The JACK Quartet performs two works by Turkish-American experimental composer Cenk Ergün on this EP release. Ergün's immersion in the worlds of electronic music and improvisation shape material that is intense in character, whether it is exploring vigorous or static textures.
Turkish-American composer Cenk Ergün writes music that achieves a hypnotic effect through masses of sound, repetition with subtle variation, and microtonality. Sonare & Celare are paired works written for the JACK Quartet that stand in opposition to one another. Sonare is mostly vigorous and loud while Celare is ethereal and soft. Despite the drastic contrasts between the two, both demonstrate Ergün’s fascination with delicate shadings of pitch and subtle shifts in phrase syntax that constantly reveal new vantage points on limited material.
Listening inside the mechanisms in Sonare, the ear can focus on any one of several layers of rhythmic and textural activity, making it a kind of sonic manifestation of a pointillistic canvas, albeit one with aggressive dots. After the five minute mark, Ergün thins the texture, focusing on the sotto voce inner cogs of the rhythmic engine, and a mournful melody emerges briefly before the material from the opening returns full force. Just before the end of the piece, the visceral texture stops abruptly, giving way to fragile, unstable harmonics, like a series of creaky swing sets whistling in the playground.
Just intonation, Turkish modes, and early monophonic music provided the fertile inspirational ground for the composition of Celare. The first several minutes of the piece focus on crystalline, ephemeral sonorities. Eventually, Ergün settles into sustained chords with the individual voices in the quartet bending and flexing up and down in microtonal increments, pulling the harmonies as if they are elastic. The piece returns to the disembodied textures of the opening before closing, like Sonare, with a short coda, this time a short repeated fragment combining swelling tones and pizzicati from earlier in the work into an off-kilter loop.
“I am interested in building near-static sound fields made up of repeated patterns, sustained tones, and what can be called islands of sound: brief sound events surrounded by silence. The two works on this release pursue these interests through opposing approaches: Sonare unfolds through repetitions of fast, loud, dissonant patterns, at times evoking the sound world of a swarm of wasps. Celare is a gentle and sparse environment in which simple, transparent harmonies resonate at a hazy intersection of early European and Turkish modal music.
Sonare was composed through rigorous, close collaboration with JACK. At first, the quartet interpreted and recorded notation containing the initial sketches of a few repeated patterns. Using audio software, I spliced these recordings into tiny fragments, and treated them as source material to create a countless variety of new patterns. I then transcribed these into notation for JACK to play and record once more. The final score is the result of many repetitions of this process of back-and-forth between audio and notation.
While Sonare places noise on a rhythmic grid to form a series of quasi-mechanical patterns, Celare is concerned with the clarity and precision of tones, positioned within an unmeasured, fluid temporal framework. Played messa di voce, (the baroque style of gently fading into and out of each bowed note) the sonorities in the opening of Celare are informed by early string quartet music, most notably, Sonata a quattro No. 4 by Alessandro Scarlatti. I wanted to create a similarly pristine sound world in the context of just intonation, one that would also allow for dissonance. While experimenting with such sonorities, I stumbled upon melodic fragments of Turkish modes. These relics of monophonic music take on a new guise as the building blocks for the unhurried progression of dense sustained chords at the center of the work.
Written for JACK Quartet during 2015-16, these works have been heard across the U.S. and Europe, including performances at the NY Phil Biennial, Elbphilharmonie, and Lucerne Festival. In May 2019, JACK recorded Sonare & Celare during a two-day recording session at EMPAC in Troy, NY.”
- Dan Lippel
Producer: Cenk Ergün
Engineer: Jeffrey J. Svatek
Recording Location: EMPAC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York; May 2rd & 3rd, 2019
Mastering Engineer: Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio
Cenk Ergün (b.1978, Turkey) is a composer and improviser based in New York and Berlin. His chamber music has been performed by artists such as So Percussion, JACK Quartet, Alarm Will Sound, Wet Ink, Yarn/Wire, and Joan Jeanrenaud. He creates electronic music recordings and live performances in collaboration with choreographers, film makers, and other musicians such as Jason Treuting, Jeff Snyder, and Samita Sinha.
