Name: Cenk Ergün
Nationality: Turkish
Occupation: Composer
Current Release: Cenk Ergün's Inseln is out via Sacred Realism.

If you enjoyed this interview with Cenk Ergün and would like to know more, visit his official website.  

When did you first start getting interested in the world of alternative tuning systems?

You could say that Equal Temperament was the alternative when I grew up in Turkey, and that’s perhaps why I was drawn to Western classical and pop music at first.

Early on in my education in the U.S. I was blown away by La Monte Young’s Well Tuned Piano, as something unique in the context of Western concert music. At the same time, I was listening to the Turkish Sufi musician Kudsi Erguner, or records of folk songs from southeast Turkey. But these worlds existed separately for me until much later when I began to think about tones in terms of frequency ratios and the principles of the harmonic series.

[Read our Michael Robinson interview about La Monte Young’s Well Tuned Piano]

Two of my earliest works written entirely in alternate tuning systems are Sonare and Celare (2014-2016), string quartets written for JACK Quartet. Sonare uses quarter tones, simply as an extension of 12 tone equal temperament. While I was working with ratios for Celare, JACK introduced me to the HEJI notation system developed by Marc Sabat. Understanding this notation system and the tuning principles it is based on solidified my basic understanding of intonation, and how to use it in my music.

Which artists, approaches, albums or performances using alternative tuning systems captured your imagination in the beginning?

The music and writings of Harry Partch, La Monte Young, Ben Johnston, Scelsi, Xenakis, and Pauline Oliveros, who I studied with at Mills College, were early formative influences on my thinking about tuning. More recently I am inspired by pretty much all of the Sacred Realism artists, as well as Chris Otto and Kyham Allami.

[Read our Pauline Oliveros interview]

But I don’t want to get fetishistic about “alternately tuned music.” All of these are excellent artists who happen to make music which approaches tuning in innovative ways.  

Working with a different tuning system can be a very incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?

At first it was purely a musical consideration, the goal was to extend my palette of colors to work with, so to speak. But once you start investigating various tuning systems and the history behind them you become aware of how strange it is that 12 tone Equal Temperament is so dominant around the world, and wonder about everything it replaces.

One thing it does is to obscure the thousands of years old intersections among different musical traditions. Working with frequency ratios, some of the first things I stumbled upon were constellations of tones constituting fragments of modes / scales in the Turkish makam.

An early example of this can be heard in Celare, the string quartet I mentioned earlier. There is a moment in the piece, which I think of as Turkish music with the piano pedal down. Such sonorities also made their way into Inseln and were actually some of the first things countertenor Rupert Enticknap identified with when working on the music. They appear as isolated melodic fragments during the second half of the piece.

These are the same ratios everyone from Pythagoras to Al-Farabi, from Itri to Monteverdi thought about. When I find things like this, I am reminded of intersections and exchange among people, music, and ideas over the course of millennia – in this case it happens to be in the geographical area just around the Mediterranean. This is a cultural heritage I identify with and that I find in my music, so in this sense I have a personal motivation to think in these terms.

How would you describe the shift of moving from one tuning system to another?

Early on as a composer working in 12 tone equal temperament, I found that I wasn’t interested in functional tonal harmony. I stopped thinking melodically since I found that consecutive tones in the same octave always implied a functional chord of some sort, therefore always suggesting tonal direction, development.

Trying to work with ET while avoiding tonal harmony is like walking in a mine field. A composer like Morton Feldman is excellent at doing that with his use of double accidentals. But I found stepping outside of this template of thinking of pitch in terms of 12 tones to be extremely liberating. All of a sudden, I had an infinite number of colors to choose from.

At the same time, it can be disorienting, like you are floating in outer space with nothing to hang onto. Organizing pitch using integer ratios, thinking about infinite gradations of tone, of intervals, listening for difference tones, emphasized harmonics, and the gradually unfolding complex patterns of tones sounding together, I slowly began to discover things that my ear is naturally drawn to. It’s taken many years of working with ratios and listening to the results to feel like I can operate comfortably in this manner.

For me it’s not so much switching to a system but rather using ratios as a way to understand the nature of sound, and the potential web of relationships in collections of sounds. It’s almost as if this way of thinking helps me develop a new system of intonation for each new work.

