The Possibilities of MEI for Digital Critical Scores and Transcriptions

In May 2017 I had the pleasure of attending the Music Encoding Initiative’s conference in Tours, France. Such a passionate, knowledgeable, multi-talented group of people, eager to share information about music technologies and information! The focus of this organization is on a particular digital format for musical scores, which is also called MEI, and I want to write today about the possibilities of using MEI to make new kinds of critical editions and music transcriptions. I can’t claim much of this content as my own; mostly I am just summarizing what other people—my web developer husband, the leaders of the MEI initiative, Joachim Veit in a keynote speech at the conference, and others—have taught me. I am so grateful to all of them for helping me to learn about this technological advance that is so useful for my work but overwhelms me to try to understand on my own.

So, MEI is a markup language. What is a markup language? We are talking about a language of terms and symbols that are used to give information about a separate text (a written text, a musical score, or a visual image). The classic example is HTML, which most people have used or at least seen. Think about HTML: even someone who knows nothing about computer coding can see that it contains the text of something like a webpage and files for graphics and other images with notes that say things like “this text is bold” or “this text is in this certain font and size” or “this text starts at this point on the page.” These notes are all examples of markups. So HTML programming is really just using an editing program to upload or write web content and then add notes at the appropriate points about how that content will look and maybe also how it will function (like a markup that makes certain text function as a link). MEI is this kind of language but developed especially for rendering musical scores, which are special kinds of texts. In that case, the “main text” are the musical notes. MEI is a version of music XML, which is a type of general XML (extensible markup language). As compared to HTML, XML is special in that it easily supports hierarchical structures because its basic unit is the “element,” which is then further described with tags that occupy a secondary position. A set of rules or schema in a kind of master file governs how the elements and tags can relate. XML is especially handy for music scores, because it can be used to easily organize symbols into the necessary hierarchies such as chord, measure, phrase, system/line of music, section, instrumental or vocal part, contrapuntal voices, or movement of a piece.

When people analyze music they often make use of hierarchical concepts such as motives or the designation structural versus elaborate/decorative notes. MEI is therefore great not just great for making musical scores but also making or rendering analyses of musical scores. Another point where MEI wins with me is that it is completely open source. There are renders that can read it, such as Verovio, or it can be converted into .sib or .xml so that something like Sibelius can read it. But one can also look directly at the marked up text, make changes to it, or search it. One can also make changes to schemata that govern the rules for MEI files. As MEI leaders proudly point out, the code of the files used in programs like Sibelius and Finale, while very useful, are “black boxes” of proprietary information that the user can only access through the program interface. What you can do is only as flexible as that interface allows. The people involved in the initiative tend to be academics who really want to make MEI better and better for the purposes of scholarly research and the needs of performers, without concern for making monetary profits. A scholar could write to Finale’s parent company about a change they really needed to have made to the Finale software for a certain research project, but Finale would probably not be interested unless that change also translated into a financial opportunity for them (which is fine—they are running a company for profit). The people developing MEI are much more open to such requests.

Here is a screenshot of a piece of music that I have been working with in MEI, Recuerdos by Gabriel Grovlez, as it appears in Sublime Text.

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 11.52.50 PM

The hierarchical nature of the file is clear in the indented format. I won’t go into much more detail about MEI. Those who are interested to know more can go to the official website for the Music Encoding Initiative here. What I am using MEI for at the moment is the analysis of scores such as this one, by working with my husband who is a computer programmer to write search programs. That subject is for a later post. Here, let’s see what Joachim Veit had to say about using MEI for critical editions and how his comments could be extended into the realm of music transcriptions.

Joachim Veit is a German musicologist who over the past 30 years has developed a reputation as an editor of critical editions, especially his editions of Carl Maria von Weber’s compositions. It is a testament to Veit’s expertness as an editor that he is open to using something like MEI, which is quite different from the pen-and-paper editing process that he was used to but that also offers many new advantages. On the final day of the Tours MEI conference, Joachim Veit gave a keynote speech about what he has been doing with MEI since 2012, under the auspices of the Edirom Project. Based on my notes, here were some of his main points about how MEI has helped him to make better critical editions.

First, MEI allows the critical edition to become less hierarchical and irreversible. Especially in situations where an editor is dealing with several versions of one composition or a type of musical symbol like a neume that we don’t have today and will require interpretation and translation into modern notation, editors have to decide on the singular, final version to be printed on the page. This decision is often not absolute but is a matter of picking the best of multiple, competitive options. In many cases the decision could have reasonably gone a different way. Critical editors typically discuss these decisions in the critical notes, but in book format those notes are in a separate section from the edited score. With MEI, Veit says that multiple versions can be encoded equally and then rendered as several possibilities placed at the same point in the digital score through the use of pop-up windows or something similar. Another possibility is attaching excerpts of the original manuscript at precise points in the score for clarifying sticky decisions, like a picture of the original symbol that has been translated into something else in the modern score.

In addition to increasing the information the critical edition can contain and organizing that information in a more accessible way, digital scores made with these markup tools also democratize decisions about the score, giving people besides the editor quick access to the primary source materials that permit them to make decisions alternative from those of the official editor. Similarly, Veit emphasized that a more collaborative approach to editing can be realized with layered markups. At this point, critical editions of many canonical works have already been attempted one time around and now a new generation of editors is making new attempts. What should they do with the old editions, though? Veit hopes that if editors switch to digital formats with markup tools, they can take someone else’s edition and then add their own markups to it as another layer. Because MEI is so well suited to hierarchical organization of information, such a thing could be elegantly done with it. One caveat Veit made here was that if this practice were to come into use, standards would need to be set so that digital editions didn’t become a mess of comments on top of comments—think about what happens currently in a lengthy Facebook comments thread. I think that on this point he sees where the democratization of the editing process needs to have meaningful limits, and that publishing professionals would still have roles to play in issues such as this one.

A final main point Veit put forward for consideration is that markup languages can allow us to consider an example of music notation “in all of its contextual specificity.” He gave us an example of what he meant, that of a specialized tremlo marking in a von Weber orchestral score. With markups we can go beyond just deciding which single marking to put in its place and give more specific information about how that tremlo would be played, through some kind of pop-up graphic, written explanation, or even an audio file that demonstrates it. And a further option, although I don’t remember Veit saying this explicitly, is that one could add “extramusical” details to a critical edition. As they were originally conceived, these critical editions focused on the sound dimensions of music, such as the notes to be played and the text to be uttered at specific points in time. If some of you are saying, “But wait, what are the dimensions of music besides sound—isn’t that all there is?”, then consider a genre in which music is part of creating a dramatic situation like opera, movies, or any kind of dramatic tradition you know of that incorporates music. In a digital critical edition the sonic elements could still be foregrounded, with any additional information appended in attributes. Or, one could radically reconceive the notion of a musical score for such genres and level the playing field among the various types of sensory information that make up the musical experience, even to the point of expanding the rules governing the markup in the schema file. Such a score could really function in interesting ways as analytical documentation of cultural phenomena.

Making critical editions used to be a primary activity of historical musicologists, but it’s not as common now. Part of the reason is that a lot of great critical editions of scores people care about have already been made, but I personally never had much interest in such work because it all seemed kind of…musty. Old-fashioned, dare I say. The possibilities in something like MEI seem to breathe new life into making critical editions. When I teach introductory classes about the musicology discipline in the future, I am definitely going to include what I have learned about MEI on the critical editions day. Although I can’t speak in the place of ethnomusicologists, it seems to me that something similar could be said for the potential of MEI to invigorate the practice of transcribing, because in both cases there are difficulties that stem from the limitations of the concept of text-as-artwork. In fact, the discomfort with this concept among historical musicologists largely grew from their exposure to the innovative research of ethnomusicologists about the nature of music. That is, we tend to understand something that is written down, especially if it looks very official and polished, as authoritative, and that is a problematic perception for anyone who is really thinking about how visual representations of music relate to the musical experience that it describes (in the case of a transcription) or prescribes (in the case of a musical score functioning as a set of instructions for performers). In both cases we sense the gap. In musicology we are in fact often using the score as a kind of descriptive transcription in order to analyze “real life” musical experiences in the past, and thus we end up facing many of the same issues as ethnomusicologists do regarding transcription.

Veit, in the keynote I am describing, referenced this problem with his constant emphasis on the “context” in which a certain musical score was made or was/is being used. While I am not too fond of the text/context heuristic, the point about how MEI can solve certain problems for music editors is still clear enough according to it. The text is singular but context is multiple; it can have infinitely many versions according to each performance situation and each one of those can involve infinitely many pieces. The text is static but contexts are dynamic. And so on. Among many musicologists currently there is, I think, a desire to go beyond textual analysis and into the analysis of “life itself” or “humans themselves”, but texts can seem so authoritative that whenever your analysis involves their use, it is easy to conform your perspective and method of analysis to them. This is an issue that ethnomusicologists have already been confronting in radical ways for decades. One has trouble choosing a single version of a certain sound in a transcription of a musical event, or describing a complex phenomenon with just one symbol. Like the text/context dichotomy, there can be a dissatisfying gap between transcription and “real life,” especially when a musical performance involves much more than the notes that can be pinpointed on a staff.

Both ethnomusicologists and musicologists are today searching for methods that capture the multiplicity and dynamism that we know to be true of music, not being forced to settle on one authoritative, static version or only one aspect of a musical experience and then cut out all the rest. This issue of the authority of the text also extends, as Veit noted, to a problem with giving too much authority to single people. The collaborative spark that gives birth to the musical texts we love can be retained, if only a little bit, in the collaborative, layered work that becomes possible for score edition with the MEI tools. I wonder if the same could be said for descriptive transcriptions. I know that the MEI community really does want people studying all different kinds of musical phenomena to try to use and develop the MEI framework. At the Tours conference I only saw one example of this, about ancient Chinese music, but because this musical system had a notational system, the issue here is not really transcription so much as translation from one score format into another. It would truly be exciting to see what ethnomusicologists as well as musicologists who work with notated compositions could do with MEI, as they are motivated to creatively solve the notational problems that arise concerning specific research questions and editorial perspectives.