Venues that have featured his work include New York's Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, 92Y, Miller Theater, Le Poisson Rouge, The Roulette, The Stone; Amsterdam's Muziekgebouw, Zurich's Tonhalle, Istanbul's Babylon, and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie.
Ergün’s music has been heard at the NY Phil Biennial, Lincoln Center Festival, Lucerne Festival, Gaudeamus Music Week, MATA Festival, Bang on a Can Marathon, WNYC New Sounds Live, Peak Performances at Montclair University, Stanford Lively Arts, and the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.
An album of his string quartets, recorded by JACK Quartet, will be released in 2020 on New Focus Recordings. Past releases include "The Art of the Fluke" with Alvin Curran and So Percussion's "Cage 100: Bootleg Series."
Ergün's music has been described as "intense," "haunting," "ominously throbbing;" (NY Times) "psychedelically meditative;" (New Music Box) and as showing "conceptual rigor." (The Wire)
Not exactly the contemporary classic version of “Metal Machine Music”, this crew tackles two works by an experimental Turkish composer who takes his flights of sound fancy well into the next dimension. This is right up the alley of those Sunday afternoon recital types looking for an experience rather than ‘music’.
— Chris Spector, 3.14.2020
What is new in New Music? Judging by the albums I've covered in the last few weeks, it is still the case that anything goes and if it does so in good ways, we are all the better for it of course. This morning some advanced string quartet music in the High Modern mode--the ever-accomplished JACK Quartet give us an EP of the music of Cenk Ergun, Sonare & Celare (New Focus Recordings FCR238).
So what is this one all about? Turkish-born Cenk Ergun emerges from a protracted interaction with the JACK Quartet with a set of paired works that stand in important ways at polar opposites, Sonare loud, busy and dense followed by the more sparsely soft and celestial Celare.
Ergun's past involvement in electronic music production has had a large impact on how he composed Sonare and its ultimate performance by the JACK Quartet. Some preliminary sketches of a few motives and repetitions were notated for the Jack Quartet. Their recorded performance of them formed the basis of a further set of notations, accomplished in part by splicing the results into new fragments, their subsequent further recorded performances each created a new entity which was subjected to further dissecting and so forth, with successive generations of interactions leading ultimately to the results we hear.
That work is insistent, like some infernal machine, perhaps, going through its cycles. It is as much invigorating as it is unnerving, with the JACK Quartet in part because of the built-up interactions becoming something wholly other than a mere four-fold reader-interpreter of notations. They are something transcendent. The music most definitively jumps out at us in full dimensional ways.
Celare on the other hand is made up of air and light to Sonare's earth and density. As the promotional sheet that came with the CD points out, the work is built around "just intonation, Turkish modes, and early monophonic music." A most palatable sauce of sustained chords and microtonal movements forms the bulk of the work. It explores an effectively contrasting timbral-sonic universe of possibilities..
In the end the organic and the superorganic dramatically interact with automata and infernal machines? That may be fanciful but the JACK Quartet bring these two works into wonderfully lively existence as contrasting forces that Ergun has created and made dramatically memorable.
It is one of those advanced work complexes, one of the exceptional later avant creations that, as one listens frequently, becomes a completely unique and singular universe of sound. It stands on its own. Here is this!. Hear this.
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 3.23.2020
Cenk Ergün’s two string quartets, “Sonare” and “Celare,” composed from 2014 to 2015, started out as one work, but they are diametrically opposed. “Sonare” is built from tightly intertwined, microtonal and microscopic rhythmic patterns which repeat, the brain glossing them with the illusion of momentum. The texture calls to mind metaphors of active animals: I hear wasps, angry but occasionally static, as if caught in amber at moments of peak aggression. Ergün instructs the performers at one point to play “like rabid dogs.” Throughout, the piece requires animalistic effort. On the EP of the two string quartets by the JACK Quartet, released this month on the label New Focus Recordings, cellist Jay Campbell told me the ensemble recorded the many patterns just two and three at a time for maximum ferocity. “You give everything in one loop, you’ll be done after three loops,” he said. “We were really going for as brutal as possible.” Each bar is drenched in the adrenaline of the survival instinct.
