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The Musical Journey of Kudsi Erguner

He introduced Ottoman Classical Music to the world by setting up an organization that teaches Sufi doctrine and music in 1981 and forming the Kudsi Erguner Ensemble in 1988. Married with three children, Kudsi Erguner is still working hard today to share the music in his heart with a wide audience.

Yours is a universal sound that starts from our tradition and successfully combines it with Western music. From its melodies to its rhythms, from its modes to its ultimate impact, it speaks to a wide audience and is therefore popular and influential. What is your secret?

There is one thing I’ve paid close attention to up to now. I’ve never said, okay you play jazz, I play Turkish, let’s play together. I’ve never thought like that. Fusion is an open-ended style. They say I created fusion, but that means nothing in music, because it doesn’t bring to mind either history or memory, and nothing musical comes of it. I am regarded as a world musician, as somebody who brings everything together, but I believe that everything I’ve done had to have a reason and that I found it in the end.

In fact, you make music not into the void but into existence itself. What is the mathematics of those cosmic sounds and how do you bring them together?

I hope what you say is true. Turkish civilization expressed itself in music. And we are its representatives. So, we have to keep our civilization alive by treating it as a heritage that history has entrusted to our care. When we call that ‘fusion’, we dissolve it away like sugar in tea. I believe we have to rid ourselves of that mentality. The intervals we use in our music were figured out by Pythagoras 500 years before Christ. Musicians today are dying to be able to hear those intervals and make harmonic sounds with them. And I am teaching them how to do that.

What has living abroad for close to 40 years given you?

I had good luck. Just at the age when I was most fired up, I found myself in Paris and I felt as if people there had been waiting years for the kind of music I could make. I was acclaimed, but not simply because I was a Turk and played the ‘ney’ (reed flute). Some of my friends here ask me now, “Do they like Turkish music over there?” But there is no such thing as “Turkish” music. There is just music. Beautiful music and ugly music. If you start making such distinctions, you turn music into folklore.

Would things have been different if you had not shared your music with a wide audience, in other words if the music you make had been more introverted?

I’ve been living in Europe since 1972 and up to now I’ve had a good life. I am a man who lives by his art. Had I continued in the architecture profession I could have made a lot more money. I actually turned down some very lucrative opportunities in architecture. I chose a brief concert tour over a major architectural job. The pleasure music gives cannot be measured in money.

You give frequent concerts in Turkey. What do you think about how music is viewed and understood in Turkey?

Our country has a problem with culture and civilization. We are sitting right on top of the raw material that could solve all those problems, and yet we complain. That saddens me a little.

This country has the potential to overcome all those problems right now. What we need is more people who appreciate its value. We need people who will bring it to the light of day, put it on the agenda and take pleasure from it.

You have worked on projects with directors like Peter Brook, Moris Bejart and Robert Wilson. 

Recently I did something with Robert Wilson that was inspired by Mevlana. Let’s at least do it under the aegis of modern art, I said, because the country is degenerating under post-modernism. I was first going to do the project with Bejart, but he was seriously ill at the time and then he died. After that I got in touch with Robert Wilson through his agent. We met at the first show he gave in Paris, which I went to with Philip Glass. We talked about dervishes and Mevlevism. He had been to Iran. We staged seven ghazels from the Divan of Shems-i Tabrizi but in an abstract style. We also did Osman Hamdi’s ‘The Tortoise Trainer’ on stage. We staged that project in Athens, Warsaw and Ravenna. I believe that music is a time present between time past and time future. It’s necessary to experience that present time properly. In order to do that, it’s essential to have a view both of history and of the future. Time present is very important in my opinion. Otherwise you live overwhelmed by nostalgia. You have to keep doing new things. These days I’m working on a project in Paris about the poems of Nazım Hikmet with the famous choreographer Carolyn Carlson.

So, what are the projects, concerts and recordings in your life that you are most excited to have been involved in?

Every project has its own excitement, but among them there are two that especially excited me. I have a project called ‘Ottoman Drums’. 

It was my father’s dream to do it.

“If only I could do something with those drums,” he used to say. 
“If I could just make them speak.” And now we’ve done it.
Treating it as a heritage that history has entrusted to our care.
I believe that music is a time present between time past and time future.

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Born in Diyarbakır in 1952, Kudsi Erguner embarked on a career in music at Turkish Radio and Television’s Istanbul Radyoevi in 1969. Researching the roots of traditional Turkish music, Erguner settled in Paris in the 1970’s. Alongside his own albums, he has also collaborated on joint projects with a number of prominent musicians including Peter Gabriel, Jean Michel Jarre and William Orbit.