Throughout his career, much ink has been spilled concerning Fazil Say’s place at a cultural crossroads. Born and raised in Turkey, Say’s work as an interpreter has run from Bach and Mozart to Bartok and Gershwin, while as a composer his work blends European classicism with Turkish elements, as well as an occasionally jazzy aesthetic. From my perspective, however, Say also sits at an equally fascinating historical crossroads, as his concert on April 20th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art demonstrated beautifully.
This blog recently featured an opinion piece by R. Andrew Lee regarding the nature of the composer-performer relationship, arguing for musicians to think of themselves as co-composers when interpreting a score. Not being free to add, subtract, or take other radical liberties, but instead to think of the interpretive process as an equal, respectful relationship, and in doing so bring out the character of the music in the best way possible. Say is a shining example of this, given the delightfully complex relationship he has with his music (more on that later). His original compositions, avoiding a sort of mash-up style, sound like organically freewheeling fusions of disparate musics, blending not just elements and familiar melodies from jazz, classical and Turkish music, but interweaving their DNA and birthing wholly new sounds. It’s this that I find so fascinating about him, in that he is part of a generation of pianists who seemed to be among the first who realized you needed to do it all: respected as a concert pianist, but also as a jazz performer, a forward-thinking composer, a writer of film music, and a thousand other things, all with a strong internet presence and a few catchy hooks (I challenge you to get Black Earth out of your head after only a single listen).
The program featured Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, Janacek’s Sonata 1.x.1905, three of Say’s own works (including his popular Black Earth), and devastating version of Gershwin’s Summertime as an encore. Appearing from backstage to thunderous applause, one notices Say’s unusual physical presence, relaxed and calm, yet still intense, verging on ominous. As he took the bench in front of a hushed, packed house, unfurling the frantic opening lines of Prokofiev’s sonata, one couldn’t help but feel vaguely voyeuristic, so deep is Say’s physical connection to the music, and to his instrument. Many pianists move about, close their eyes, hum imperceptibly, sure… but Say’s relationship with sound is on another level entirely, dense and layered like the pieces he programs. He sings along softly, mouthing words as if in conversation (or argument). He tries to gently coax sound from inside the piano during spacious passages, making scooping/pulling/gathering gestures with a free hand, only to shift suddenly and force it back in, his hand jamming at the air like the piano has begun spewing snakes that are invisible to the audience. He alternately slouches and bolts upright, caresses like a lover and jabs like a boxer, and when he finishes a piece, it seems to take everything out of him just to pull himself away from the bench, turning the last chord and his exhausted bow into a single drained motion. Many musicians play in a controlling, muscular style: they bind music to their will, like a familiar, and try to make it do their bidding. Say rejects such simplicity, isn’t interested in control. Which is not to imply that he ever loses control, merely that Say has a complicated, multi-layered relationship with the music. He loses himself in the give-and-take, struggles emotionally with difficult passages (in a metaphorical sense only, as his masterful technique macerates even the most demanding sections). As Say plays the piece, one hears how he is working out his own relationship to the music, like we’re sitting in on a marriage-counseling session between Say and Janacek.
Something interesting about the programmatic choice was the way Prokofiev and Janacek relate to Say’s own compositional style. Prokofiev thought much like a Romantic in terms of structure, writing musical novels filled with slowly unfolding pathos and lengthy (yet deeply rewarding ) character/thematic development. Janacek, though older than Prokofiev, was more of a futurist, and the way his music emphasized chains of brief, individual episodes, as opposed to long-form narrative-like development, anticipated practically every later 20th-century composer, from Stravinsky to John Zorn. Say’s own approach lies somewhere between the two. He doesn’t eschew traditional development, although he leans towards the episodic. His original compositions are soaked in his Turkish heritage, in their melodies spun from folk songs to, in their character and feel so improvisatory and free. In Black Earth, one hand plays while the other deadens the strings inside the piano… but the effect doesn’t really recall John Cage or other prepared-piano music, so much as it recalls an oud (the guitar’s Turkish/Persian/Arabic cousin) playing the opening flourish of a taksim (improvisation). He builds melodies out of tiny blocks of smaller, self-contained melodies, ornamenting them heavily, twisting his body and staring mischievously at the keys while pounding out ever-developing lines. His third piece, Istanbul Album, is spun from Uskudar a famous folk song, yet sounds just as much like Keith Jarrett, or something from Pictures at an Exhibition. And his Summertime arrangement, alternating between moments of simple beauty and roiling bombast, had half the house (myself included) in tears by the end.
Say is the rare musical progressive who also truly understands the past, and engages with it in an artistically honest way. His interpretations, while not extreme departures, sound like fresh and original approaches to works that have been played for a century or more, while his original music indicates an exciting new way to fuse musics with remarkably different governing rules. This is in part because Say navigates the porous idea of a boundary so well. He gets that there aren’t actually rules to music, but also boundaries can be necessary to direct sound, to channel all these frequencies into something that then makes the listener respond emotionally. He genuinely points a way forward, while imbuing his music with sweet memories of what’s come before.
Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.