“Celare” has no trace of this brutality. Its just-intonation chords are often spacious and always gorgeous, given tactile grit by pizzicato and high harmonics. If “Sonare” is claustrophobic, “Celare” has width through its melodic sixths and measured silences. In his liner notes, Dan Lippel compared “Celare” to “a series of creaky swing sets whistling in the playground,” a pretty analogy which doesn’t quite do justice to the transcendence of the piece’s form. Ergün is “using microtones and microtonal pitch collection, framed by pockets of silence, that build up to this extended, sustained just intonation section,” Campbell said. “For me it’s a distilled, pure feeling of catharsis when that big, expansive middle section happens.” The title “Celare” comes from the proverb, possibly coined by Ovid: ars est celare artem, “it is art to conceal art.” For Ergün, the phrase is a call to make music which is “simple, and straightforward, and clear,” and hide the structural complexity underpinning a piece. He wants to conceal “all the mess that goes into putting something like that together.”
In an interview a few weeks ago, when Berlin’s cafés were still open, Ergün recalled a pair of experiences which seemed to be reflected in his much later string quartets—experiences of which it’s hard to believe that they could belong to the same person, as it’s difficult to imagine “Sonare” and “Celare” once being a single work. In October 2002, Ergün was 25 years old and living in Oakland, California, where he had just be laid off from a job as a sound designer and dialogue editor with a toy company. He and his girlfriend at the time broke up; he had no money and felt isolated. “I was making a lot of music. Most of it was very good. I started walking,” he said. He walked for eight hours at a time, then 12 hours at a time. Ergün continued, “Finally, one day, I started walking; I didn’t come back home. I walked for three days.” He took off his shirt and his shoes; he interpreted advertisements as hidden messages; he didn’t eat or drink or sleep. He used the bathroom in an Oakland brothel and couldn’t find the way out again. He stood by the highway, pretending to stop cars, thrusting his arms out to the side like a tattered crossing guard. Somebody called the cops. “Do you want to go to the station or do you want to go to a hospital?” they asked. It was “Sonare”—or “Celare.”
In early 2003, with preparations for the American invasion of Iraq ramping up and the increasingly prevalence of racism against people of Middle Eastern descent which accompanied it, Ergün, who is Turkish, decided to go home. He moved back to Istanbul with his sister, who had recently quit her well-paid corporate job to become a bartender. The two of them lived off money that she had saved up. Her apartment had a view of the Bosphorus, the strait which separates the continents of Europe and Asia. The siblings sat on the balcony and watched the ships go by. Erdağ Göknar, reviewing a 2018 book of photographs by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel-Prize-winning writer, noted that “Istanbulites are often drawn to stare at the Bosphorus ritualistically, day and night…The Bosphorus becomes a magic mirror, a collective unconscious.” Pamuk, unable to write, watched the strait; years earlier, Ergün, hardly composing, did the same. “I was very depressed, but I remember that year as a wonderful year,” he said. It was like “Celare”; or “Sonare.”
Ergün composed two pieces right before this period of hyperactive upheaval followed by placidity. The first, “ladybugbringmeluck,” written for Alarm Will Sound, was flawed and difficult to read at points. “It had a lot of interesting ideas in it, but there were challenges,” said Alan Pierson, the artistic director of the ensemble. “It didn’t all quite work.” The second was “Cello Peace,” which Ergün composed nonstop, without sleeping or eating, in a period of two days. It appears on the 2014 single “Nana,” performed by Joan Jeanrenaud. Pizzicato over held intervals; fragments of melody spun out of thin strands of pitch; gently strummed chords—the piece is characterized by a sense of observation, an extreme attention to things. It’s a phenomenon that happens in all Ergün’s music, and the thing that his two states in Oakland and Istanbul had in common: a hypersensitivity to reality.
Ergün was born in 1978 in İzmit, once the capital of the Bithynian kingdom and a residence for Roman emperors and now, as he likes to describe it, the “New Jersey of Turkey.” His father was a mechanical engineer who specialized in tire technology; his mother was a homemaker and talented amateur painter. Ergün’s parents were passionate listeners to Western classical music. His dad would bring back records from business trips to Ohio, which they would listen to at home. When Ergün was five, the family moved to Istanbul. They enjoyed the capital’s more vibrant cultural life by frequently attending concerts together.