On aesthetic seduction, politics, and violence

This week I have been watching Siegfried by Wagner, in preparation for my annual Wagner music history lecture. In several of his operas Wagner created characters that are overtly anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews that overlap with the patterns of Nazi anti-Jew propaganda, for instance the dwarf Mime, who has a main role in Siegfried (people have argued that these actually aren’t really anti-Semitic, but I just don’t buy it). Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a well-known and undisputed fact, but different people place more or less emphasis on it. Because I find the philosophical ideas behind the way Wagner wrote music so interesting and beautiful, I de-emphasize his xenophobia in the classroom. In my typical Wagner class, I focus on the final act of Die Walküre, which in terms of literature, music, and philosophy is incredible. Sometimes the night after I teach that class I can’t sleep because the music is stuck in my head! In the face of such a personally powerful experience of Wagner’s music, it is difficult for me to seriously consider Wagner as someone who may have contributed to the racist atrocities committed in Europe and the U.S. starting in the early 20th century. It’s easy to say that Wagner died in the 1880s before all of that anti-Jew talk began to have tangible negative effects, so we can’t really say whether he bears any responsibility, and that no one who goes to see Wagner today conflates Mime with Jewish people.

As I watched Siegfried this week, though, I was at the same time watching a troubling series of xenophobic hate speech and hate crimes in my home country, the United States. This situation has led some Americans to start discussing the nature of xenophobic speech. For example, should people spreading lies about certain types of people and even calling for their persecution be allowed to speak freely in the public sphere? White nationalists have been given some nasty welcomes at American universities recently; how should we evaluate violent discourse—and even physical violence—as a reaction to white nationalist discourse? Some people say that no matter the qualities of someone’s ideas, they must be debated calmly and logically in the public sphere. That is the only ethical and rhetorically valid option for handling hate speech. Clearly, though, there are other people who think that white nationalists are extreme and must be dealt with through concordantly strong communicative acts (“You say immigrants get out of our country, we say get out of our university!”).

A few years ago, when some very public figures in American politics and media started making shockingly public xenophobic statements (things like immigrants commit a lot of crimes or conspiracy theories about the ill intentions of Muslim Americans), it wasn’t so clear what to do. There was unease, sure, but this is a country whose society and economy were built on racist ideas (slavery and all that flowed from it) and cannot easily leave that heritage behind. We can all joke about racist things some of our family members or neighbors say—but it’s just the way they are, right? Xenophobic and racist discourse broke into mainstream politics and media a few years ago…but maybe it’s just your grandfather with a microphone? It’s just the way some people are, but only a few, and the rest of us know that what they’re saying is factually incorrect and morally disgusting? Then it’s 2017 and U.S. Representatives are proudly declaring their support of cultural purity, Jewish cemeteries and cultural centers are being terrorized, mosques are being vandalized like never before, and repeatedly Indian immigrants are being attacked by people who think they are doing America the favor of getting rid of “Arabs”. Maybe we can’t clearly say that hate crimes are on the rise, but aren’t there at least too many of them happening lately? Maybe there was a point at which the violent discourse transformed into violent acts? Could we have seen it coming?

Enter Wagner, incredible composer and Jew-despiser. This part is important, because it’s when my job gains some rare concrete urgency. It’s easy as a musicologist to focus so much on analyzing the meaning and function of other people’s music that you forget to do it for yourself, about your own music and the situations involving music at the present moment. Adrian Mourby  has made a good analysis of differing points of view on how to evaluate Wagner’s art in line of his nasty views, but I think he fails to consider two important things: Wagner’s public power and opera’s power. Wagner was not just a guy who drew some Jewish caricatures on a napkin at home or wrote a diary entry blaming the Jews for the decaying of society. Wagner intended his literary and musical discourse about Jews to be public, having his operas performed, and his essays and librettos published. Then after his death, as Wagnerism really picked up in multiple countries, his ideas became incredibly public.

Mourby focuses on an essay that Wagner wrote as the worst evidence against him, but to me the stereotyped characters in his operas and the villain roles they play within the drama are much worse because the opera medium is such a powerful one. There are stories about how Wagner’s music, in particular, drove late-19th-century audiences into highly emotional states, and as I shared earlier, I find it to be very moving as well. A xenophobic message can gain real traction when shared in such an emotionally powerful, multi-sensory form, which creates such a memorable experience that can be etched in the mind (people were declaring themselves “Wagnerians” in some periods). In Siegfried, for example, Mime is a villain, a member of a dwarf race that seems corrupt in their essence, controlled by a desire for wealth and power but physically and spiritually deficient. He tries to keep the hero, Siegfried, from realizing his destiny by tricking him. All aspects of the opera’s form that relate to Mime, even the way Mime’s melodies sound and the stage directions to the person playing his part, are ugly. At least for earlier audiences, I think a suggestion of Jewishness would have also been evident. For a few hours the spectator sees the ugliness of Mime and his clear contrast to other, nobler characters like Wotan and Siegfried, of the favored race of the gods. And it’s not so easy for people to forget what they’ve seen.

Ok, someone might say, you’re making a hypothetical argument about a serious claim. We can’t know if watching Siegfried has driven someone to vandalize a Jewish cemetery. Yes, absolutely, so let’s shift the perspective from music as a singular cause of something else or not and instead to music as a tool people can use to do things with, and to music as unavoidably interconnected with other cultural forms. Shortly after Wagner’s death, a circle of anti-Jewish German nationalist intellectuals began to congregate around Wagner’s operas. This so-called “Bayreuth Circle” included active participation of Cosima Wagner, who had become quite anti-Semitic herself, and her son-in-law the extreme racist Stewart Chamberlain. The group then drew in Winifred Williams, and after Cosima’s health declined in the 1920s they became associated with the young Hitler. So, while it is not as though Hitler wrote Mein Kampf as he listened to Siegfried, it is true that over a long period a group of people who would have much to do with the rise of Nazism were frequently coming together around a shared love of Wagner and his music. They used his music as what Tia DeNora (2003, p. 125) has called a musical “anchoring practice” for their political work.

Some people say that because there is no evidence that Hitler read much of Wagner’s writings, the composer cannot be implicated in what he did. Again, this is missing the powerful nature of music, I think, as a form that can be used to communicate ideas and structure people’s ideas about themselves and the world. Hitler was devoted to Wagner’s music and to an idea that he could become in politics something like the ideal German hero that Wagner had become in the realm of composition. He kept several original Wagner musical scores in his war bunker and he would have Wagner excerpts played at Nazi political rallies. Wagner was played at Dachau concentration camp to “re-educate” prisoners. So, people used Wagner’s music to do some very bad things and, furthermore, they had a line of personal connections to Wagner leading back through Cosima Wagner that engendered a transmission and development of anti-Semitic ideology. In both Hitler and Cosima Wagner we see people who became devoted to xenophobic ideology and to Wagner’s music, and through the way they organized their life activities linked the two in a relationship. That Hitler used Wagner’s music as a tool for constructing his own subjectivity and his powerful medium of public discourse seems clear, and I think that is a problem that needs to be recognized and dealt with. In Israel the solution has been to ban Wagner—something like the violent protestors who recently said, emphatically, “no!” to Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray. I can respect this answer.

What will I do in my class tomorrow? That is the question I have been asking myself as I wrote out this blog post. It seems that I must seriously discuss the general stereotypical aspects of characters like Mime, how they are represented in musical sound, and their function and meaning within the entire drama. Not saying anything seems like someone shrugging their shoulders at Blackface or Zwarte Piet. I am going to see which clips I can find of different stagings of the anti-Semitic characters. This Danish version is probably what I’ll use in class tomorrow instead of my usual traditionally-staged Metropolitan Opera version. The blog post also casts my thoughts about the captivating beauty of Wagner’s music (specifically at the end of Die Walküre) in a new light. Along with making a portrait of sublime beauty that connects with the lofty metaphysical aims of Romantic philosophy, I need to mention the dark side of beauty. Beauty can be influential. The aesthetic power of captivating mediums like music, social media, or campaign rallies can be directed towards discursive power, decorating an idea that in its naked form someone would be less likely to accept or take up. I find Wagner to be beautiful and it’s unsettling to admit that so did that archenemy of the good, Hitler, even though the music decorates very different ideas for me versus him.

The point of this discussion is not to label people who like Wagner as racists. I doubt many people use Wagner’s operas to sustain xenophobic ideologies today—there are other cultural forms serving that purpose like White Power Music. Instead, bringing up anti-Semitic issues in Wagner serves as exemplary history in several ways. Generally, this is a good example of the power of aesthetic culture like music, television, or the visual arts to be used in politics and violence. It also forces us to take seriously the notion that a pure artwork doesn’t exist; art is not a timeless, neutral object of beauty, but a complex phenomenon centered around an art object that people cause to accumulate layers of meaning as it passes through different eras. What happened with Wagner also warns us, perhaps, about our present moment, to take seriously the potential damage someone can do if they are blaming certain minority groups in a society or hatefully stereotyping them and they gain a public following—especially people who don’t seem so insidious or who still make a few good points. Brave people have been calling out the lies and the destructive hate and we need to keep doing it. We hope that people who say horrible things don’t really mean it. But in the 1920s German newspapers started publishing pages devoted to Jewish crime and we find ourselves at a similar point in the U.S., and we can’t assume that it will lead nowhere.

It disappoints me to have to say such things in my Wagner lecture, because I prefer to celebrate certain ideas about the world and certain musical sounds that I enjoy, period. I’ll have to cut out some of the things I love talking about to pollute the sanctity of the temple with unpleasant ideas about racism and Nazis. The option to just carry on in my music-lover’s bubble is unacceptable, though, because it would mean failing to take seriously the role that musicologists can play in society, as specialists in analyzing cultural forms in a time when spectacular cultural forms are once again exerting a breathtaking effect on collective life.

