Nedim Karakayalı from Bilkent University Political Science department, in his article “An Introduction to the History of Music Debates in Turkey”, tries to give a general outline of the discursive-historical background of music debates in 20th century Turkey and tries to analyze the birth and the meaning of arabesk (arabesque) music in the 1970s. Karakayalı basically claims that 20th century discourses on Turkish music operate with a comparative perspective based on a grand dichotomy; Western and Turkish. Karakayalı thinks that this grand dichotomy is juxtaposed upon a series of other dichotomies; polyphonic-monophonic, artificial-natural, dynamic-static, individualistic-totalizing, local-universal, progressive-conservative etc. Karakayalı asserts that the grand dichotomy of 20th century has been gradually weakening and we find ourselves at the threshold of a new discourse in the 21st century. In this assignment, I am going to summarize the main points that Karakayalı made in his work.
Nedim Karakayalı notices that the most striking characteristic of the pre-twentieth century texts on Turkish music is their cosmological and universalistic attitude. “In many of these works, mostly taking their original inspiration from Greek philosophers, one can find sophisticated mathematical models explaining the functioning of various modes, melodies, rhythms and forms” (Karakayalı, p. 126). Karakayalı claims that in these works, different genres or types of music seem to differ only to the extent that they are related to different divisions of a given cosmology. Another important point is related to the universalistic conception of the history of music. Muslim philosophers in the pre-twentieth century texts on music could freely quote from ancient Greeks and “oscillate between a divine harmony and an acoustic one” (Karakayalı, p. 127). However, 20th century texts and discourses on Turkish music offer a quite different picture which could be best seen in the writings of Rauf Yekta, who was the pioneer of systematic re-theorization of Turkish music.
Rauf Yekta, at the beginning of his essay on Turkish music written for 1922 edition of Encyclopédie de la Musique et Dictionnaire du Conservatoire, criticizes old theoretical works on Turkish music for being full of scholastic details. “Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Yekta’s discussion is that, although he seems to argue that Western and Turkish music should be understood from within the particular systems and not form outside, he cannot help but continue comparing and relating each system to the other” (Karakayalı, p. 127). In that sense, Karakayalı claims that Yekta could not talk about music without evoking the grand dichotomy of Western vs. Turkish. Karakayalı claims that Yekta is prototypical because his ideas based on this grand dichotomy have recurred for decades in 20th century. Karakayalı thinks that Suphi Ezgi and Adnan Saygun’s theoretical works are examples of Yekta’s approach. “The increasing opposition between pro-Western state policies and the excluded proponents of traditional Turkish music gradually crystallized into two discursive positions: pro-Western vs. pro-Turkish, or, alternatively, modernists vs. traditionalists” (Karakayalı, p. 128). An important distinction in Yekta’s mind is between European polyphony and Turkish monophony. This forms the basis of modernist approach which claims that polyphony is superior to monophony and associates it with universality. Although these two discursive positions were never described as absolute and mutually exclusive and there were attempts of “grand synthesis” (reference to Ziya Gökalp who tried to combine Turkish content with Western form), this grand dichotomy was supported and strengthened by music discussions and debates. Karakayalı thinks that this new discourse is not necessarily less closed or less cosmological than previous one and it presupposes “a more asymmetrical cosmos where a peripheral music system is evaluated, either positively or negatively, against a center (West)” (Karakayalı, p. 128).
According to Karakayalı, the rise of arabesk music meant the retreat of the grand dichotomy between Western and Turkish since arabesk was a new music genre carrying elements from both sides. Karakayalı claims; “In arabesk traditionalists saw too much experimentation and too many foreign elements” whereas “modernists saw too much tradition and too little rationality” (Karakayalı, p. 130). In the strange object of arabesk, both sides saw the betrayal to their own ideals but also a resistance to their existential categorization. Having read the works of Murat Belge, Martin Stokes and Meral Özbek on arabesk music, Karakayalı claims that arabesk is unclassifiable and it has its own ambiguities. For instance, the term arabesk refers to a certain return to the Persian-Arabic elements of the Ottoman culture, but it is also associated with the rapid urbanization of modern Turkey. Arabesk has no specific opposite and according to Martin Stokes what arabesk texts imply is “social liminity” (the condition of being in-between two things, on the borderline, being in a confused or ambivalent state: between the city and the village, east and west, modern urban life and rural traditions) (Karakayalı, pp. 131-132). Both in terms of its musical-technical inventions (Orhan Gencebay is typical here) and in terms of its textual messages, arabesk falls beyond the categories of the grand dichotomy and denies the purity of these categories. However, although arabesk has succeeded in escaping this grand dichotomy, it “failed to create an invigorating and upwardly mobile sociocultural movement and is trapped in a discourse of mourning” as it is evident in the abstract and detached words of Gencebay songs (Karakayalı, p. 132).
Karakayalı concludes that arabesk achieved to surpass the grand dichotomy which rather began to function as an obstacle to new musical projects. Karakayalı adds that this does not mean that arabesk means a completely positive social movement, but in its own liminity and despair, it allowed new music debates and genres to be made in Turkey.
- Karakayalı, Nedim, “An Introduction to the History of Music Debates in Turkey” in Sufism, Music and Society in Turkey and the Middle East (ed. by Anders Hammarlund, Tord Olsson, Elisabeth Özdalga), 1997, Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul Transactions vol. 10