Ergün picked up the guitar at age 13. At first, he wanted to be in a rock band, but he quickly fell in love with the classical guitar instead. He discovered Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” “I like these types of sounds,” he realized. He also listened to metal, progressive rock, and heard contemporary classical improvisation for the first time, and began composing pieces on the guitar, memorizing them as he went along. He attended an English-language school, staffed with expats who introduced him to Beat poetry and other art. Ergün was fluent in English within a year. He loved his teachers but hated his homework, so he decided quickly that he wanted to pursue music as a career. As Ergün told the Concert Honesty podcast, he got his hands on some American college brochures and decided where to apply based on how nice the brochures looked.
Ergün was accepted to the Eastman School of Music. In September 1995, at age 17, he got on a plane by himself and flew to Rochester, New York. His idea of what was awaiting him was based on movies: New York City’s glamorous hustle or an immaculately mowed suburbia. He found something very different in Rochester. “For every manicured lawn and fluttering Stars and Stripes, there are many bleaker counterpoints – a broken couch on a neglected street, a figure slumped on a public bench, exhausted workers queueing for the night bus home,” wrote Dave Stelfox in a review of a photography book from Rochester, Memory City, by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. (When I auditioned for Eastman, at a similar age, in 2007, Rochester felt like a college town for precisely one street—where the Eastman building was located.) Ergün was both ecstatic and cowed, his wallet full of travelers’ cheques. “I remember getting a burger at some diner. They’re like, ‘$100 travelers’ cheque?’ Five people gathered around this money looking at it.” He went on, “I checked into my hotel and turned on the TV. American football was on. I was jumping on the bed by myself.”
Though Ergün was thrilled to meet so many young fellow-musicians, some of his euphoria wore off when he was confronted with the aesthetic realities of the Eastman composition department. (He changed his major in his sophomore year from guitar to composition). The dominant style at Eastman at the time was a kind of eclectic Americana, represented by the figure of Christopher Rouse, which stood in contrast to the nascent starkness of Ergün’s aesthetic. “I became a black sheep in the department,” Ergün said. “It was very competitive and passive-aggressive.” He likes to tell a story about submitting a piece with a single chord that lasted over 30 seconds. The teacher told him, “This is like watching paint dry.” Ergün, unfamiliar with the idiom, took it as a compliment. “I was like, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.’”
Encouraged by long lessons with a musician and teacher who went by the name Sukato, Ergün applied for a Masters at Mills College in Oakland, where he studied with Pauline Oliveros, Fred Frith, and Alvin Curran. It was a fruitful period: he began improvising on laptop with his teachers and studying electronic music seriously. (Though it was not without the little humiliations of the experimental musician’s life: Ergün remembered following a reggae band at a charity benefit in Oakland and promptly clearly the room.) Hired after finishing his degree by LeapFrog Toys, he earned decent money and refined his ear, listening to so much dialogue audio that he could tell a T from an S based solely on the waveform. In Ergün’s paralyzingly gorgeous piece “Jamais Contente,” from 1998, Pierson recalled “beautiful, well-heard” timbres and harmonies: in particular the movement from loud M sounds to quiet S sounds, accompanied by sandpaper blocks in the percussion. “That combination was really exquisite,” Pierson said.
After returning to the U.S. from Istanbul, in 2004, Ergün worked at a small for-profit college teaching audio engineering, then began a PhD in composition at Princeton in 2010. (He recently finished the degree.) Ergün moved to New York in 2013, composing and teaching as an adjunct at Princeton. Last year, he moved again, this time to Berlin, where his wife works for the International Rescue Committee, an NGO. “It’s a much quieter city, so I’m listening to a lot of silence that’s actually silence,” he told me. “My ears are feeling much more rested.”
"Celare” opens with all four members of the string quartet playing silently—with vibrato. The visual effect naturally didn’t make it onto the latest album. But it’s a startling idea that demonstrates the paradoxical ability of the brain to perceive volume based on motion and gesture alone. Ergün, who admires technical skill on strings, but didn’t want to compose the corresponding passagework, used this moment to focus on the gestural beauty of old-fashioned virtuosity, without the distraction of sound. A member of the JACK Quartet “made a comment while we were rehearsing it,” Ergün said. “There’s the vibrato and non-vibrato, but you’re still holding the finger down. He said that the non-vibrato sounds quieter. It feels quieter.” Jay Campbell told me, “They’re all vibrating and you’re hearing nothing. Then all of a sudden they stop. You’re focused in a different way.”