Ceza and Grandmaster Flash in Istanbul

Hi everyone! On October 22nd, 2016 I and my husband went to a hip hop concert in Istanbul and I wanted to share some of my experience with you.  What originally caught my attention was the name of Grandmaster Flash, a pioneering figure in the emerging hip hop scene in New York around 1980. I wasn’t old enough to see him in action during that period–my first memory of rap music is listening to MC Hammer–so I was excited and honestly quite surprised that he would be coming to Istanbul this fall. His DJ set was part of a Burn Battle School that included a hip hop dancing contest, a rap contest, and a performance by Turkish rapper Ceza (pronounced Je-za with a hard J). I saw Ceza and Grandmaster Flash. What I’m going to describe about Ceza might be old news for Turkish readers and likewise about Grandmaster Flash for some American readers, but I hope that there will still be a few interesting parts for everyone.

While I respect the skill of the musicians, poets, and producers who work on rap albums, I have never listened much to mainstream, American rap music because since my adolescent years sexual, violence and/or misogynist themes in lyrics and videos inevitably left me feeling cold towards most popular rappers. At the same time, I always recognized the great aesthetic and social power of how rap music sounds and feels. Indeed, this power of rap to engender social changes and to bring people together was on display in the early hip hop of people like Grandmaster Flash, and that was one of the reasons why I jumped at the chance to see him.

I’ll start my description of the concert with Ceza, because he was on first and seemed to condition the expectations of the audience for Grandmaster Flash. Here’s a clip of one of the songs he performed, “Holocaust”:

(You can find the song’s official video on YouTube.) Even if you can’t understand what Ceza is saying, you must admit that he’s a virtuosic rapper. I don’t think many American rappers can rap in live performance this quickly and fluently. It takes a certain muscle precision and breath control that I haven’t yet seen in American rappers’ live performances, because they often alter and break up the long, rapid-fire passages on their albums in concerts so that they can properly catch their breath. It’s not my intention to criticize this issue when it occurs. The technical complexity that emerges in the interplay with studio equipment that is foregrounded on modern albums, and the musical technical abilities that stand out in live performance are two different kinds of expertise. What is possible with the multi-tracking and editing of the studio cannot always replicate in a single live concert moment, and it can be interesting to see how clever musicians negotiate that translation of the song text from one form to another. The obstacles can become new creative opportunities. Here, for example, Kendrick Lamar artfully drops syllables he probably couldn’t pronounce in real time in a recent performance of “Alright.”

For Ceza, this performance versus studio sound is not as drastically different, and I think two factors, among others, might be involved.

Factor 1) The Turkish language has a special alignment with rap aesthetics. Turkish is typically spoken in a rapid way. A key to fluid Turkish speech is the pronunciation of long words that compact many grammatical functions at what seems to me as a non-native speaker to be an astonishingly fast speed. Furthermore, its highly consistent grammatical structure gives it a predictability so that it can be spoken very quickly and native speakers can understand it just fine. This structural consistency also translates into many possible rhyme combinations; in Turkish rap songs I know, the same word ending reiterates through several successive words or line endings. In these ways, Turkish is a language that works especially well with the aesthetic value of virtuosic rapping and poetic rhyming that gradually developed in hip hop culture. Like other Turkish rappers, Ceza realizes this possibility in his style and it’s pleasing to witness it unfold right before your eyes and ears. Based on this guest appearance in a comedy show, Ceza seems well-known in Turkey for his rapping talent.

Factor 2) A continued tendency to privilege the live performance in many Turkish music genres. Anyone who knows about music recording history in the U.S. knows that with technological advances like multi-tracking, many American and British rock bands and producers started to treat the recording process as something different from their live shows. Early recordings (like in the 1920s) were a one time take of a live performance, often with only one microphone, that would be immediately pressed onto a record. By the 1960s the album recording process could involve days or even months of editing and adding to the recording of the musicians, shifting the recorded version towards a complex, static text, a polished art object. In my experience, many American listeners have come to view the recorded version of a song as definitive. A lot of people are not even interested in hearing musicians that they love in live concert, and when Americans go to a concert, they often expect a live experience of the recorded object, which often isn’t possible.

A few weeks ago I was discussing music listening modes in Turkey with some Turkish students, and they generally agreed that still today in Turkey, even after recording technology has been around for so long, listeners do not typically take the studio-recorded version of a song as its definitive form. This conversation made me wonder if perhaps Turkish musicians are less interested in the recording process as one of crafting complex audible texts which may not correspond to a possible live version. A musician in my class said that for him, yes, that was the case. Turkish musicians (with the exception of the most commodified pop singers) might instead often keep the situation of the single moment live context in mind even when they are recording a song with the technology that allows them to go far outside of that conceptualization. Thus, what Ceza does impressively on his albums he also can generally do in real time on the stage, or perhaps better stated, what Ceza does in real-time musical performance he tends to replicate in the studio.

My sense from comments of his fans online and their behavior at the concert is that Ceza is respected by a variety of people in Turkey. Along with his virtuosic delivery he brings clever lyrics that are poetic and rhythmically energetic. In Turkey’s touchy political climate, Ceza seems to  occupy a kind of liminal social position in his lyrics, standing outside of all of the groups. Even as he puts himself out there in a rebellious way, he is somehow also concealing himself. It’s interesting to me. (Turkish people, if I am misinterpreting anything here please let me know.) His enthusiastic fans at the concert were mostly young guys who crowded close to the stage, waving one hand in the air in time with the beat and/or rapping along passionately.

They seemed to really appreciate Ceza’s lyrics and to like him as a person (whatever they perceive that to be). Throughout his set people shouted encouraging words to him and they loved to shout his name exuberantly -“Ceza!”- whenever it occurred in the song lyrics. At a variety of types of concerts in Istanbul I have seen people in the audience actively cultivate a warm and hospitable environment towards the performer like this; there is a feeling of closeness to the performers, and audience members connect personally with them through direct, encouraging verbal exchanges. Generally Ceza didn’t directly interact with the audience for extended moments, but there were a few of these, like when he went around the three sides of the stage and asked us in a rhyme how we were.

After Ceza finished and we waited for Grandmaster Flash, the breakdancers took the lull as a chance to work on their moves:

Grandmaster Flash focused on the traditional task of a DJ during his set, trying to get the crowd to dance like crazy. At first there seemed to be three kinds of behavior among the audience: that of the Ceza fans, the hip hop dancers, and then everyone else. The Ceza fans at first did the same thing that they had done when Ceza was performing: standing close to Grandmaster Flash and waving one of their arms in time to the basic beat. But at the beginning of his set Flash was mostly playing mixed cuts of American pop music from the 60s and 70s, relying heavily on classic vinyl record mixing techniques, like he does in this Bronx performance from 7 years ago. It was actually interesting to see how poorly the rap arm wave common today fit these songs that were the basis of the early hip hop sound and the earliest recorded rap tracks. The Ceza fans were trying to respond to a musician they knew to respect as a part of rap history, but they at first didn’t understand some important stylistic differences between today’s rap music and the typical sounds of early hip hop. This lack of understanding was manifested in a mismatch between the dancing movements and the patterns in the musical sound. Gradually, many of them modified their dancing, figuring out that they needed a full-body approach to really engage with the more rhythmically complex instrumental textures of the great classic funk, disco, and soul songs Flash was spinning.

The majority of the crowd seemed unsure what to do when Grandmaster Flash first took the stage. Perhaps the “old” music was a problem for the vast majority of the audience, who were fairly young and maybe had just not heard so much of it. I love funk and soul, having heard it a lot in the U.S., especially at parties, and so I am attuned to the fact that I rarely hear it in Istanbul. When the music I have been waiting to hear comes on, I often notice that the dance floor empties out!

The hip hop dancers were the third audience group to display a certain kind of behavior when Grandmaster Flash started up. At least some of them had come earlier for the Burn Battle School dance competition and then stayed. They “got” what Grandmaster Flash was trying to do the whole time, even at the beginning. These break dancers, who were mostly younger but also counted people over 35 in their numbers, were dressed in comfortable yet funky clothing, in styles reminiscent of what you see in YouTube clips of hip hop dancing back in the day. They were mostly guys but with a few girls who seemed very comfortable despite being in the minority. So long as the dancers knew even a little bit about hip hop history, they could easily connect with the DJ’s performance, which was directed towards inspiring their extroverted dancing. And they got it, and it was so much fun just to watch them dance, sometimes alone, sometimes playing off each other in small groups, sometimes in one of those big circles for all out breakdancing like in the clips above.

I was surprised by how close Grandmaster Flash’s approach to his performance was to early hip hop, when virtuosic dancing was arguably the focus of the whole affair. Ceza offered us the virtuosity that we’ve come to expect from MCs today, after they emerged from the hip hop scene (originally consisting of graffiti artists, break dancers, DJs and MCs/rappers) as the most commercially successful fragment. Flash, on the other hand, turned us from amazed spectators into active and interactive participants. He was giving us the energy and the musical framework for us to create our own spectacle. At first, when the Ceza-ers were still arm waving and many others were hesitantly rocking from side to side, Flash was frequently exhorting us to greater energy with stock phrases like “somebody make some noise” and “put your hands in the air!” In the first several minutes of his set, I wondered how aware he was of what the crowd was doing. He seemed so focus on the mixing he was doing at his computer, mixing board, and turntables. I actually worried that maybe people were becoming bored and would soon begin to trickle out of the arena.

After awhile Grandmaster Flash indicated that there was a technological problem. I’m not sure of exactly what was happening, but from his comments to the sound tech that he called to the stage on his mic, he wasn’t satisfied with the volume of the records he was using in the mix. “It’s a 78,” he said at one point to the sound tech who had come onto the stage, and then complained that it was too quiet.

