Beyond the Capital of Culture
Korhan Erel Riffs on
Beyond the Capital of Culture: New Music in Istanbul and the legacy of 2010
I was among those who were excited to hear that Istanbul was elected to be the European Capital of Culture. Being one the few musicians active in the small avant-garde music scene of the city, I was optimistic about the possibilities of new outlets for new music that may arise from this promising project. I was even part of one new music initiative that later faltered due to personal differences between the members and finally was aborted as the capital of culture dream turned into a political nightmare.
Funds for the mainstream
The 2010 planning committee resigned when the conservative Turkish government tightened its grip on the funds. The government wished to see most of the money spent on traditional Turkish arts, the restoration of mosques, and recreations of Ottoman rituals and ceremonies. Their idea of Cultural Capital, it seemed to me, was the revival of “Konstantiniyye” as the grand Ottoman capital of the world. Funds allocated for music were lavishly spent on mainstream events, such as a concert by the immensely popular commercial rock band U2.
Not all of the events were concerned with popular music. One of the music events funded by 2010 was Ismet Sıral Creative Music Studio. It was joint effort by a team of Turkish musicians in collaboration with the US-based Creative Music Studio. This event initially seemed promising: an 11-day event modeled on the legendary 1970s creative music workshops developed by Ornette Coleman, Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso in New York. Despite an impressive lineup (among the guest artists were John Zorn, Marc Ribot, and Trilok Gurtu) the workshops were poorly attended by the very musicians they were designed to serve. Planning and organizational issues were largely to blame: the workshops were not accessible to local musicians. They were expensive, and they were scheduled -- with only one month’s notice -- for the hot and humid midsummer when residents of Istanbul typically seek to escape the city.
According to the European Commission website, the Capitals of Culture Initiative is designed to highlight diversity of European cultures, foster cultural ties between Europeans, and bring people from throughout the EU into contact with one another. All this is meant to provide an opportunity promote the growth of cities, lift up urban and national culture, invigorate the cultural life of cities, and raise the international profile of cities, both in the eyes of others, and in the eyes of their own inhabitants.
Did Istanbul’s year as a Capital of Culture see these goals met? While I can’t comment on the impact of the initiative on other art domains, I observe that by the end of 2010, Istanbul’s new music scene stayed afloat - as it always has - thanks to the ongoing efforts of local musicians and a handful of venues supporting creative music. The Capital of Culture year was clearly a positive event for the city, but of the substantial funds committed to music virtually nothing was left behind for the city’s music and musicians.
I’ll conclude with a wishlist of what I would have liked to have seen take place, and what remains as needed to invigorate our local scene:
More new music performances from across the spectrum of creative music: free improvisation, contemporary classical music, electroacoustic music, groundbreaking dance music and more.
Performance and workshop events that function to promote real interaction and lasting partnerships between Turkish musicians and musicians from Europe and beyond. We don’t need big name visitors, so much as we need musicians whose art and careers reflect a deep engagement with the important musical movements of our time. These people exist and they want to come to Istanbul.
Enrich the local musical community (not just performers but audiences) with genuinely exciting, genuinely good music.
Transform/invest in venues to create outlets for new music
Transform mindsets; broaden horizons of musicians and audiences.