Terms like consonant and dissonant are used in school, but mostly with very limited understanding of what they mean. How has your own idea of these terms changed over time and how do you see them today?

I don’t see the two terms as polar opposites but rather as qualities describing a continuous spectrum of the complexity of sound.

I think timbre, dynamics, harmonic and instrumental density, and instrumental style all play a role in creating a context where a tone is perceived as consonant or dissonant. In the right context, a perfect fifth can sound very dissonant, for example.

In how far has working with alternative tuning systems changed your collaborative practise?

Close collaboration with performers is essential for me.

Some of the musicians I work with are not used to thinking about tuning in terms of ratios, or they are unfamiliar with the notation system I use for it. So lately I have also been using audio notation to relay musical information to performers. This can cut through the cloud of unfamiliar technical territory and the collaborative process can become an aural one, where we’re mostly focused on sound in rehearsal and performance.

For Rupert, who is an amazing countertenor trained in the opera tradition, the numbers I was working with did not provide any context. He found a connection to the material only when we began to talk about the quality of sound we were after as an entity, and how to obtain it by using his body as an instrument.

Since Inseln was intended as a multi-channel sound installation, I did not need to create a full score. I created a sampler for Rupert that he could use to hear the collection of tones in Inseln. Listening this way, he was able to precisely and comfortably tune, singing and recording a countless number of long tones over the course of two days. I then worked with these recordings in the studio to create the piece.

So far, the focus with regards to alternative tuning systems has mainly been on harmony. But melody is affected, too. How do you personally understand melody and what changes when it becomes part of a new pitch environment?

Like I mentioned earlier, melodic thinking was absent from my music when working in ET. When I began working with ratios, groups of tones I choose for their harmonic relationships began to present melodic possibilities. As you heard in the excerpts above, I began to use these kinds of fine-tuned melodic lines which were not available to me in ET. The way I think about melody these days is as something that can highlight certain qualities of a collection of tones. Melodizing harmony instead of harmonizing melody.

Nowadays I’m listening to a lot more traditional Turkish music than I used to, which is monophonic and purely melodic. I am interested in treating unison as a melodic and harmonic interval in combination with other intervals. This can at times lead to a blurring between the ideas of harmony and melody.

With electronic tools, playing and composing in just intonation has become a whole lot easier. Do you find this interesting? What are some of the technologies, controllers and instruments you use for your own practise?

I think it’s wonderful and it certainly helps me immensely.

My main compositional tool is a software sampler I built in Max for tuning samples played by the musicians I collaborate with. I work with long tones played by trombones, clarinets, strings, etc. – looping, tuning for hours.

Another Max tool I’ve used a lot was developed by Marc Sabat, a just intonation synthesizer which allows one to directly hear the ratios and see their notation in the HEJI system developed by him. To calculate ratios and measure them in musical terms, I often use the Plainsound Harmonic Calculator developed by Thomas Nicholson in collaboration with Marc and others. bitKlaiver, a digital tunable piano developed by Daniel Trueman is very useful and sounds great. I am also very excited about Leimma & Apotome – two web-based tools recently developed by Khyam Allami.
From the concept of Nada Brahma to "In the Beginning was the Word", many spiritual traditions have regarded sound as the basis of the world. Regardless of whether you're taking a scientific or spiritual angle, what is your own take on the idea of a harmony of the spheres and sound as the foundational element of existence?

This reminds me of the Tesla quote about energy, frequency, vibration being the keys to the secret of the universe. One of those secrets for me is time. And I think sound provides many clues about time, and music can provide an infinite number of ways to experience the passage of time. Sometimes the musical experience can be ecstatic or spiritual, creating space for the listener to be in touch with these things that seem so fundamental.

I tried to create such a space with Inseln. It was composed and presented during a difficult period in the pandemic in Berlin in early 2021, when we were all isolated without any friends, family to see, or concerts, art events, restaurants to go to. The image of all these people standing apart from each other, spending time alone in their homes, but all experiencing the same tragedy at the same time made its way into the piece. The urge was to find a connection between isolated sounds separated by extended silences.

Presenting Inseln as a sound installation at Zionskirche, I tried to create a non-intrusive sound environment for listeners to come into to mediate and listen for extended periods of time. In this sense it is informed by a sensibility where science, art, and spirituality all pose the same questions.