There was some uneasiness as the adjustments were made, but eventually Flash was satisfied with the sound. He also made a switch to more recent music like Bruno Mars in the middle of the set. The change in repertoire seemed to make a big difference to the crowd, who responded with markedly more animation when they started to recognize the songs and sing along. Perhaps he had planned this progression from earlier to later music, but I doubt it. I think that, being focused as a classic DJ on providing a great mix for dancing, he noticed the lack of enthusiasm in the crowd and tried to solve the problem. I remember hearing “Bittersweet Symphony”, “Jump” by Kriss Kross, “Under Pressure” by Queen, and “When Doves Cry” by Prince. After the crowd began to dance, the atmosphere became positive and festive. We nearly forgot about Grandmaster Flash being there, as he stopped shouting to get us into the sprit and melted into the background behind the dancing flow he was creating. At one point I started to feel pretty tired, but I wanted to keep playing my part in the show. Grandmaster Flash’s set was, in particular, a singular concert experience for me. I am grateful that I got to experience a taste of old school hip hop, brought to life again by one of its celebrated experts.

In formal ways, Ceza and Grandmaster Flash provided contrasting experiences. Ceza, a representative of modern rap, was focused on the verbal mode and provided a solo stage spectacle. We wanted to listen to him, spellbound. But of course many people also danced to the music as a kind of secondary response. Grandmaster Flash was much less focused on verbal modes and more intent on evoking the body to dance, but there was still a virtuosic element in his mixing decisions and his manipulation of the records (scratching). Overtly, what Flash offered might have seemed more social, as the crowd’s dancing became a living message of coming together and his sampling of other artists brought the spirit of a large crowd of other artists onto the stage. Ceza’s emphasis on words spoken by one voice against a stripped down, electronic tracks seems quite different, but his lyrics are often a mix of classic rap individualistic bragging mixed with social critique and calls for people to treat each other conscientiously. Even if you can’t understand the lyrics, from the images in the video for “Suspus” you can get a sense of the socially critically mode of the song. After one of his songs (I think it was “Fark Var”) Ceza gave a brief message where he wished for peace in Turkey and all over the world. During both performances I felt a kind of unity develop in the audience.

In an era when we so often consume music in a distracted, passive way, the positive energy and feeling of well-being that the whole concert left in me was a real blessing.

BLM Protest Sound Recordings

While in San Francisco for a conference I was glad to have participated in a Black Lives Matter rally. It started right next to the hotel where I was staying. I hesitated for a few weeks after the rally about whether or not to put this material on my blog, because it might be seen as controversial. You will hear me chanting and cheering at several points in the recordings, so it’s pointless for me to try to present myself as a neutral observer. Yes, I agreed with many of the things that were said, but not with everything. I am not really trying to advocate a certain position by doing this. What I would really like is to make what I quickly realized was a beautiful event from an acoustic and aesthetic point of view available in some form for people who are interested in sound. I also think it is important to give the many powerful speakers in the second recording platforms like this humble one to share their messages. Even if you don’t generally agree with the BLM movement, I encourage you to go through the table summarizing the speeches and just pick a few short moments to listen to that strike you as interesting for whatever reason.

If any of the speakers do not want their speeches to be put online in this manner, please send me an email and I will remove them.

I started recording the protest because I wanted to perhaps preserve something of the incredible vibrancy of the air around me. Sometimes I was holding my iPhone over my head but at other points I had it near my waist or in my purse. It’s not amazing in quality but it seems good enough to me to share with other people. I’m not sure how many people can hear it, but there’s a constant, low rumbling sound throughout the recording, like an approaching wave of water. I really was hearing that sound as I walked, and it seemed to me like a huge cloud of sound. I think this sensation may have been occurring because 1) We were always walking between pretty tall buildings, which seemed to confine the sound and cause it to kind of pile up on itself; and 2) The crowd was large but not really large, so that I could discern many of the more delicate sounds that huge numbers of people chanting might have covered up.

The first and shorter recording contains around the first half of the march. the second and longer recording contains approximately the second half of the march and then most of the speeches that were given in front of City Hall. I will give some basic information about the two recordings below.

During the first recording (27:32) you can heard sounds such as metal clanging (12:56), drums, bells, the ticking of bike wheels, police walkie talkie chatter (3:00, 6:00), people having mundane discussions. Some of my favorite moments were when multiple chants coming from different parts of the crowd were weaving together (20:30, 24:10).

We were walking down Market St., from Embarcadero Center/Justin Herman Plaza until City Hall. I started recording somewhere near the plaza. I don’t remember where I stopped the first recording, but it was only around half way through. Reliable estimates of the size of the crowd seem to converge around 1,000 people. Throughout the march there were lines of police in uniform; some standing and some walking along with us. They were shutting down all cross traffic for us and allowing us complete freedom to walk down the entire street, in all the lanes of traffic, as far as I observed. The police were also moderately dressed—no tactical gear, no riot shields, no showing of weapons. There may well have been those kinds of police stationed further away from the protest route, but I didn’t see them. All of the protesters that I saw and heard were behaving completely peacefully; indeed news reports of the protest also do not mention any violence on the part of protesters or police.

First Recording

The second recording features over 30 speakers who represent a really wide spectrum of viewpoints. Some protesters used a lot of profanity; some didn’t use any. Some people listed statistics; others read poems. Some expressed strong anger while others took a concilatory tone, but I think everyone was united by a sense of hope despite what they and their loved ones have personally suffered. I can say that it was simply an honor to listen to these people speak–they were far more eloquent than I could ever dream of being, and I learned so much from them. Most of them were quite young and seemed to be speaking with little preparation. And I think their stories, ideas, and verbalized feelings need to be heard by people around the world. For people who are intrigued but can’t listen to the entire 2-hour recording, I have made a table that will tell you where each speech began and what the main content was. Be warned: many of the speeches do contain profanity. Parents and educators might first listen to deem which portions seem appropriate for younger listeners.

Second Recording

Basic Information about the Speakers in the Second Recording

1 24:00 Male, Latino Police Chief Ed Lee and SF mayor Greg Suhr regarding the killing of Jessica Williams (see http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Police-Chief-Greg-Suhr-resigns-after-killing-of-7758122.php “us walking is a form of resistance” and “amor!”
2 28:30 Male, Black Speaks to Black officer present; call to further action; critique of current economic system (neo-liberalism). blocking City Hall doors. Not critical of all white people but of those who use white privilege.
3 34:00 Female, Black Speaks directly to police officers around us
35:00 Police killing of her friend Bernard Peters
4 35:40 Female, Black Police killing of her friend Gus Rugby
5 36:15 Male, Black Personal experiences of racist treatment by civilians and police; international, economic and social scope of racist problem
6 43:00 Female, Black Social, historical, economic basis of racial oppression; Dallas shooting of police officers
7 45:50 Male, Black Current presidential election
Need for increased Black involvement, esp. political
8 47:40 Female, Black Addresses Asian woman with “All lives matter” sign; need to support Black Trans community
9 50:00 Female, Black Impassioned and at times angry speech aimed at people along the marching route saying that “there is not an issue here today.”
54:00 Police accountable to Black taxpayers like her
59:50 Similarities among all humans
10 1:02:00 Female, Latina Need for Black and esp. Brown people to remember their history
11 1:03:00 Male, Black Native Americans; addresses police present; “All lives matter,” Philando Castille shooting
12 1:05:30 Male, Black Reads an original poem
13 1:07:50 Female, Black Need for healing practices and community bonds in protest movement; “All lives matter” sign holder
14 1:09:00 Female, Black Buy Black, against consumerism
15 1:12:00 Female, Black To white people who are tired of hearing about these shootings, she is tired of living them. Reads original poem.
16 1:17:40 Male, Black Thanks those who have attended, esp. Black sisters. Directly addresses police about the problems he sees in terms of statistics.
17 1:22:00 Male, Black Media bias; normalization of racist speech
18 1:26:45 Female, Latina Experience as a teacher in Mission District
19 1:29:50 Female, Black Encouraging message about maintaining hope, non-violence
20 1:31:30 Female, Black Police fear of civilians; call to further community involvement; white allies need to educate other white people
21 1:33:40 Male, Black History of European oppression of Africa
A Black woman interrupts the speaker, calls angrily for patriotic behavior. Starts to scream, pours water on her head, and takes off some of her clothes. Some people are angry, calls of “please respect the speaker.” “Black lives matter” chant taken up to break the tension.
1:37:40 Speaker addresses what has just happened; calls for unity, peace; call to further involvement
22 1:39:00 Male, Black “Black-on-Black” violence, accountability in the Black community, don’t antagonize the police needlessly
23 1:44:00 Female, Black Possibility of disruptive woman at 1:33:40 as planted distraction
24 1:46:00 Female, Black Police accountability and policing of themselves
25 1:47:50 Female, Asian Greater Asian support of Blacks. Shares about 2 Puerto-Rican men killed recently in Minneapolis by white men who heard them speaking Spanish. Gun control measures against racists.
26 1:51:00 Female, Black Antagonizes the police present
27 1:51:50 Female, Black “All lives matter” as disruptive and form of violence
28 1:52:50 Male, Black Need to remain hopeful, peaceful, openhearted. Asks police officers present what they can change.
29 1:57:00 Female, Black Personal story of SF police brutality; direct address to police officers present
30 2:01:00 Female, Black Thanks participants of all races. Addresses an officer who she feels has been smirking at the protesters. Compares the police to a gang.
31 2:03:00 Female, Black Current system designed to oppress Black people. Addresses Black officer. Calls for people to run for political office, support Black community businesses. Views police as agitators and not helpers; gives the example of the disruptive man at 1:50:30 whom the crowd calmed down.
32 2:11:40 Male, Black Teacher who speaks about school segregation, neo-paternalism in Black and Brown schools; personal story of police brutality
33 2:14:40 Female, Black Recent Bay Area police scandals: drug planting in West Oakland, sex trafficking of 15-yr-old girl among police officers. More police accountability.
34 2:18:00 Female, Black Asks rhetorical questions about anti-bias and de-escalation training of police officers in the Bay Area.
2:20:30 Sounds around me as I walk away from the rally back towards Market St.

On Doctors, Seers, and Musicologists

In 2010 I saw this mosaic of the Latin term salve, a once common greeting, at the entrance of a church building in Paris. (I’m sorry, I can’t remember which church!)

