal Çeviköz in London at the time. We afterwards organized an evening at the Ambassador's residency attended by Prince Andrew, Duke of York, from the British Royal Family and members of the Ottoman Family, when I presented Elgar's Turkish trip accompanied by a mini recital. Afterwards we repeated the same event in Istanbul at the Pera Museum and the museum published a short illustrated book I wrote on the subject. "Glorious sunrise and the minarets of Stamboul began to come thro the mist - wonderful wonderful" wrote Elgar in his diary on 25 September 1905, the day he arrived in Istanbul. He stayed at the Pera Palace Hotel, visited Topkapı Palace and the Covered Bazaar, travelled on the Bosphorus and played the piano during a private concert at the British Ambassador's summer residency in Tarabya and afterwards went to Izmir and composed "In Smyrna", for the solo piano in remembrance of his visit. All of these come alive with illustrations in my book, which follows Elgar's diary closely.
As I mentioned previously, you are also an educator. From 1997 to 2001 you were instructing us on Turkish history and Music History at the Turkish International Lycée founded in Cambridge by Arın and Sinan Bayraktaroğlu. I recall that even the students who lost concentration during other classes listened to your lessons with utmost attention. However, I assume you did not continue being an educator after that period. Is there a particular reason behind this?
In those years, like all of you, I think I was a student too. I had just graduated from university and was imagining to be living a life almost out of "Dead Poets Society" in the historic surroundings of 16th century Sawston Hall. Those were crucial years in my life too. For a start, I never had so many children before in my life. It was a very important and historic undertaking of Arın and Sinan Bayraktaroğlu to establish such a school in Cambridgeshire. Unfortunately their mission did not find the support it deserved, but now I see that so many of you have reached important positions in life, Hande. For example you are writing excellent critiques for newspapers and journals, some of you went to Oxford, some to the London School of Economics, some of you opened a hotel named after Donizetti Pasha and some are composing film music for Holywood. Sawston Hall for me was like one of the ports of call in Cavafy's "Ithaka". After graduating with you all, I continued to remain a student, at the school of life. Even though I don't teach in an official capacity, I feel that I offer my ideas and passionate beliefs through my articles to the voluntary pupils of life. This keeps my motivation going.
What are you recommendations for music students and researchers? What advice would you offer music instructors in view of your experiences?
As I just told you, because I feel myself still a student, I don't think I have any advice to offer to any teachers. There is so much to learn in this world, and thanks to the technology we have all the books of the world before us at the press of a button. These contain the purest knowledge, the best of the classics; to have breakfast with Virginia Woolf, to converse at lunch with E M Forster and in the evening to read the subtle references to the hypocrisies of Victorian society in one of Oscar Wilde's plays, to recognise the sound of rain in a Chopin prelude and to witness the changing colours of nature in a Sibelius symphony. These artists have all felt individually and immortalised these emotions for us to savour forever. Perhaps it is very important to listen to them more, to engage in conversations with them more and to aim to be part of that cycle, albeit humbly; and then to have the patience to wait to be reborn one day in the lives of other people. These are the values that illuminate my life, give shape to it and enable me to create. I cannot judge the values of others. At the end of the day isn't the artist's life a search for values close to his heart and to attain this spirit in the works of art created in that journey. If what I believe makes sense to a few people, this would make me very happy.
The value of books by expert researchers such as you will surely become more evident in times to come as Turkish literature, researchers and authors become widely recognised by English-speaking readers. Do you have any intention of publishing English translations of the books (i.e. Naum Theatre, In Search of Lost Sounds) you have written to date?
I am happy to see that my books, even in Turkish, are held in some of the world's most prestigious libraries. They have even been digitised. This means that knowledge will never be lost; but it is very important at the same time to have these works translated into English for wider readership. My articles in English are published in The Musical Times and Cornucopia. Perhaps one day I will also see the English translations of my books, I hope.
