A Profile of Cenk Ergün

By · Illustrations · Date 3/13/2020

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. 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 been 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 looked out the window 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 cleared 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.” ¶

Updated 3/27/2020 to correct two errors. Dan Lippel’s reference in the liner notes was to “Sonare,” not “Celare.” Ergün watched the ships go by from his window, not his balcony.