Why are Ph.D.s and medical doctors all called doctors? My interest was peaked in this question when I kept seeing the word docte being used as an adjective in the French translation of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Then one thought tumbled into another and, well, here it all is.

This blog post jumps off from the mystery of the origin of the word “doctor”. From this general etymological history I will then move to with increasing specification to a consideration of the profession of musicologist as a kind of doctor.

By doing just a bit of research on the cool site etymonline.com and having conversations with a few friends, I have formulated some ideas about this word that I think are worth sharing. Its root is old, this word “doctor.” The English term doctor originates from the Latin docere, which came to refer to someone who executed the verb “to teach”. Going back further in history, this Latin term meant “make to appear right,” and so its etymological link to the word decent becomes evident. And if we take docere back and further back, 4,000 to 6,000 years ago and well past the innovations of medicine and universities, we find that according to linguistic historians, “doctor” traces a line of descent from a Proto Indo European word-stem that is common to Greek, Sanskrit, Latin, French, English, German, and many other later languages. This stem is dek, which can mean: to take, to accept, greet, be suitable. In Greek this stem evolved into the word dokein: to appear, seem, think.

The meaning of dek is significant: essential to all of the definitions listed directly above (to take, to accept, greet, be suitable) is that the entity acting out the verb does so in confrontation with some other entity. A second thing that the first thing responds to, based on what it believes to be the nature of the second thing, by accepting it, taking it, greeting it, becoming suitable to it. There is something like a generative hierarchy in play, where there is a zeroth-order or initial event and then a first-order event that cannot occur until after the zeroth-order event. The collection of verbs related to the dek stem address the first-order event, the seer who registers or witnesses what is appearing. For reasons that I hope will become clear in the following paragraphs, I find the etymological origins of doctor leading back to dek to be a beautifully apt definition of what both medical doctors and academic doctors essentially do.

How apt that at the start of his narrative about the life of Jesus, it was a trained doctor, Luke, who describes his methodology in terms of eyewitnesses and careful investigation. It is not my intention here to make any claims about the absolute truth of any kind of religion or science. My intention is a consideration of the meaning of words and how they relate to my life experiences. But, isn’t it interesting that many religions give a central place to the practice of witnessing, or testifying, and that we find the same emphasis in the central practices of medical doctors and academics? I realize that for some people this term might have a religious tinge; I am neither focusing on nor neglecting that tinge, but rather, I want to examine the term with an even broader view.

A doctor understood as a master seer, whether they be of the medical or the academic variety (or both) must be always sensitive to the limited position embedded in the term commonly used to describe their professional station. The term doctor as a proper verb agent cannot apply if the agent has transgressed the balance. As we have seen above, the doctor is in a kind of second position (the first-order position) to phenomena that occupies a kind of ordinally superior position (the zeroth-order position). This initial thing occurs and then the doctor responds by trying to perceive it, requiring any good doctor to start their task with the invaluable act of witnessing. It follows that a preponderant part of the education of any kind of doctor must address the ability to witness: both making more precise the tools that record the impression and developing the doctor’s interpretive skill at determining which impressions are most “real” and which are problematic enough to be discarded as “false.”

Think about what, ideally, makes modern doctors superior to other kinds of people who might be able to “cure” illnesses. Doctors not only observe symptoms, they try to observe the cause of all of the unpleasant or unusual things the patient is experiencing. Doctors, with the aids of modern scientific knowledge and technology, not only prescribe medicine to stop someone from experiencing headaches. They can find the cause of those headaches, such as a cancerous tumor in the brain. Furthermore, doctors have some knowledge of the biological processes that cause cancerous growths, which is generally the out-of-control growth of cells. And at least in part, doctors have some idea of the different possible causes for that out-of-control growth. We can summarize the station, therefore, of a doctor as yes, someone who cures or finds solutions to fix bodily problems. But the first step in treating the bodily problem is seeing or witnessing that problem, and in optimal conditions all the way to the problem’s fundamental aspects. A doctor might not be able to do much to cure an advanced, fatal disease, but it’s still valuable in some measure just to be given the knowledge of the material/bodily origins of one’s suffering. Patients often cannot, by examining their own body, come to this kind of understanding. It’s a sad thing that many people currently experience doctor’s appointments in which the doctor will only prescribe medicine to treat symptoms and doesn’t seem to have the time to talk to the patient about their root causes and the corresponding, truly healing solutions.

At a certain point in my advanced musicology education, I found that my most significant progress consisted in learning about the extent of what I did not know. In my first year of musicology course work I felt fairly comfortable judging the value of a certain song, or musical culture, or performance to be poor, even if I had no real sensory experience of how it felt, sounded, or looked. Indeed, I took up this educational path to learn more about the music that I “loved”, and for a time this love blinded my capacity to know. It’s clear to many of us, I think, that such strongly pronounced yet weakly supported judgments were not ethically sound. A musicologist is someone who is supposed to communicate knowledge about music, which is an intimidatingly gigantic field of knowledge, due to its cultural and individual diversity. Because one can only pass along knowledge they already have access to, if I am asked about something (musical or otherwise) of which I am ignorant (lacking knowledge), I try not to erroneously skip the knowing process and pretend to be in a position to make some kind of value judgment. By the end of my second year of education at the University of Maryland, I had grown more inquisitive and also less inclined to drop the hammer of authoritative aesthetic judgment. It was a big change for me, and I have my professors at that institution to thank, in particular my Introduction to Ethnomusicology professor Robert Provine. Truly, he played a major role in opening my ears, eyes, and mind to music.

Now I find myself working as a musicology professor. It’s a dream come true—a dream that came true after 23 semesters of university coursework in music. Slowly I collected more substantive knowledge about the history of musics around the world, I had many invaluable, first-hand experiences of musical phenomena that I remembered and reflected upon, and I learned so much about my lack of knowledge and how to deal with my limits. Instead of the feeling of “Aha, I know about that!” I now feel more often battle with feelings of skepticism and fears of inadequacy, despite which I still need to act out the tasks of my profession competently. I find myself asking, “Am I sure about X or Y fact that I have inserted into this presentation?” “How else do I need to extend or deepen my research before I can confidently write an article about this research project?” And often when people ask me questions about music, I feel compelled to start by acknowledging clearly the limits of what I can reasonably say. When I catch myself speaking out of ignorance, as I can still slip into doing, the wisdom of my education about knowledge and ignorance speaks up to convict me.

In contrast to all of these negative statements, what then, do I consider my job as a musicologist to be? As is already clear, it’s certainly not to know everything about music, which I have learned is impossible. And it’s not primarily to give opinions about good and bad music, although I do consider that to be a useful part of my vocation in certain situations. Rather, it’s to try to serve as a witness to musical phenomena: to be present when music occurs. I can do that through the written descriptions of other people, but it is especially important that I am present to observe music when it happens, if not live then at least through high quality media recordings. In so far as I am able to observe anything, I try to strive for relative accuracy. To see/hear/feel what I can palpably perceive with my senses and to at the same time be aware of both the limitations of my senses and the limits of the information that has come through them. In a word, to be authentically empirical, whether I am out purposefully conducting my research or I find myself in the midst of musical experience in a more informal way. This might sound like an easy task, but I haven’t mentioned all of the possible pitfalls, and it is easy to start chasing after something that isn’t there. For all of my research and formal (classroom) as well as informal teaching, the heuristic (general concept) of “witnessing” is quite helpful for me. I am trying to serve as a witness, to recognize the difference between witnessing something and fantasizing or gossiping about it, to be able to evaluate the works of other scholars as trustworthy testimony or not. I have, for example, tried to take such a posture in the blog posts that I wrote about what I witnessed firsthand about the cultural life of Lahore, Pakistan (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5).

As I am writing this there is a thunderstorm outside, which reminds me of a childhood memory that seems pertinent here. When I was a kid and the National Weather Service called a tornado warning for our county, my parents would go outside and gaze intently at the skyline for signs in the forms of the clouds that a tornado was coming, while I would call desperately to them to hide with me in the basement, terrorized by the tornados whirling in my imagination.

 As the tumble of my thoughts seems to have come to its end, it might be useful to re-connect the end to the beginning, that definition of dek as “to take, to accept, greet, be suitable.” How instructive is the progress suggested across the four terms of the definition, starting with the basic registering of the music right in front of me, and moving more and more towards a position of greater familiarity with it, so that the verb becomes more and more active, passing from acceptance, to actively uttering with my body some kind of greeting (hence the “Salve” picture I placed at the top of this post). At the end of the chain, the process progresses to an action state where now perhaps what I have acknowledged might result in a kind of change in me, as I become suitable to it. Or perhaps I will decide at that point that the thing I have learned about does not personally suit me, suggesting that this is the moment at which a limited judgment towards what has been observed is a valid possible action. We don’t tend to refer to musicians as doctors, but the progress in the definition of dek also seems applicable to a music lesson, where the student first understands what the teacher is doing and then imitates it. The start is relatively more passive while the end is much more active, and any good music student knows that you must pay close attention when your teacher is showing you something. The same could be said for many other forms of education, of course. It seems that only at the final stage, where the cumulative aspects of the activity of knowing culminate in a kind of transference from the zeroth-order entity to the first-order entity, like an electrical charge that jolts the mere seer into a more active state of becoming suitable to what is seen, can there emerge one who is rightfully qualified to teach.

This blog post has mostly involved asking questions and formulating general answers. In a few subsequent posts I will talk in more detail about some epistemological issues that I try to address in my research and teaching.

On the Premiere of Onur Türkmen’s Sailing to Byzantium

40x40_KalyonTonight I had the great pleasure of hearing and seeing a live performance of Onur Türkmen’s Sailing to Byzantium, a composition that Onur told me about a year ago and that I have been anticipating ever since. I had gotten worried that perhaps an obstacle on his way had come up, but suddenly last week I got a Facebook invitation to a performance of the piece in Istanbul, at Koç University.

