A Musical Buccaneer

by Markus Böggemann

Art is not a private matter. It ceases to be one as soon as it steps in front of an audience – whether as an image, film or composition. But it is already no longer private while still coming into being, when ideas and concepts are being tested, problems formulated and possible solutions tried out. For Mithatcan Öcal, born in 1992, this is precisely where the special value of art lies. It should, as he wrote in a recently published text, ‘draw its strength from the solidarity of colleagues who are preoccupied with similar concerns; aestheticised ideas should not be overshadowed by individual egos.’

               This solidarity is necessary among those who, like Öcal and the comrades with whom he founded the Istanbul Composers Collective, distance themselves from an official aesthetic. Like the desired freedom from hierarchies and from the influence of the prevailing training systems and support structures, this may be more a concrete utopia than a reality; but that hardly lessens its effect on artistic work. The image Öcal chooses for himself and his group is that of piracy, of artistic buccaneering. His freedom from the unwelcome demands of an imposed aesthetic corresponds to a freedom for a self-determined choice of compositional means and expressive forms. Thus the half-hour Belt of Sympathies (2016), with its sometimes bold spectral soundscapes, stands alongside the merely three-minute Yine Bir Gül Nihal (2015), a piece steeped in sardonic humour that presents a classical ‘Western’ melody in a classical ‘Ottoman’ guise. Thus it marks the area of friction that also inspires other works by Öcal, especially the recently completed orchestral piece Alessandro Perevelli (Pereveli Hacı İskender Efendi), named after a character from the novel Taciturns by the Turkish writer İhsan Oktay Anar. Öcal also engages with this author in other works; it is especially Anar’s distinctive sense of humour, which results from the discrepancy between archaic language and contemporary, sometimes extremely current topics, that inspires Öcal to draw on his work in his music. Irony and comic elements are found both in the music itself – the aforementioned Yine Bir Gül Nihal is one such case – and in its paratexts. There is a preface to Alessandro Perevelli, for example, that underlines the dangerous nature of music and even presents the listener with a risk declaration to be signed in advance (to avoid any claims for compensation in case of eternal damnation).

               Humour and the resulting laughter are strategies that Mithatcan Öcal uses to relate his music to its social reality. Through its references to literature, but also in other ways, it illuminates a very specific linguality: Belt of Sympathies bears a subheading consisting of the (ironically intended) genre description ‘mini-opera without words’ – and this is entirely justified, as any listener will soon realise. At the same time, there is an existential reason for this humour.

Like the solidarity among a group of like-minded individuals, it is vital in the truest sense of the word, for it ensures the possibility of critique and reflection, and of maintaining a distance to anything quasi-official. For Mithatcan Öcal, the musical buccaneer, it serves as a grappling hook to haul reality in by force.

Translation: Wieland Hoban