Name: Kaan Bulak
Occupation: Composer, pianist, sound artist
Current event: Under the banner of his Feral Note label, Kaan Bulak is curating a series of three concerts investigating and celebrating the intricacies of sound. Klangbox performances will bring together artists from around the world and different corners of the musical spectrum in a bid of questioning both their own approach and established wisdom. Conceptualised a multi-sensory events, each Klangbox concert will incorporate visual media and double up as a release gig for lavishly presented tape sets featuring the work of the musicians involved. Get tickets here: Day one, 2.9.2021, Day two, 3.9.2021, Day three, 4.9.2021.
Recommendations: The Blue Cliff Record by Yuan Wu (Cleary translation); Inland Empire by David Lynch.
If you enjoyed reading this interview with Kaan Bulak, visit his personal website for more information. He is also on Facebook, Instagram, and Soundcloud. Or head over to the bandcamp page of his Feral Note imprint to peruse their selection of intriguing sound art publications.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I used to compose piano pieces as a child (but nothing to take serious). As I grew older I used sounds that I recorded and improvisations to compose with. It’s been only 5-6 years that I returned to actually writing scores.
At first I couldn’t imagine that someone would play what I’d written so I played it right away myself and did not notate it at all. However an old school friend of mine whom I met again in Berlin brought me closer to the art of chamber music and I remembered that scores could be a great way of expression.
Experiencing the pure power in a Bruckner symphony was one of the key moments that led me to the decision of becoming a composer.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
That phase can be pretty frustrating the first time but then you realize that the search for your own voice has to be repeated from ground up for each new work. Otherwise my works would end up as boring reprises I wouldn’t want to listen to.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don’t believe in identities. They are mere attachments to anything outside of the current moment which is the only thing that should count when dealing with art. I’m much more interested in the act of doing, not being.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
It took a while until I was able to keep a whole piece in my head. But now I really enjoy having quiet moments when I can simply sit somewhere and in my head listen to the pieces I’m currently writing. This way I can also work on a new piece while cleaning my studio or making coffee.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
Time is an illusion but a very profound and interesting one. I tend not to think about time and also find it difficult to say something like “the sonata is 10 minutes long”. Just as time is relative, a composition is relative to the space it is performed in. If the cellist plays my sonata at a chamber music hall it’ll take a lot less longer than in a cathedral because (if they know what they’re doing) they will adjust their phrases to the evolution of sound and listen to the sound as a guide for rhythm.
However, when I compose I don’t think about these things. I’m more concerned with essential things like the intuition and expressions I’m transmitting through the score.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I’m simply happy that I’m living now and not in earlier times when you couldn’t record yourself on your own. My piano quintet was mixed and mastered by me, so I was able to fulfil my sonic idea of the work without having to rely on anyone else - full expressive freedom.
Furthermore, I’ve co-designed the radial loudspeaker Lynch which I’m using extensively on stage for augmenting piano and strings sounds, but also for presenting synthetic sounds as organic as possible in concert halls. The beauty of composing in score is that you don’t need to limit yourself with existing instruments. You can basically write down whatever you want and then develop the necessary techniques or even technology for performing it.
On the other hand, I’m also happy with nature sounds or some kinds of industrial harsh noise, as long as they appear expressive.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I don’t believe that it’s possible to compose a written score in a collaboration. However, I really enjoy improvised meetings in the studio or on stage. My favorite moment was when Robert Lippok left me alone on stage and he went around the hall baptizing church pillars with tree branches.
I like the feeling of not knowing what will happen on stage as long as I know that I won’t get bored, and with Robert you’re never bored.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I try to get up as early as possible and try to brew the best coffee I possibly can. Then I read and study for an hour (non-fiction, usually philosophy or art history but also mathematics and physics) and then start to work on music. I have to stay offline at least until noon or even afternoon for staying focused.
If I need to communicate with others I try to schedule that later in the day. I figured out that if I talk to someone I lose track of my music. The way language works is contrary to how music works, in music you don’t have the sequence of things that imply sense, in music everything is one and things need to be balanced without a sequence in an irrational way.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The last concert with my ensemble and guest soprano Sarah Aristidouwas at the chamber music hall of Philharmonie Berlin which is my favorite hall for this type of music. We were extremely lucky that after one postponed date the second lockdown started only two days after our concert and we were still able to perform.
The concert was called “hymns of time” and it united my inspirations and own works in one concert program. My arrangements of Byzantine composer Kassia, and the Renaissance composers Gesualdo and Victoria came together with my piano quintet, cello sonata, and my first string quartet which seemed to start a life of their own at the concert. It was as if my works were leaving me in the best possible way to start their own lives.
Also, Stefan Hadjiev totally nailed my cello sonata, so much raw power in his playing that amazed everyone in the hall.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Listening in calmness is the perfect start. When you’ve forgotten how the wind sounds like in the leaves of a tree or if you’re not aware of the sounds you’re making in the kitchen while cooking tea, forget about composing.
First you need to listen to and appreciate the silence which will come before your music and will be there afterwards as well. I regularly trick my mind into this state with the help of my morning routine.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
As Celibidache once said, music can make you experience your own uniqueness. Healing sounds like a process that can be finished when you’re healthy, however music is never finished. It may start as a healing process but it accompanies you your whole life reminding you of your inner self. I see music much more as the gateless gate to pure freedom.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I’d rather not judge others but I abstain from surrounding artworks with precise context and leave it up to the audience to find themselves in it. I find such personal approaches to art much more universal and they mostly don’t end up as appropriation.
To me art doesn’t become more interesting because xy with a certain identity made it. Either there is art or there is no art, simple as that. Surely it’s interesting to know more about a certain artist and it’s obvious that there is a lot to be changed so everyone has a fair chance. But contemporary pedantic contextual art seems to help people sell things as art which they aren’t.
As I mentioned above, for me it’s all about doing and not being. This is why I decided to be on my artistic path all alone; I never belonged anywhere and hopefully never will. I am who I am and nothing changes because of where I come from or who my family is, those facts are just noise blurring the essence. Fun fact: I regularly turn down interviews that are mainly interested in the fact that I’m a “composer with migration background”.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
As I was working with Ali M. Demirel, I learned about synaesthesia and realized that I had colors on my mind while listening to music but rarely when making music.
I tend to link my music to geometrical shapes. When I improvise at the piano, I feel like holding a dodecahedron or any other Platonic solid with my two hands and exploring its surface, edges and corners. Its geometric perfection leads me to play the “right” things.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I prefer art as a purpose in its own right. Politics don’t belong into art, I’d rather not degrade art into a tool of power hungriness.
Still, the fact that some people, who would have never been accepted as a part of society, actually make it to established artists is deeply political and important for the visibility of certain personalities.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music lets you experience life and death instead of just telling you about it.