Here is the official description: Sailing to Byzantium  / İstanbul’a (Bizans’a) Seyahat, yapıtları aynı dönemde sembolizm bağlamında paralellikler taşıyan büyük İrlandalı şair W.B.Yeats ile Ahmet Haşim’in şiirleri üzerine kurgulanıyor. Besteci Onur Türkmen’in yazdığı eseri, Avrupa’nın en özgün çağdaş müzik topluluklarından İrlandalı Yurodny Ensemble sahneliyor. Türkiye’nin önemli geleneksel müzik icracıları Nermin Kaygusuz (şan/kemençe) ve  Miase Bayramoğlu Örümlü’yü (ney) Yurodny Ensemble ile bir araya getiren bu özel çalışma “zaman” kavramının farklı boyutları üzerine yoğunlaşıyor. Sailing to Byzantium is compiled of poems of the major Irish poet W.B Yeats and Ahmet Haşim that were written in the same era and share Symbolist parallels. Composer Onur Türkmen’s work brings to the stage one of Europe’s most original modern music ensembles, the Irish Yurodny Ensemble, along with significant traditional Turkish music performers Nermin Kaygusuz (voice/kemençe) and Miase Bayramoğlu (ney). This special endeavor centers on different dimensions of the notion of time. 

Onur has subtitled the work “Ay, Kuğular ve Ruh Üzerine bir Törensel Drama” or “A Ritual Drama about Moon, Swans, and Soul.” It is an accurate description of my impression of the piece, which consists of 9 parts, some of which are songs and others of which are entirely instrumental. The texted portions are on a few strange and lovely poems by W.B. Yeats and Ahmet Haşim. Many of the instrumental sections relate to single words in the poems. The ensemble for the premieres in Istanbul and Ankara (held a few nights ago) consisted of the Irish Yurodny ensemble (Scottish harp, violin, piano, saxophones, trombone) and 3 Turkish musicians (ney, kemençe, cello). There was one Irish vocalist and the kemençe player also served as the Turkish vocalist. At many points the performance had a ritualistic air that encompassed a gradient of solemnity and ecstasy that reminded me of George Crumb–especially his Ancient Voices of Children. Like Crumb, Onur and the musicians made avant-garde music with a touchingly human voice.

We arrived to the concert a bit late, joining everyone at the start of the 3rd movement, a gorgeous instrumental section that featured the Scottish harp. Catriona McKay, the harp player, seems to have what Franz Liszt referred to as transcendental execution: high technical skill that allows her great freedom and precision of expression. My attention was immediately aroused by this display. I can say the same thing for the performances of violinist Diamanda La Berge Dramm, cellist Gözde Yaşar, and saxophonist Nick Roth. (I cannot comment on the other musicians regarding this issue, because they seemed to have less virtuosic, soloistic parts.)

The main reason I was so keen to hear Sailing to Byzantium was because Onur had explained to me that it would combine Irish and Turkish traditional instruments. Onur is someone who has for several years tried to engage in a systematic and personal way with the Turkish makam (scale) system and with traditional Ottoman-Turkish aesthetic ideas. So, I believed that he would not simply give some of the melodies to a Turkish instrument or splash in some traditional percussion parts. Indeed, the interface between Turkish and European art and folk music proved to be complex, inventive, and surely weighted. I heard the noisy, percussive, mostly un-pitched sound world of avant garde European art music; the sober, curving tones of Turkish classical music; the poignant strains of Irish music; and both cool classical art and warm popular vocal hues. The result was a fusion of very particular sound worlds into something familiar and yet noticeably unique, a fine balance to strike. One moment of especially impressive fusion was the use of prepared-piano alterations to the piano strings to alter the pitches into what sounded to me like the tuning of one of the Turkish makams. Another was when Nick Roth circulated the stage, performing a solo part for soprano saxophone that at first reminded me of the playful exploration of timbre in Berio’s Oboe Sequenza and then transformed into an exuberant realization of Black Sea tulum (bagpipe) playing.

Lately, the strongest sign that I am listening to a good piece of contemporary art music is that I become still and very focused on each and every perceptible sound. Generally, Türkmen’s musical textures are uncluttered and unfold with patience, making it is easy for me to locate such a listening mode in them. This kind of listening is what I would call sincere: I have the sense that I am an open, optimistic receiver for the sounds, and as they enter my body I am freely feeling and thinking responses to it. The wonderful Turkish word “samimiyet” came to my mind during the concert, particularly during the song setting Haşim’s “Ruhum” or “My Soul”. It gave me great satisfaction alone to read this finely crafted poem, but the effect was then doubled by Türkmen’s breathtakingly sincere attempt to complement it with sounds. I suspect that as he composes, Onur considers every sound that he represents in the notation. He imagines the sufficient into existence but through some kind of patient listening and disciplined mind stops holds back any excess. Remarkably, in Sailing to Byzantium, he even managed to do at moments of seeming violent rage. I know the work of conductor Ivan Arion Karst well, and I can say that he possesses just the same qualities (I also heard tonight from one of the musicians that he is additionally a kind conductor who brings out the best performers can offer). Tonight, all the musicians echoed and amplified this loving care towards sound, with their performances coming together into a glorious garment.

Current music, wherever it lies along the popular-art trajectory, seems to be gripped by one or more manifestations of excess: loud sounds, high drama; lots of experimentation, notes, noise, sensuous beauty; plurality of sources and references; thick textures; lots of different instruments; highly energetic dancing and affective response. I do not mean to suggest that this is a bad thing–some of the popular and art music that I am most enjoying listening to at home certainly possesses abundant excesses. The compositions that I know by Onur Türkmen, however, seem to go in a less common direction. Or, no, I changed my mind as I wrote that sentence. Perhaps it is the condition of music to be excessive; in some way it is inescapably heavy (kesif), and it is a fallacy to try to escape it. Onur’s generally subtle (latif) sounds seem rarely excessive to me. At the same time I perceive in his works an imposing intellectual edifice, and they typically provoke in me a flood of meanings and interpretations. From listening to Sailing to Byzantium only one time, I already glimpsed the possibility of a great number of webs of connections that the verbal and musical components can form. The most obvious one of these concerns bodies of water. I need to study all of it again before I can say more, and I hope to be able to do that soon in another post.

For now, let me congratulate Onur Türkmen and the skillful musicians who were on the stage tonight. While you are waiting for more, readers out there, I encourage you to check out Onur’s other compositions on his Soundcloud account.

Views of Pakistan: Music, Part 2

It’s taken me a few weeks to finish up this last post about my time in Pakistan, but here it is at last. As I mentioned at the end of the last entry, I  am going to continue to describe a few more experiences involving music that I had in Lahore.

My husband and I were mainly in Lahore in January to formally celebrate our wedding that had taken place in Turkey a week earlier. More specifically, a week into our trip Farhan’s family held a walima, which is the dinner traditionally given by the groom’s family and the last of the shaadi (wedding) events.

Farhan and me at the walima in January
Farhan and me at the walima in January

A few days after the walima we visited some elderly neighbors who had been unable to come to the dinner due to illness. They kindly served us tea, expressed their regrets, and told me about themselves. I was surprised to learn that one of them was Shia and the other was Sunni. With all of the news stories in the news about conflict between the two groups, I think it’s important to offer this counterexample. I learned in several instances of how many Sunnis and Shias live together in Lahore, as coworkers, close friends, and even in marriages that bring together new family members.

After we had talked for awhile the couple’s grandson, Ali, offered to sing some songs for us.

Ali Noor Chaudry, whose home we visited and who sang and played the guitar for us
Ali Noor Chaudry, whose home we visited and who sang and played the guitar for us

He left the room and returned with an acoustic guitar. First he performed John Legend’s “All of Me.” This was a bit surprising because 1&1/2 years earlier I had performed this song (singing and playing the piano) at my cousin’s wedding. I know that it’s a well-known song, and I wasn’t surprised that it had reached Pakistan. Still, the moment was extraordinary in the way it connected distant parts of the world in my musical memory: one time I flew from Istanbul to Texas and performed a version of “All of Me” and then a short time later I flew to Lahore and someone played a different version if it there for me.

After the John Legend song he played “Earth Song” by Michael Jackson (listen to it here). Farhan has told me that Michael Jackson has been popular among Pakistanis. I actually prefer Ali’s version to the original, which sounds overly-produced and artificial to me. There is something compelling about the timbral transformations of the vocal and non-vocal parts.

On my last night in Lahore, at a buffet-style restaurant, I finally came upon traditional Pakistani musicians. A tabla player and a singer-harmonium player were performing popular Pakistani folk songs from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. This time the musicians could faithfully carry out the song requests of Farhan’s mother, such as “Aaj Jane Ki Zid Na Karo” by Farida Khanum. Like at Peeru’s Cafe, most of the people sitting around us gave no outward response to the music–no clapping, no watching the musicians, no singing along or moving to the music, no song requests. Again, I was mystified by this behavior. The one exception was a couple with two young sons who were speaking British English. The family applauded after each song. Finally I found the music I was longing to hear, and without purposefully trying to seek it out! I really enjoyed listening to these guys, and we tipped them and spoke with them for a few minutes before leaving after our meal. The singer told us that they mostly perform in restaurants and can also be hired for special events.

Traditional musicians
Traditional musicians at a restaurant in Lahore

So, those were my last experiences of live music before I left Lahore. Among modern music scholars of anthropological and cultural-historical points of view, it is commonly understood that “music” is not a monolithic, universal category across the world’s cultures. Instead, a certain community’s creative sound culture is culturally specific; this specificity extends beyond the physical and sonic materials of the music and into attitudes about those materials and the place of those sounds and genres in the various aspects of life. This theory is at the foundation of how I teach and research about music. I bring it up because it is ethnocentric, I think, for me to take what I observed of music culture in Lahore and pose questions like, “Is musical culture degenerating in Lahore?” or “Is Pakistani culture losing its musical heritage?” It’s tempting, I admit, to take such a point of view because I have fallen in love with the mid-century Pakistani folk music. Yet, such formulations are not as pressing as more open-minded assessments of what is actually occurring in that culture at that time.