To which projects will Emre Aracı be appending his signature in the near future? Could you please clue us in on your new research subjects? Are there any projects that you have recently been working on such as concerts, albums, ballet, or opera performances?
There is a symphonic piece in four movements that I have been working on for a long time. I am hoping to complete it soon. As in my other compositions, it has literary, personal and historic connotations. Apart from this, my lecture concerts for the Turkish Foreign Office, covering different countries will continue. Knowing that I can reach the past easier than the present, I will continue to trace the historic visits of European musicians to our country, whom we seem to have forgotten in time. I hope this research will lead to new books. As an old pupil of mine, I thank you very much Hande for this interview and of course to the magazine of the Mediterranean Opera and Ballet Club, carrying forward such an important mission. I just also would like to add that years later to find an old pupil addressing me these questions, perhaps sums up in the best way, the aims of my life, compared with what I have been attempting to say in words so far.
“In search of ruined castles and rainy skies,
rolling hills and Highland mist”
by Emre Aracı
published in gustoTurkey, December 2006 / January 2007
“Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows” said John Betjeman. And looking through the pages of his collected radio broadcasts Trains and Buttered Toast on a rainy afternoon at Hatchards on Piccadilly, I could feel the warmth of happiness coming through its old-fashioned cover and neatly placed paragraphs, albeit tinged with sadness and nostalgia for an age that exists no longer. I find a kindred spirit in Betjeman, for my life in the 21st century Britain and Turkey is occupied in trying to run away from that very hour of reason in a global climate where our present-day media constantly charges us in a highly negative way. Mine is a search, not only of lost time, but also of lost senses and souls that resonate in the depths of an arcadia from Brideshead, which I never was part of, yet in a strange way feel akin to. Those were the vague feelings, which in time became crystal clear, that drew me to Britain some 20 years ago in search of ruined castles and rainy skies, rolling hills and Highland mist. And having lived in London, Edinburgh, Cambridge and now permanently settled in a suite of rooms at an old Edwardian Grand Hotel on the southeast corner of England overlooking France, I do not regret this advancement to the past via a foreign culture and country to my own, which in the process allowed me freedom to understand and infuse my personal interpretation through the universal language of music.
After all those years, London, like Istanbul of my childhood, has so many vivid memories to offer. I used to wait for the Lilliburlero theme on the BBC World Service as a child in Istanbul beside a crackled radio. In later years it was a joy when the same network broadcast my own music for the first time. I remember the days of going to college in south London, reading E M Forster's Howards End or Maurice, on the upper deck of a number 12 Routemaster – now sadly a relic on the verge of extinction – or playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 with real cannon effects at the Royal Albert Hall, as a student member of the London Schools Symphony Orchestra. It is now a ritual to pop into Penhaligon’s in Burlington Arcade for the scent of a bygone era or Turnbull & Asser for a new bow tie, while visiting the latest exhibition at the Royal Academy or having luncheon with a friend at the Royal Over-Seas League or the Savile Club. Sitting at the beautifully restored Floral Hall of the Royal Opera House, I remember the visit of the Ottoman sultan Abdülaziz in 1867, where he saw Auber’s Masaniello and later heard a gigantic British choir of 1600 singers sing in his praise in the Ottoman language at Crystal Palace. Riding down from Victoria on the vintage carriages of the old British Pullman, gleaming in umber and cream livery, I understand the elegance of travel, in an age when one cannot even take a bottle of water on board an aircraft. But it is in Leighton House of all places in London I find bliss – standing by the side of the fountain in the Arab Hall while feeling the purifying effect of water rippling through my soul. I understand Rudyard Kipling better there – in the very heart of London: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet […] But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth”.
"European Music at the Ottoman Court"
Ayça Abakan's interview with Emre Aracı,
broadcast on the BBC World Service, Turkish Section
on 1 April 2011.
A television documentary on the life and works of Emre Aracı produced by Cosmos Media, published on youtube.
Copyright © 2017 EMRE ARACI