Documenting the Mimaroğlus: Electronic Tape Music and the Turkish Émigré Avant-Garde




“DO YOU BELIEVE in God?”

“Have you ever been in love?”

These were the two questions with which Güngör Mimaroğlu appraised the ability of Arthur Fournier, a New York–based archivist and rare bookseller, to catalog the papers of her late husband, the Turkish electronic music pioneer Ilhan Mimaroğlu, for Columbia University during their first meeting in August 2013. Mimaroğlu had died a year prior.

The archives were lying in 12 bankers boxes and cardboard tubes that had previously held bottles of Scotch whiskey in residential storage on West 118th Street. Spanning 75 years of creative output (from roughly the 1940s until Mimaroğlu’s death in 2012), they contained explorations of a still-nascent electronic music genre; radical experimentations of musical form; tapes of live performances and radio interviews; writings on utopia, jazz, and electronic music; photographs documenting New York graffiti and 1980s street life; and super 8mm film footage of composers including John Cage and Frederic Rzewski. “We are Atheists. And you could never understand Ilhan’s art or our lives together if you have never been in love,” Güngör explained.

The Mimaroğlus were among a small group of Turkish artists, musicians, and academics born in the early years of the Turkish Republic who immigrated to New York in the mid-20th-century, around the same time as the country was looking West for political and social mooring (Turkey officially joined NATO in 1952). For Güngör and Ilhan, then newly married, the move resulted in a fragmented and kaleidoscopic series of cultural and political interchanges. A new documentary about their life and his work, Mimaroğlu, is due to be released later this year and promises to map these exchanges and encounters. Director Serdar Kökçeoğlu frames Ilhan’s creative output in the context of his marriage and Güngör’s role in mediating and fostering a Turkish émigré community in 1960s and ’70s New York.

Mimaroğlu produced most of his records in this milieu teeming with social and political differences. It was also, paradoxically, a time of rigid musical cleavages — between abstract/experimental music and popular music, serial composers and minimalists, composers and producers — when the early, joyfully frenzied jazz scene along with rhythm and blues and soul, were being introduced to a mainstream audience through Atlantic Records. Founded by another Turkish émigré, Ahmet Ertegün (later joined by his brother Nesuhi), Atlantic welcomed Mimaroğlu to the team. The Ertegün brothers supported his avant-garde label Finnadar on the condition that it was run on a shoestring budget. The imprint was launched in 1972 with his own LP of electronic music, Wings of the Delirious Demon, and went on to produce more than 50 albums, including works by Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Frederic Rzewski, and John Cage. Mimaroğlu later worked at Atlantic Records with Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, and Ornette Coleman, among others.

Using analog tape, Mimaroğlu composed music through cutting, splicing, and sticking the tape with adhesive — literally tearing into pieces known techniques and assumptions, order, timings, and arrangements. “What is expected from an electronic music composer,” he wrote, “is not the exclusive application of known and properly instructed procedures, but the discovery of a music that belongs to himself.” He was obsessed with creating something completely new to elide nostalgia or the solidification of culture into something banal, commercially performed, and empty. “As every night at the opera, at the symphony, at the recital hall, will keep on being the night of the living dead, if we don’t bury those gravediggers into the very graves they keep on digging and digging and digging, it will be our own funeral.” He was not interested in the melody but in how the sound speaks.

The music is marked by rhythms between movement, exile, and stasis: the quick darts of being here and there (or neither here nor there); shifting tones between irreverence and anger, despair and defiance; dancing silhouettes of contrapuntal forces. Mimaroğlu also regarded music as a channel for political consciousness raising. In his article “Political Music,” published in English in his book Other Words (2003), he praises the political passion of the Italian, anti-fascist avant-garde musician Luigi Nono. He wrote:

Political music is music made by people, by composers or improvising musicians, who are fully conscious or in the process of gaining consciousness of their responsibilities as citizens […] such a consciousness cannot lead to any other worthwhile aim but a revolutionary aim.

He held strong anti-imperialist and counter-American views. His anti–Vietnam War song, “Sing Me a Song of Songmy” (subtitled “A Fantasy for Electromagnetic Tape” and performed with Freddie Hubbard) is named after “Son My,” a village in South Vietnam where the US Army reportedly murdered, raped, and mutilated 400 unarmed civilians in 1968. In “Black Soldier,” a short piece that opens the LP’s second side, Hubbard recites the words of Turkish poet Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca transposed into an African-American context: “You, black man. US Army, private first class. For freedom you shoot down your own freedom. Your body lies crucified on a steel cross.”

Mimaroğlu’s politics have been variously described (speculatively, since he never framed it with such a vocabulary) as anarchist, humanist, radical left, born of cynicism and resignation. His vision of Utopia, published in Turkish in a pamphlet entitled “Yokistan Tasarısı” (or “non-place” in Turkish), is a jumbled discordance between communism and capitalism, a place where there is no property, the individual rather than the family is the unit of society, and where “immigrants gain the right to citizenship by knowing that there are no temples in the country.” He ends his Utopian vision with the statement: “If one day this ‘Yokistan’ becomes ‘Varistan’ [a place which exists], the United States of America will be its biggest enemy.”

To listen to Mimaroğlu’s music is to be struck by the multitude of voices, geographies, and struggles with which he was engaged. Historical passages morph into contemporary realities, as his collage style of collating and layering spoken voices reminds us that, as Walter Benjamin theorized, the thread connecting present and past revolutions cannot be understood in the pattern of linear time. They are tangled in a collective knot.