In this case, I saw that pop music containing a lot of globalized elements seems to be flourishing in Lahore much more than local, more isolated musical forms. In that case it seems especially pertinent to ask questions about the way global power flows are operating, as I mentioned in the previous post. I think that musicians are generally intuitive people who have their fingers on the pulse of the communities in which they are operating; their decisions often reflect social, religious, political, economic, aesthetic, or philosophical considerations. For my part, in my capacity as a musicologist, I would only say that no matter the form and function of the music they produce, I hope that Pakistani musicians will knowledgeably and wisely navigate the globalized music economy in ways that are beneficial to them.

This brings me to the end of my posts about my first visit to Pakistan. As always, I would love to read anyone’s feedback in the comments section or on Facebook.

Views of Pakistan: Music, Part I

During my very first visit to Pakistan, as a musicologist who loves music, I really wanted to go to some concerts of local musicians drawing primarily on the traditional musical culture. Unfortunately, it was hard for my husband’s family to find any events. They explained that there are not a lot of concerts in Lahore. The master musicians (ustad-s) play only a few times a year, and their concerts are expensive (like $200 a ticket!) and exclusive. After some searching we learned that on the night Farhan and I returned to Lahore from Islamabad, Cafe Peeru’s was hosting a “ghazal” night. Perfect, we thought! As it turned out, it wasn’t “perfect” in the way I had hoped, but still, there was plenty to see and hear.

In the following paragraphs I give some observations of the show. My training as a musician and a musicologist gives me a certain point of view that I am not trying to hide. At the same time, I am sure there are things I have missed or misunderstood. I would be curious to learn, especially from Pakistanis, how other readers respond to what I will say. Perhaps people can make comments at the end of my post or on Facebook.

The design and feel of Cafe Peeru’s is enjoyable, and I recommend it to anybody who hasn’t gone there yet. There are several wooden tables outside under a canopy of trees, with colorful fabrics and lanterns hanging from it. Even though the air was cold and we were sitting outside, a nearby fire sufficed to keep us warm.

Setting of Peeru's Cafe with 4 musicians on the stage
Setting of Peeru’s Cafe with 4 musicians on the stage

On the menu a vision for the cafe was explained:

Menu from Cafe Peeru's
Menu from Cafe Peeru’s

Indeed this cafe was unique among all of the restaurants I visited in Lahore or Islamabad, because it clearly had been designed to do what the vision statement suggested, to serve as a kind of unique, beautiful, artful escape from mundane life.

My experience of the music at the cafe was hardly sublime but rather a kind of confused and disconnected cultural jumble. The confusion manifested itself in the band’s instruments, the style of the music, and the choice of songs. As shown in the above photograph, the musicians consisted of 1 male singer, 1 electric keyboard player, 1 electric guitar player, and 1 of those djembe-ish drums that seem to have become a percussion instrument of choice around the world over the last 25 years. (For those who don’t know, a djembe is a traditional drum from West Africa that is portable and can produce a variety of distinct sounds). I felt disappointed when I noticed these instruments on the stage upon entering, because I was hoping to see the more traditional harmonium and tabla drums. What I did see suggested some kind of world pop fusion. Not wanting to fall into the typical tourist mode of privileging one’s imagined idea of the traditional essence of a distant culture, I said to myself, ok, let’s see what they do with these instruments.

In contrast to the plain shirts and pants of the instrumentalists, the singer wore stylish, cosmopolitan clothes. Before they began he explained that they were aiming to do something in the style of Coke Studios. I have never researched Coke Studios thoroughly, but as I have been learning more about contemporary Pakistani and Indian music I have come across it several times. As far as I have observed, in a place like Pakistan where there is not much infrastructure to support music, Coke Studios steps in and offers the local musicians a performance platform that of course also doubles as advertisement. Generally, the musical results are a kind of “world music” in which the melodic content remains local but is inserted into a rhythmic, harmonic, and formal context that is firmly Anglophone rock. The example of “Allah Hu” by the Nooran sisters is a clear case of such a stylistic transformation. Originally a pretty traditional (I think) Qawwali song with an emphasis on mystical poetry that is meant to take listeners into a different state of consciousness, in this Coke Studios version most of the words have been cut out and what is left is a metrically regular, thickly-textured groove. Here is another extremely hodgepodged example I happened upon when I was looking for the traditional Istanbul song “Üsküdar’a Gider iken”. The transformation results in a seductive sound that people from all over the world can potentially nod their heads to while they are at work, stuck in traffic, or wait for their food to arrive at a restaurant.

In the case of our “ghazal” concert, this meant a local vocal style the likes of Shafqat Amaanat Ali with a regular rhythmic/harmonic grid. The guitar and keyboard players employed jazzy idioms built from tertian chords. The djembe player played with only two different hand strokes (trained tabla players can make many different sounds on their instrument) and he played something like a fusion of a rock beat and some tabla-like fills. The first song was an arrangement in the above-mentioned style of a “ghazal,” but then after that the band mostly played Bollywood hits. They only played ghazal tunes when Farhan’s family members went up to the stage and specifically requested them. The band wasn’t familiar with some of these requests. In terms of overt behavior, Farhan’s parents seemed to be the only people present in the audience who had considerable knowledge of the ghazal genre.

As is probably clear, I am not a fan of Coke Studios, but we have to recognize that there are reasons why musicians such as the Nooran Sisters have entered into business with it and why the guys at Cafe Peeru’s seemed to be trying to get in on it. That is, there is a benefit, a usefulness, a value being created in the Coke Studios institutional space. Apparently Nestle also sees the value, because in Pakistan the Nescafe Basement is also operating (some people might understand the contradiction between multi-national Nescafe and Basement, which in the U.S. refers to a very small, local venue). This is an example of globalization. I thought frequently during my time in Lahore about globalization, because it seemed to be staring me in the face much of the time. “What is it, exactly?” I wondered. My tentative and not so sophisticated answer is that it is fundamentally power flowing among geographically distant points. Several years ago I learned of the debate among humanities scholars about whether globalization was primarily helpful or harmful. It seems to me that it depends on the directions of the flow of power. In the cases of specific performances at Coke Studios or Nestle Basement, are the local musicians getting to use as much as they are being used? I don’t know, but I am not optimistic, because even if the performers featured in such media are reaping a lot of benefits, the mode of production is ultimately capitalistic. I believe a power flow operating under capitalist principles, if not carefully managed, can engender an extreme power imbalance. In this particular case, very profitable music can be produced that only requires the participation of a small number of workers (many of whom might be making low or no wages). The final product consists of mass-produced, mass-media forms that are infinitely replicable. Such an arrangement has the potential to put large numbers of local musicians out of work and to standardize or flatten out the music being produced.

Back to our band at Cafe Peeru’s. The vocalist and guitarist had attained a certain level of musicianship; what I mean is that they had enough technical ability and performing experience that they were attuned to each other, and it was pleasing to watch and listen to them relating to each other through the music. The keyboard player often sounded like he wasn’t fitting stylistically with the others. The djembe player had trouble relating to the vocalist, who was leading the ensemble. It seemed that he often just wasn’t listening, so that when the vocalist tried to soften the group’s sound he didn’t follow, and so the vocalist had to directly gesture to him to play with less energy. As some people might know, in the traditional musical culture of this region, musicians learn by observing and playing with older master musicians for several years. The result is that the disciples attain a deep familiarity with the performance practice, and so when you watch them perform together they are communicating with extreme sophistication in mostly non-verbal ways. This “ensemble problem,” as some musicians call it, was compounded that night in Lahore when a man in the audience who appeared to be the owner of Cafe Peeru’s started to also play on his djembe. The two percussionists were continually clashing. I think the owner wanted the younger djembe player on the stage to follow him as he played a more complex part, but this certainly wasn’t easy to do given that the older musician was not even visible to the other one, being concealed behind a table to the musicians’ right side.

To conclude the observations about the performers, I can say that the vocalist had a vision for the musical experience he was leading, just as the owners of Cafe Peeru’s aimed at a special experience in their restaurant. Will he be able to realize it? What will happen to this vision as he finds himself in particular institutional arrangements and gains more knowledge about his profession?

At the end of the post I would like to briefly describe the audience. Eventually the following groups were present: a young couple sitting right in front of the stage, the six of us sitting a little further back, and a large family of three generations behind us. On the left side there was the owner at a semi-private table by the stage, a group of 5 middle-aged men behind him, and then a group of 5 middle-aged women out celebrating someone’s birthday. Besides us, the djembe-wielding owner, and the large family, the people at the other tables did not visibly engage with the musicians in any way. Several times the singer explained that if the people liked the music they could clap to demonstrate it to the musicians, but for some reason, most of the audience seemed to do nothing at the end of each song. Actually, while I watched them, the majority of the people didn’t seem to be paying attention whatsoever to the music.

The large family spread over a few tables at the back of the space at first acted excited about the music. The patriarch had his children go up and request not one but two Bollywood hits in dedication to his wife. Besides us, this family were the only other people to request songs. Both times when the musicians started the requested song the family behaved in a marked way, recording the performance and taking pictures with phones, laughing and speaking excitedly about what was happening. But, after less than a minute these behaviors stopped. After maybe 20 minutes of this extreme high-and-then-low pattern of reaction, the family became subdued and, looking tired or unhappy, they left.

At least in terms of observable behavior, the singer’s repeated attempts to engage with the audience were almost wholly lacking in reciprocity. This, frankly, made me sad, because in traditional Pakistani and Indian music the musician-audience exchange can be incredibly rich. That is, somewhere in Pakistani culture the potential for such a musical experience is there, I am sure of it, but the knowledge required for it is perhaps not diffusing through society. I asked Farhan about why the audience was behaving in such a way at Cafe Peeru’s. He pointed out that he himself had never gone to any concerts in Pakistan before we went to this cafe, and that in all of his many years of education at a variety of schools in Karachi and Lahore, he never learned about music. People like me who were enculturated in (i.e. grew up in) cultures featuring frequent presentational musical experiences (i.e. concerts, talent shows, recitals, school choir shows) can come to believe that knowing how to attend a concert of a certain kind of music is natural. Actually, though, we have to learn how to do this. As evidence, just think of people you have witnessed clapping at the “wrong times” in concerts of European art music.

