Fazıl Say begins speaking by saying “Recently we did a Nazım Hikmet night in Paris.” He tells an interesting incident that happened to him: “We met a journalist from Le Monde that night who has done an interview with Nazım Hikmet in the 50’s. The journalist had asked Nazım Hikmet ‘Who are the young talents in Turkey?’ in the interview she’s done years ago. And Nazım Hikmet said ‘You won’t be able to spell in Turkish, let me write it.’ He slipped her the paper which had Aziz Nesin, Yaşar Kemal, Orhan Kemal on it. She showed us that paper. She’s been saving it for 60-something years.”
Fazıl Say tells this story with a calming smile in his dim library, at his home in Teşvikiye on a sunny Istanbul morning. If Nazım Hikmet were to be alive now and the lady journalist at Le Monde had asked him a couple of talented Turkish musicians, he would have written Fazıl Say without a doubt on a paper of course. Say is one of the most important and productive musicians of Turkey. While performing the piece he’s written for Sait Faik the other night, this morning he is talking about the new recording he’s done of the Nazım Oratorio with his work friends. While continuously touring all ends of the world for 25 years on an endless tour, he finds time to create new pieces and rework old ones. We met up with Fazıl Say to talk about his newly released album Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas. Naturally the conversation evolved into completely other areas.
I want to start off with an important award you’ve received a few months ago, standing on the library right behind you. What does the 2016 Beethoven Prize for Human Rights, Peace, Freedom, Combating Poverty, and Inclusion mean to you?
As a musician, you usually receive awards for your compositions and your interpretation. However this is not an award given only for music. It’s a Nobel-like awards that includes humanity, friendship, brotherhood, peace, the east, the west. That’s why it holds a special place in my life. Our cats have broken a lot of the awards I’ve received. However I keep this in a special cupboard.
The Beethoven Academy which gave you the award emphasized that you’ve formed a bridge within cultures. While presenting Turkey with western music, you present the rest of the world pieces reflecting Turkey and the east. What do you make of this interplay?
This is in my nature. It’s been like this since my childhood. I’m a Turk. I grew up on Turkish grounds as a classical musician. However during conservatory, I dedicated my life to western music. At the same time I’ve learned the depths of Turkish music and how that culture should be portrayed from our teacher İlhan Baran. I learned to think on what kind of theme western music might have with folk music. There are Turkish music forms in the Nazım Oratorio, the Istanbul Sypmhony or my other pieces. This way, a language begins to be created that the community is also able to understand. I’ve worked really hard as a composer on forming a bridge between music, literature and the community.
You have a very strong connection to literature. You’ve composed pieces for many important authors. What lies on the basis of this passion?
My father (Ahmet Say) is the main reason behind my connection to literature. My father used to produce literature magazines with his friends. I’m talking about Aziz Nesin, Cemal Süreya and Metin Altıok when I say his friends. The passion for reading was born out of that. I’ve met most of the poets I’ve composed for in my albums; the ones who were around during my childhood of course.
Although he didn’t correspond with your childhood, however Nazım Hikmet holds a special place for you…
Nazım Hikmet is a linchpin and a very important figure. Not just for Turkish literature but he is very important in the world of thinking and for the Turkish society. I composed a well-rounded piece like the Nazım Oratorio at a very early age, when I was 30. I saw him as a great pioneer, a leader. I wanted to emphasize the injustice he’s faced. I wanted to create a leader for the masses while creating his biography through his 16 poems.
While a fraction of society embrace names like Nazım Hikmet and Aziz Nesin, the authorities have frequently ostracised them. You go through similar incidents. That’s why your tendency to gravitate towards their works forms integrity. Why are some people constantly ostracised in this country?
This is due to the double structure of the Turkish society. The society is divided between the conservative right and the left. The right side has bureaucracy, the left side has art. The right side has money, the left, creativity. These are the main issues of Turkey. Turkey almost has no artist who hasn’t gone to jail. It continues with these kinds of punishments. It’s a tradition which has been holding for centuries.
You’ve made a call in Germany before receiving the Beethoven Award at the ceremony. You’ve said “Anyone from society and the state are invited to this honourable ceremony.” What was your purpose in that? Was it a hand extended to stop the disintegration in society? What kind of reactions did you get?
It found a value. At least we didn’t get beaten up after extending that hand out like we usually do. Because I don’t usually extend a hand. I wait for a move from the other side. This time I did it. The minister of culture (Nabi Avcı) called and congratulated me for the award. It’s not formally written however it is a greeting. The conventional and artistic sides are deliberate against one another. When will this turn into a real, warm friendship? It may have ten years.
