by Mike Telin
A native of Turkey, Cenk Ergün (pronounced “Jenk”) is a New York-based composer and improviser whose music has been performed by ensembles such as Sō Percussion, Alarm Will Sound, and Ensemble Laboratorium. As an improviser, he performs electronics with Alvin Curran, Jason Treuting, and Jeff Snyder. His music has been performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Le Poisson Rouge, The Roulette, The Stone, and internationally at Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw, Zurich’s Tonhalle, and Istanbul’s Babylon. Ergün’s recordings include The Art of the Fluke with Alvin Curran and Sō Percussion’s Cage 100: The Bootleg Series. His first solo composition record, Nana, was released in May 2014 on Carrier Records.
On Wednesday, March 2 at 7:30 pm, two world premieres by Cenk Ergün will be performed by the JACK Quartet in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium. The commission was made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.
We reached Cenk Ergün by telephone.
Mike Telin: Tom Welsh at the Museum has been singing your praises for a long time. How did the two of you first meet?
Cenk Ergün: We first connected back in 2004 when we both lived in California. I was 26 at the time, and not well known by any means, but I had written a piece for Joan Jeanrenaud, the former cellist in the Kronos Quartet, that she recorded. And Tom, being a person that knows every musician there is to know, was with her one day and she showed him the recording. He liked it and contacted me. We became friends and he started advocating for my work. He’s made a lot of nice things happen for me.
MT: Is this the first time you’ve worked with the JACK Quartet?
CE: This is the first, but they’ve been the ensemble of my dreams for a long time. We’re connected through the Eastman School of Music, but I only overlapped with their violist, John Richards. We were friends and worked in the library together, and he played some of my music. So although I didn’t know the other members, the JACK is in the spotlight and every composer wants to work with them.
MT: Regarding the commission, you must be the only composer who was hired to write one piece and ended up delivering two.
CE: [Laughing] Yes — buy one, get one free. It started out being one piece with two ideas. But those ideas grew so much that I felt like I needed to give each its own space.
When an audience listens to one piece of music with two movements, the performers play the first, and the audience sees in the program that it was the first. Then there is a pause before the players begin the second, and that has a certain effect on the listener. I wanted to present both ideas on their own terms. They can also be programmed on their own in the future.
They are highly contrasting ideas. Sonare is very loud and repetitive. I was going for a high-energy, static field of sound, while Celare is more like what I’ve done in the past. Most of my work is very quiet, sparse, and slow-moving. A blanket of silence with some ripples of sound is one way I would describe it.
MT: Did you encounter any challenges in writing for a group like the JACK?
CE: Definitely, but the JACK is a group that does make everything easy for you. They are so capable that anything you give them, they’re able to play really well. A friend of mine jokingly told me that if you think their performance of your piece isn’t good, then it is your fault, because the JACK always does a great job.
MT: That puts a lot of pressure on you.
CE: Of course it does, but for a composer to work with a group like them is an amazing chance to write things I hadn’t done before. For example Sonare is extremely busy writing: all four players are simultaneously playing very fast, rapidly changing musical phrases. When I first started developing the idea, I wasn’t sure it would even work on the instruments, or if it would work for the quartet as a whole or what it would sound like.
So from the beginning we collaborated: I would take them short excerpts, just a few bars here and there, and have them try it out. They’re so amazing that they could play things at sight that would take other groups weeks to get together. So they’d play something, I’d record it, listen back, and try to understand the results. Then I’d shape longer sections and take those back to them. The challenge was that it all depended on them: I couldn’t just sit in my room and compose, which is often the case. Because of this collaboration, I could create the type of music I couldn’t have done on my own.
In the case of Celare, I used an alternative tuning system, “just intonation,” which is different from the “equal-tempered” system. It’s a technique that has been around for a hundred years, and over time people have experimented with it to various degrees of success. It depends on how good a job the composer does and how well he or she knows the instruments. Also some groups are great at this — it’s their specialty — and some string quartets will not touch a piece written outside of equal temperament. So again, I depended on the JACK. We met and I showed them some things and asked them if they were possible to play. They said yes, but they also recommended a notation system that they use, so I needed to learn it and figure out how to implement it in my music. That was also a challenge.
MT: I think that nowadays players are more accustomed to playing in just intonation, so it seems to be having better results than it did even 20 years ago.
CE: For sure, and when I was a student it was unimaginable that a string quartet would be coached on playing in just intonation. But these days you can go to festivals where contemporary instruction is happening, and it is being taught.
MT: Unless there’s anything else you’d like to tell me about your pieces, I’d like to ask you about your own performance career.
CE: I still perform as an electronic musician. That means Midi controllers, synthesizers, and other amplified instruments that are connected to a computer. I run a software program of my own design. I use samples and live instruments along with live electronic processing. I’ve performed as a soloist and with artists like Alvin Curran and Fred Frith. I have an album out with Alvin from 2007 called The Art of the Fluke. He was my teacher at Mills College, and we’ve played many shows together. I’ve also had the chance to compose for and perform with Sō Percussion on several occasions.
MT: When were you at Mills?
I was there for grad school between 1999 and 2002. It was a great time to be there because Fred and Alvin were there along with Pauline Oliveros. It was heaven.
Those were formative years for me. I was 21, 22 years old, and I was becoming aware of so many things that were all readily accepted there. Things like how any sound can be music, and you should always be listening to everything around you all the time. There was an openness and eagerness to experiment without worrying about the consequences.
Improvisation was also important. One of the things Fred Frith said in a class when talking about children’s music education was that you put a child in front of a piano and the first thing they do is start poking around: they start improvising. Then you send them to private piano lessons, and what happens? They stop improvising and only learn how to play written music. He saw improvisation as something that they were missing out on.
This actually happened to me. When I got to Eastman, I would compose by improvising on the guitar for hours, but soon I not only stopped improvising, I also stopped playing and became only a composer. Maybe it was necessary to do that for a while, but when I got to Mills, I thought, ‘Wait, I used to improvise all the time.’ That thought led me to electronics and I began to improvise again. But the environment was very supportive of all of that. It was the ideal condition for making art. It’s been 15 years now but I still miss it.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com February 22, 2016.
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