I have a few more (and more positive) experiences of music in Lahore to share with all of you, but I will save them for the next post.




Views of Pakistan: Islamabad Sights

A few days after arriving in Lahore, Farhan and I took a bus up to Islamabad. The trip took 4.5 hours, and the road and the bus were in good condition–in that sense the trip was no different from a bus journey in Turkey, the US, or Western Europe. Along the road, through the foggy window, I saw many remarkable things: perfectly flat, wide, bright green fields, clumps of hand-built stone structures in which children played alongside the animals their families were keeping, and beautiful geological formations. After perhaps two hours of traveling we entered a region whose history had clearly encountered much more geological activity than the flat and fertile lands in south Punjab province. At one moment I saw columns of pink rocks sprouting up from the grass that reminded me of the Painted Desert in the U.S., then just a minute later we passed high rock walls. I was especially struck by a few hills that had evidently been formed when the sedimented layers of the earth were pushed up and at a sharp angle.



I had never seen such geological diversity in a small area–it reminded me that we weren’t all that far from the famously mountainous areas of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK) and Kashmir.

The first thing we did was to go for dinner to an Afghani restaurant. I generally don’t eat red meat, but Afghani cuisine has a lot of it, so I made an exception. Everything that we ordered tasted great. We saw a lot of families from the KPK region there and we even met two Turkish people sitting at the table right next to us.

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Afghani meal

The next day we visited a few touristic areas, with a driver taking us around everywhere we went. First stop was the Pakistan Monument. Each of the four petals represents life in each of the four provinces. It was a peaceful place.

Me in front of the Pakistan Monument

After that we walked a short distance to the Pakistan Monument Museum. At the museum I learned a lot about the history of the founding of Pakistan. Reading about Allama Iqbal made quite an impression on me, and now I know who the Lahore airport is named for! Really, Allama Iqbal seemed to have been an impressively educated, spiritual, eloquent, and artistic person. In Lahore I bought a biography about him.

Shortly after we entered the museum several groups of school children came through. I was disappointed to see that the teachers weren’t talking to the children about the exhibits or even giving them much time to look at them. I asked Farhan to translate to me what the children were saying to each other. Generally, they seemed confident, witty, and playful–it was fun to just listen to them. One group was having a discussion about whether or not a statue of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan) was real or not. Then we saw a few girls in the line of students carrying these signs:

School children at Pakistan Monument Museum

Farhan asked the girls why they were carrying them. “Our teacher gave them to us,” they offered, but then added, “We are protecting the environment.” The boy behind them spoke up, saying, “They are holding these signs but they don’t know why they are doing it.”

The next museum we entered was the Lok Virsa, where I bought several cheap DVDs and CDs of Pakistani music and we saw lots of exhibits on the clothing styles, handiwork, dwellings, and customs of the many people groups that have lived in what is now Pakistan.

We noticed that at the ticket counter there was a list of entry fees: one for Pakistanis and one for foreigners. At both museums the workers were surprised that 1) I was a foreigner and 2) that anyone would ask for the foreigner price instead of trying to pass as a citizen. The foreigners’ ticket was much more attractive then the other one–it was so we could keep it as a souvenir, one of the guards told us.

Next, we went to the largest mosques in Pakistan, Faisal Mosque, named after the Saudi king who donated a lot of money to the country. Surprisingly, the mosque was designed by a Turkish architect, Vedat Dalokay.

Interior of Faisal Mosque

We then went a few kilometers north up to Damn-e-Koh (“The Lap of the Mountain”), which is a large park with picnic tables, play areas, and a few restaurants that offer nice views of the city. As the car climbed up the mountainside I saw a furry dog at the treeline…no wait…a monkey! Islamabad was the first place where I saw wild monkeys in my life. If you offer them food, they come right up and take it out of your hand. But, as I learned, if they don’t like what you have given them, they get angry!

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We had a delicious meal at one of the restaurants, and we invited our driver to join us.

Farhan (right) talking with our driver from Gilgit (left).

My favorite moments during the trip happened when we had conversations with the people around us, especially the service workers. We learned that our driver was from Gilgit. We can’t confidently recall his name, unfortunately. His wife and children live there and he works in Islamabad. The speak one of the Pahari dialects of Punjabi. We asked him of his opinions on the Bacha Khan University attacks that had happened just the day before. It was a horrible thing, he lamented. He also told us that the attackers blended in well with the many other people at the university that day, so that even if the security had been adequate, how would they have been able to stop them?

In the evening we walked to the Centaurus Mall, where I saw called Outfitters that looked exactly like a Hollister.


It was nice to walk around a bit in Islamabad, which was easier to do near our hotel than it had been in Lahore. That portion of the city (near the mall) felt familiar to me, with lots of grass and trees, wide, straight streets, and rows of large houses.

After two days we took the bus ride back to Lahore, arriving in time to catch a music performance at a restaurant that I will pick up with in the following post.

Views of Pakistan: Sights at the Lahore Fort

Construction began on this outstanding example of Mughal architecture in 1556 under Emperor Akbar (“the Great”) and continued under Jahangir and Shah Jahan. It once sat right on the bank of the Ravi River, whose course has since moved some kilometers away. The Mughals are remembered today for their devotion to the arts, literature, and science, and for the good governance of their large empire. Several aspects of the Lahore Fort seem emblematic of these qualities.

On January 23, 2016 I spent some time at the Lahore Fort with my husband and his sisters. It was one of the high points of my trip to Pakistan, thanks to our tour guide. As we approached the entrance to the fort on foot on the day of our visit, we were talking about how we wanted to hire a tour guide, and we soon came upon Sohail Ashraf, a government-licensed tour guide who lives in the Walled City. For what I considered a cheap fee Sohail took us all around the castle, telling us many things in English.

Me and Sohail inside the Lahore Fort

After arranging things with Sohail, we entered like everyone else through the Alamgiri Gate.

Alamgiri Gate, with a wedding party preparing for photographs
Alamgiri Gate, with a wedding party preparing for photographs

We quickly made our way to the famed Naulakha Pavilion

Me inside Naulakha Pavilion
Me inside Naulakha Pavilion
Original inlaid semi-precious stones in Naulakha Pavilion
Original inlaid semi-precious stones in Naulakha Pavilion

As we moved away from the pavilion, our guide explained that UNESCO wanted to restore some of the frescoes in the fort but that this could never be accomplished because some ultra-conservative religious people would always raise a protest against it. Continuing on this subject, Sohail mentioned that some years ago he had been living as a very devout Muslim but he came to understand that these practices were “obstacles along his path,” so he changed and let go of many of them. Now, he told me, he has more peace and he is still able to be a “good person.”

At another point, Sohail explained the principle behind the restoration of Lahore Fort: parts that are badly damaged are repaired, but if the figures in the fresco or decoration were deemed recognizable, they were left unchanged. If we restored everything, Sohail asked rhetorically, how would we know what the original looked like? It’s quite a different perspective from the notion of historical restoration common in the U.S. and elsewhere, in which a kind of flawless and untroubled image, like a graphic logo, is the goal.

Restored and unrestored patches in the Sheesh Mahal
Restored and unrestored patches in the Sheesh Mahal


Unrestored fresco in Sheesh Mahal
Original (?) effaced  fresco in Sheesh Mahal

The walls and ceiling of the Sheesh Mahal, another famous section of the fort, are covered in mirror mosaics. Legend has it that Noor Jehan asked her husband Shah Jahan to bring the stars to her. His architects granted her desire to see the stars rise in her own house by making the mirror mosaic tiles on the ceiling curved outward in such a way that when a lantern shone on them, they only reflected one sharp point of light each. We tried to take a picture of this effect, but you can barely see the stars:

Ceiling of the Sheesh Mahal
Ceiling of the Sheesh Mahal

Today the Sheesh Mahal cannot be entered without paying a small entrance fee that Sohail claimed was a deterrent against vandalism. Some visitors used to wander into the famous spot and, probably not even noticing the stars, would adorn the walls in their own way with crude graffiti of their names.

The Diwan-i Khaas (Special Seat) contained the most luxurious rooms for the emperor’s best guests, with a stage surrounded by a fountain in the middle. The closer one came to the presence of the emperor, Sohail informed us, the more beautiful, pleasant, and rich the amenities became.

Diwan-i Khaas
Diwan-i Khaas

Nearby we saw the Diwan-i Aam (Common Seat), where the rulers would regularly hold court with the common people. Translation had to be made between the common languages and the courtly language of Persian.

Me and family in front of the Diwan-i Aam section
Me and family in front of the Diwan-i Aam section


Certainly, the fort served as a military center for the Mughals, as the museum full of military artifacts attests to. Yet, its balanced and pleasing architecture once also encompassed facilities for relaxation and cleansing the body, beautiful visual and performing arts, the diversity of animal life, gardens and fountains, and a point of communication between the emperor and the common people. Since the British colonization and continuing into the Pakistani era, many aspects of the original structure were used for perverse purposes. Gradually, beautiful pieces of this structure were coveted and taken away by British officials (especially the wooden doors and the semi-precious decorative stones), and under both British and the Pakistani rule parts of the fort were re-designated as spaces for the military and the police. For example, the barren area next to the Diwan-i Aam used to be a magnificent zoo, which the British changed into military barracks. The Diwan-i Khaas itself became officers’ quarters. As we were walking out of the Alamgiri Gate my sister-in-law told me that she had heard that quite recently some parts of the fort were used as a secret prison and torture center for dissidents. Indeed, this happened under the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988).

As we can see in the photos shown above, the Lahore Fort contains several baths and fountains that at one time were full of running water. At the moment none of these fountains—or any of the fountains in the city—are working.