I want to go back to literature again. Are there any poems you have your eye on, or poets you lay claims to to compose?
There always are. The poems depend on phases a little bit. There is a phase where people like Attila Ilhan during their 30’s. Another phase where they like Nazım Hikmet. After 10 years, you begin liking Cemal Süreya, Edip Cansever, Turgut Uyar. Nowadays I’m interested in Gülten Akın. And we’ve known Ms. Gülten. She was ‘sister Gülten’ for my father. I finally understand her poems now.
Your father Ahmet Say and of course his friends who came by your house had a huge affect on you. How did that environment feed you?
All sorts of artists would come by our house. Both Aşık Mahzuni, Metin Altıok and Fikret Otyam… There would be both political and artistic discussions due to them and their environment. I would play the piano for them. Of course this environment was my luck. No doubt. Classic music is mentioned with elitism and wealth. It actually isn’t like that. My father used to make less money than a civil servant. We bought a piano with everything we owned. One can. It’s not a rich thing. However the only wealth in the house is not having a piano… I was in the middle of such a huge wealth of thought. That’s another thing. Therefore the piano there is also a different thing. The piano would transform into a narrator. It would become more than a musical tool with ivories. That’s why I think when people introduce their children to music, they actually have to provide the environment along with it.
In an environment where you’ve made endless discoveries regarding music, are there pieces you listen to over and over again?
We’ve met all composers and commentators doing western music. As a child, I was Ertuğrul Oğuz Fırat’s student for a period. We would go to Mr. Ertuğrul’s home with to listen to musical scores at night. We would only listen to 20th century music. When I went to Germany at 17, I was way more educated than my peers. I knew German composers that they’ve never heard of. That is also my luck. During school everyone would share different kinds of music with one another. There is no end to getting to know music. We’re talking about a vast ocean. Operas, orchestras, interpreters… For example who knows how many different versions of Wagner’s opera there is. Go on YouTube and type in “Beethoven 5th Symphony.” There are probably 7 thousand versions. We’re talking about such a vast ocean… It’s not like saying “I listen to this kind…”
You’ve released a new album on Mozart’s piano sonatas who has been really important for you since back in the day. This is one of the longest works of your career. What is Mozart’s place for you?
When I play his pieces, I fall into this thing where there are no questions. I have a very natural relationship with Mozart. This is naturalness is not one that can be obtained by working or easily. The world that supports Mozart also supports this naturalness. My first album that I’ve released also had pieces by Mozart. Along with that, I play Mozart with a few orchestras every month. At first they proposed making a concert out of these piano sonatas. After giving concerts in Munich and Istanbul, we began recording with their experience.
What kind of mood were you in while recording Mozart’s works? How does the recording processes go for you?
With the records of Mozart, I also had a revolution in my life in terms of recording. I saw my psychological mistakes from the recordings I’ve done before. I learned that I gave in easily when I could have done the best that I could, during Mozart recordings. Hence we moved on to other recordings after this one. Now, I have 4, 5 albums that are waiting. We re-recorded the Nazım Oratorio with an ensemble we formed. The Sait Faik piece is waiting. There are other pieces to be released.
You recorded the album at , where Mozart was born. It is a very important city for classical music. How does Salzburg make you feel?
Salzburg is a very beautiful, antique city. It’s a wonder of the world. It’s also a sacred place as Mozart’s city and as the center of musical tourism. It is like a Kaaba for musicians. Which is why Salzburg is important for all musicians. I did my recordings in Great Hall at Mozarteum Salzburg under great conditions. Along with the acoustics of the place and the resonance of the piano, the technicians were also incredible. The opportunities were really good.
You’ve performed compositions of many composers along with Mozart during your musical career. Who are composers you look up to, who affect you?
Since I’m a composer myself, I took example from Stravinsky during my teens. Because he is also a composer that sets off from folk roots. I earned a lot of things from Shostakovich, Bartok and Debussy as a composer. The classics have endless versions. The point us interpreters must reach is our internality and naturalness. We have to be personal. There has to be an explanation as to why we play a piece. That’s what I think it is about.
What kind of relationship do you form with these musicians who have written these pieces centuries ago, long gone now?
This is a very magical point. They were in a completely different time, completely different environment, had completely different worries. Without any technology. They went from cities to cities riding a phaeton. Imagine Beethoven getting on a plane! Going to New York and stuff… (He laughs.) He was a completely different man. One has to think that their whole life was music, was nature. Beethoven, for example, was a man who was outside a lot, going around in the wild. Which is how they should be approached. Sometimes we should look at their lives as a film.
