The term "classical music" should embrace more than the standard western icons of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but most Americans don’t think about the musical styles of other cultures as having a history and, thus, a classical tradition.
Turkey, like much of the Islamic world, has its own musical backdrop, one that has evolved from pre-Ottoman Empire modes on through early 20th century innovations by Udi Hrant Kenkulian and Tanburi Djemil Bey, up until today’s young turks — forgive the pun. As in western society, where classical roots get traced back to earlier performance styles by the period instrument movement, there are archivists within Turkish society reminding modern-day artists of their musical ancestry, groups such as the Kudsi Erguner Ensemble and Burhan Oçal’s Classical Ensemble of Istanbul.
Oçal’s group probably isn’t as well known as Erguner’s, but the approach is complementary. Whereas Erguner and company deal with the music of the Ottoman Empire in transition to a post-Kemal Ataturk generation, the Classical Ensemble of Istanbul — at least on this album — delves into the rich musical tradition of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when Istanbul’s cultural reach spanned continents with occasional flashbacks to the 14th century and the first millennium.
Oçal, in his triple role as percussionist, vocalist and conductor, has made an album that traditionalists and world music fans should embrace wholeheartedly. It is filled with ecstatic rhythms, melodies that evoke the mysticism of the Mevlevi — the order of the Whirling Dervishes — and some superb, all around musicianship.
Instrumentally speaking, the ensemble consists of a kemençe (a three-stringed lute played with a bow), a kanun (a member of the zither family), a ney (a reed flute similar to a recorder), an ud (lute) and various percussion implements. Much of the project was recorded live at a series of concerts held in Paris, France, during 1997, and the music is surprisingly lush given the smallish forces involved.