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Son of the prominent architect Mimar Kemaleddin Bey, whose face still adorns the 20 Turkish Lira note, Ilhan Mimaroğlu was a member of the Turkish cultural elite that was exposed to American jazz in the 1950s, an imprint of the country’s “soft power” during the Cold War. In contrast to the fields of the American South where it first breathed life, jazz in Istanbul was implanted directly into the expensive Bosphorus waterfront bars, which were only frequented by the top of a very stratified society.

New Turkish musical arrangements of jazz emerged in the 1960s, based on transliterations of the English, but it was only a few privileged Turkish musicians traveling to the United States who infused it with new creative directions. Mimaroğlu was among them. After studying for a law degree in Ankara (“One thing I learned at Law School was that I would obey only laws I could have made myself”), he began a career as a radio program producer before being invited to New York in 1955 by the Rockefeller Foundation to take classes at Columbia University. Together with Güngör, he returned to live permanently in New York in 1959 in order to further his studies in electronic music at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.

Their lives in New York existed within the overlapping and intertwining cultures around West Harlem and the Columbia University campus where they lived. The energy of these spaces — bright sparks in the segregated cultural and political climate of midcentury America — made its way into the music of the soul and rhythm and blues. Atlantic Records was the first outlet to sell the products of these energies to white America. Although the same period in Turkey was marked by ethno-racial nationalism and discrimination against Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, and Jews, Turkey’s racial vocabulary did not fit neatly onto the black/white divide created by the racialization of skin color in America. In drawing a direct link between discrimination experienced by Black Americans and Turks, Atlantic Records’s Ahmet Ertegün highlighted how patterns of exclusion and inclusion align differently within different settings. He was quoted in his Rolling Stone obituary as saying:

I began to discover about the situation of black people in America and experienced empathy with the victims of such senseless discrimination, because, although Turks were never slaves, they were discriminated against in Europe because of their Muslim beliefs.

In Harlem, the heterogeneous cultural and racial codes opened spaces for different voices to mingle and collaborate.

Mimaroğlu was not necessarily directly engaged with these communities, although he was very instrumental in their musical incarnations. Often aloof and arrogant, unwilling to communicate with people around him, Mimaroğlu needed Güngör to link him beyond his artistic myopia and intellectual coteries. Güngör supported the Young Lords Party (YLP), a community-based revolutionary organization formed by Puerto Rican students in the spirit of the Black Panther Party. She was a vocal activist on the streets, but her wider community was Turkish. Nicknamed Cultural Attaché (a wordplay on the similarly pronounced Turkish word Ateş, meaning fire or fever), Güngör was responsible for bringing Turkish émigrés together. As recently as 2003, she helped organize Öykülü Geceler or Story Nights, a series of performances and readings of modern Turkish plays and literature that pulled together those interested in literature and the arts in the city.

Throughout their 51-year relationship, they occupied different daily rhythms and complemented each other’s seemingly incompatible personalities: Ilhan controlled and reserved, Güngör spontaneous and sociable. Their lives were marked by the contradictions of belonging and non-belonging. Despite never returning to live in Turkey for any substantial period of time, they continued to carry the country with them in New York. Ilhan always wrote in Turkish, frequently as a columnist about electronic music history for the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet (Republic). His 1961 Müzik Tarihi (History of Music) and 1958 Caz Sanatı (Art of Jazz) remain definitive texts about music in Turkish.

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Ilhan Mimaroğlu holds something of a cult status among a certain demographic of music enthusiasts but is completely unknown to many in Turkey. “People from a younger generation admit that they only know Ilhan’s texts. They haven’t been able to hear what he was composing,” said Dilek Aydın, one of the two producers of the forthcoming documentary:

We didn’t have the technology to access many things. It took time. With the rise of the internet, we were able to listen to his work more, and the more we became interested in him. He spoke to so many people who were thinking, “We have to change this music. We have to crash it. We have to break it.”

Shot in New York, Miami, London, and Istanbul, Mimaroğlu is a mashed-up collage following Mimaroğlu’s own experimental style. Interviews with fellow musicians, collaborators, friends, and Güngör herself chart the couple’s life in New York alongside his own super 8mm film footage, as well as spoken and written words. It plays on his razor-sharp irreverent spirit, which was prolific across many mediums, and Güngör’s strength in forging her own life neither in the shadows nor dominated by his.

Ilhan was “distant, reserved, genius, god-like,” according to Dilek, but also dogmatic, a deliberate contrarian and troublemaker. “He was beyond his time, but he’s talking about ideas and concepts and trends that we’re talking about now,” said Dilek,

Changing music, changing politics, trying to touch things with a new perspective. With his own vision he was able to create something totally new. He was very progressive. And that’s why he’s able to speak to our generation now.

Today, Güngör lives in Moda, on the Asian side of Istanbul in the Kadiköy district, in the same family mansion where she grew up and first met Ilhan. The mansion has been converted into flats, and the district has, in the last few years, become increasingly conceptualized as an island of cultural and political refuge within the city. The passage of time between her departure from Istanbul with Ilhan in 1959 and return following his death has not marked a shift in political repression in the country, which remains high. The moral outrage expressed in Ilhan’s work still has fertile grounds to occupy. But their life celebrates the radical hopes, new possibilities, and lived complicated multiplicities, which are not tied to any particular geography or time. “Utopians,” wrote Mimaroğlu, “including myself, are certainly not under control.” His work, constantly challenging, provocative, and incisively disquieting, indicates something of what this looks like.

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Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books, based in Istanbul.


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