Well how does your busy touring schedule affect your interpretation and your composer status?
A person who tours stays at hotels, gets on planes, gets in the stress of airports and other cities… You’re constantly on another part of the world. You sleep in Norway then go to Italy the following morning. My life has been like this for 25 years. For 25 years, I’ve been giving more than 100 concerts each year. I played in the best concert halls in the world, with the best orchestras of the world. However it’s really important what one does in their own city. I wanted to give something to this city as well with the orchestras we’ve built, with choirs, with projects we’ve done, with the Istanbul Symphony and Nazım Oratario I’ve composed. I want to have a mark on Istanbul as someone who lives here.
While doing everything you’ve mentioned, you had times where you were slogging on…
We had difficulties here for years. It wasn’t expected for classical music to come to the point it has now. I really insisted on it. It was a big battle, a big struggle. I could have said “We’re doing our job. We give concerts on Friday night, 300 people come to watch. It’s really beautiful. It’s good this way.” like certain people at firms. However I wanted to address the whole society.
I want to talk about your concerts at this point. There are many concerts getting cancelled in Turkey for the obvious reasons. Nevertheless, a few months ago you gave concerts 3 nights in a row at Volkswagen Arena a couple months ago to 45000 thousand people, about 15 thousand in total. What do you make of this situation?
You might call it a miracle however I think it’s the product of a long struggle. The pieces are clear. I don’t go up there and play a solo concert. There is also a big master like Genco Erkal. Also an oratorio that is written and known by the society. Like I’ve told you before, this piece brings together Nazım Hikmet with society again. This draws people’s love and attention. There are also completely different solidarities there. There is the unity of the secular part of Turkey as well.
What do you feel when you give concerts in east and west? Is there a difference for you between giving a concert at Carnegie Hall or a town in Anatolia?
Us commentators are commentators when we’re on stage. The worry of a commentator is to play well. To feel that they are playing good themselves. We listen to, critique, lead ourselves on stage. We play to people both at Carnegie Hall as well as Sivas. The person in Sivas might be listening to Beethoven’s sonata for the first time in his life. But we’ve done it with an explanation for example. When I explain what I understand from that piece, what Beethoven was trying to explain at the beginning of the piece, that crowd listens to the concert with as much awareness as the ones in Carnegie Hall. Whether the name is Carnegie Hall, here or there or in a village in Sivas, one can make music.
Unfortunately, however, there isn’t as much interest in culture and art activities in Turkey. According to recent research, the percentage of people who’ve never been to culture or art activity in Turkey is %70. It is of course no different in classical music. Where do you think we make a mistake?
There is the prejudice of the conservative section here. It’s hard to familiarize with western art later. There is the inability to adapt to things one doesn’t understand, connect even know exists. One doesn’t have to know it from childhood either. The possibilities of familiarizing oneself with these things are also limited in Turkey. It isn’t in the education system. It’s rarely in the media. We have a better chance with the invention of social media actually. Look at how we use it. We post videos every day saying “This is Chopin, this is Bach, this is Sait Faik.” Social media actually emancipates a musician. We needed the media before. We had to have TV, we had to have the newspapers. Now we do all of it through our media.
How does living on this land affect you?
It’s colorful and interesting to live here. Yesterday a friend of mine said “I want to live in Holland.” I told him about the difficulties of living far away. I lived abroad for 15 years. Both in Berlin and New York. I lived there during interesting years. When I was in Germany, The East and West were merging. It was interesting politically. I saw the Clinton period in the States. However the friends you can make abroad are limited.
Even for you?
For everyone. No place is like a person’s own hometown. It’s limited, it’s not enough. Once you lose the melodious, conflicting, multi-colored people here, you have to start a different procedure from scratch there. A big longing for Turkey begins after a while as well.
Do you think these conflicts contribute to production?
In my opinion conflicts are a school. People learn a lot. The important thing here is the existence of love and conflict. There is no life without conflict actually. That is a very important thing.
All these conflicts bring pain with itself. I want to end this conversation tying it to a piece you’ve finished recently. In Memoriam is about the Ankara attack that happened in 2015…
I’m working on an album entitled Art of Piano. There are songs 7, 8 minutes long in it. I wrote the opening song In Memoriam in memory of the lives that have been lost during the explosion in Ankara on the 10th of October. The piece depicts the few minutes before and after the explosion. We are living such a life in this century where there is terror, there are wars… We are affected by all of these as the whole human race. I get affected too.