In a YouTube video, seven chamber orchestra players sit on a stage adorned with white columns and red velvet drapes, looking as if they're about to play Bach. But what they do play is surprisingly far from Western classical music: a rhythmically thrilling work characterized by sinuous, Persian-sounding quarter-tones, unusually wide vibrato in the solo violin parts, and intermittent volleys of stomping, clapping and shouting.
The piece is called "Dances of the Yogurt Maker," written by the 25-year-old Turkish composer Erberk Erylmaz, who is currently an artist diploma candidate at Carnegie Mellon School of Music in Pittsburgh. This Saturday, May 16, Vermont audiences will have a chance to hear "Dances" live. That's because it won the inaugural Collegiate Composition Prize from the Vermont contemporary chamber ensemble TURNmusic. The group will perform "Dances" at ArtsRiot in Burlington as part of a wide-ranging program that includes work by three other contemporary composers.
TURNmusic's prize is the latest in a string of composition awards that Erylmaz has won since he left Turkey at age 17 to attend the Hartt School in Connecticut. There, Erylmaz began by studying piano, conducting and composition in the Western tradition, and gained an appreciation for contemporary composers such as John Adams, Christopher Rouse and John Corigliano. But, Erylmaz says by phone from Pittsburgh, he soon realized he was most inspired to write his own country's music, particularly its folk music. At Carnegie Mellon, where he recently earned his master's, he found a mentor in Iranian-born faculty member Reza Vali, whose compositions draw on his country's folk music tradition.
In some ways, Erylmaz, who is from the northern coastal town of Samsun, is attempting to do for Turkish folk music what composer Béla Bartók did for Hungarian folk music. But his approach is much more direct. "I try to eliminate all traces of Western music from my compositions," Erylmaz says. "Dances" is based on actual folk dances and songs celebrating yogurt makers, which are performed annually by residents of Silifke, a town on the country's southern coast that is famous for its yogurt.
Erylmaz's composition was one of 13 submitted for the Collegiate Composition Prize, says TURNmusic's founding conductor, Anne Decker. She used social media and composer contest sites to advertise the competition around the Northeast, requesting PDF and MP3 files of each work. Then she and seven core TURN players met to compare their rankings. Everyone, it turned out, had ranked "Dances" first.
TURNmusic clarinetist Dan Liptak already knew Erylmaz: The two were classmates at Hartt and played clarinet and piano in a trio that toured Turkey for five weeks in the summers following their junior and senior years.
Liptak and Erylmaz will perform again during the composer's visit to Vermont for a fundraising concert for TURN, which will be held at a private residence in Richmond the day after the ArtsRiot concert. That second program consists exclusively of compositions by Erylmaz for piano and clarinet. As Erylmaz points out, clarinet — the equivalent of the sipsi and other folk wind instruments — figures centrally in Turkish music.
TURNmusic, barely a year old, offers only a travel stipend with the prize. While Decker hopes eventually to make a larger award, her main intention is to engage young, emerging composers. "I wanted to connect with that generation because of my own [student] experience," explains the Waterbury Center resident. As a music-education major at Western Michigan University, Decker befriended a number of composers and started her own contemporary music ensemble. She took the ensemble with her to graduate school at Illinois State University, where she studied orchestral conducting.
While Decker describes the whole program for Saturday night as "outrageous," she says Erylmaz's composition is particularly challenging to musicians. "It's a very boisterous piece — the rhythmic drive, the colors — it's so energetic." The stomping and shouting in unison give it "a raw feeling. It's a very human piece," she adds. "You have to be really brave [to perform it]. You're so exposed."
Those very un-Western classical performance demands wrought a change in the 10-member ensemble as it rehearsed the work, Decker adds: "It's just making our group stronger, and our relationships stronger."
TURNmusic House Concert, Sunday, May 17, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at 3 p.m. followed by concert at 3:30 p.m and dessert, at a private Richmond residence. RSVP at 272-1789 or goo.gl/forms/KAk8n196bI. $25-150 donation.
The original print version of this article was headlined "A Folk-Inspired Turkish Composer Stars in Vermont Concert"