Silence, choreographed or not, is an extremely important element in Ergün’s music. One way of thinking about his string quartets “Sonare” and “Celare” is perhaps that they are still a single piece, unified by an intervening rest of indeterminate length. By way of explaining how he thinks about silence, Ergün sent me a poem via email, Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” from 1945: “I do not know which to prefer, … / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” Ergün’s silence is different from Cage’s silence, or that of the Wandelweiser school of composers, who often use large chunks of it to sensitize our ears to ambient sounds. For Ergün, it’s a “fundamental tool in forming our experience of time.” It can be a resting place between states of hearing or a piece of material to be inflected. In the phrase of the German writer Joseph Roth, Ergün works with beredtes Schweigen, or “eloquent silence.”
I wondered again how the same person could write “Sonare” and “Celare,” conduct traffic on the Oakland highway and watch the Bosphorus for a year, write music of peace and profound brutality, treat sounds like silence and silence like a sound. I kept reading Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” who wrote of the many states within us: “I was of three minds.”
— Jeffrey Arlo Brown, 3.26.2020
Sonare and Celare, the two string quartets by Turkish-born composer Cenk Ergün (b. 1978) released together on an EP, are complementary works in many senses of the word. Originally conceived of as a single piece, the two quartets instead became companion pieces whose sonic qualities are creatively opposed to one another. As is often the case when Ergün composes acoustic works, these two quartets of 2015-2016were the product of a collaborative process. In sketching and then finalizing them, Ergün worked closely with the JACK Quartet, for whom they were written.
Sonare was composed through an elaborate process of reverse-engineering: Ergün first set out rhythm patterns using the MAX program and then densified their textures through software-facilitated combination. The JACK Quartet recorded a number of rehearsals of the resulting material, which Ergün edited into a sort of master take that he then transcribed and notated for the final score. As one might expect from a process like that, Sonare is a composition of dense textures. It opens with a thick, aggressive sound evoking an asynchronous, loudly buzzing swarm of insects. A close listen, though, reveals the mass to be made up of the pulsing accents of individual bowings. The piece develops as a set of variations not only on dynamics—first very loud, then very soft, then back again to full fury—but on bow speeds as well. Pitch seems to be a secondary element—a necessary yet epiphenomenal component of mass.
Celare, by contrast, is a symmetrical three-part work whose first and third sections feature short, widely spaced bowed and plucked sound events played at low volume. The middle section of the work, which consists of a drone of microtonally spaced intervals, recalls Sonare’s buzzing dissonance but lays it out in a gradually shifting layers and steady, mid-range dynamics. Celare seems to take Sonare’s volumetric sound blocks and thin them out, retaining the latter’s microtonality and fusion of voices while dispersing them through a structural substitution of space for mass.
The JACK Quartet plays these complementary pieces with the finely calibrated degrees of energy and delicacy they call for.
— Daniel Barbiero, 3.28.2020
The New York/Berlin-based, Turkish composer Cenk Ergün wrote these two string quartets as a polarized pairing for New York’s impeccable JACK Quartet. Sonare is bracing in its tightly coiled intensity, delivering an onslaught of terse, rhythmically twitching phrases overlaid with disorienting buzz. Ergün recorded members of the ensemble playing short phrases he’d composed, which he then spliced into new patterns, instructing the musicians to play “like rabid dogs.” Five minutes into the piece the ferocity abates, with ghostly arco patterns tracing out a vague melody amid strident halos of harmonics, before the sound swarm returns. Moments of portentous repose puncture the din a couple of times, but the fury wins out in the end.
The companion piece, Celare, deploys just-intonation to shape a spacious, contemplative environment, as extended chords shaded by subtle microtonal bends and scrapes, float amid patches of silence. The bowed lines, marbled with creaky harmonic effects, seem to float in space. The occasional pizzicato accent and fleeting overlays give the music an elusive fluidity, as each individual tone, voiced with stunning clarity, is joined together to transmit stunning harmonies.
— Peter Margasak, 4.20.2020