Remembering İlhan Mimaroğlu (1926-2012)
Composer, musicologist, record producer, and genre bending pioneer İlhan Mimaroğlu (1926-2012) died last month after a long illness. Composer Bob Gluck was one of the last people to do an extensive interview with him, so we asked him to describe this one-of-a-kind music maker for us in memoriam.—FJO
“Since my early age I was interested in what was going on in the world in terms of music, new music. New music, that’s what interests me, new music. It was my principle: you have to start with what’s going on today and then, gradually, go back to the past, where it came from. Rather than start in the past and going forward, you should know what’s going on today in the world [...laughter...], [and then learn] where did it come from. That was my view.”—Ilhan Mimaroğlu, interview by Bob Gluck, January 3, 2006
Serious but funny, irreverent but thoughtful, categorical but reflective, politically engaged yet a pessimist—or was he a realist? I found myself silently testing each of these seeming contradictions when I met Ilhan Mimaroğlu in 2006. I found in him a nobility, a deep seriousness, interrupted periodically by bursts of laughter. From time to time, he responded to a question by removing a book from the shelf and reading aloud, quoting from his own published words.
I interviewed Mimaroğlu in the evening on January 3, 2006. Gungor, his wife, met me at the door and offered me tea before bringing me into her husband’s study. The composer was seated comfortably in an easy chair in that dimly lit room. Surrounded by books in Turkish and English, the room was filled with hazy smoke. Breathing was not easy for me, but neither was it for Mimaroğlu, as he chain-smoked through our two hours together. We joined together in coughs and wheezes.
I remembered my first awareness of Mimaroğlu, his recording with Freddie Hubbard, Sing a Song of Songmy: Threnody for Sharon Tate. I responded to that work because it combined so many of the seemingly conflicting aesthetic worlds that I loved. The music startled me because I never heard so many of them present in the very same piece. Is it a narrative work with semantic meaning? Is it a tonal work for strings? Is it a construction of electronic sounds? An angular post-bop jazz tune, with an asymmetrical rhythmic riff, yet lyrical trumpet solo line? The answer to all these questions is resoundingly yes! Somehow, Mimaroğlu‘s answer to all these possibilities was “yes,” reconciled within a single work.
I knew another side of his work from listening to radio shows that Mimaroğlu produced for the Pacifica radio station WBAI. He crafted them at home, only stopping by the station to drop off the tapes. The shows represented, no surprise, an eclectic mix of music.
This reconciling of seeming irreconcilable possibilities tells us much about Ilhan Mimaroğlu.
The musical world of the late 1960s and ’70s New York might be categorized as the art of parallel play. Serial composers, largely uptown at Columbia, had little truck with minimalists and other eclectic composers who were largely downtown. Art music and popular music rarely intersected. Composers/performers and producers rarely inhabited the same worlds, never mind the same bodies.
Somehow Ilhan Mimaroğlu embodied each of these, all at the same time. He was an engaged composer and informal teacher, uptown at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Mimaroğlu, in fact, came to New York to study musicology at Columbia in order to further his journalistic interests. But, having read about, sought out, and then heard electronic music recordings in Turkey, he discovered the Columbia-Princeton studio.
Also during his time at Columbia, Mimaroğlu’s studied privately with Edgard Varèse. “Most of the time, I used to talk to him over the telephone,” he remembered. “One day, he asked me, ‘What do you want to do in New York? What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I want to study with you!’ He said, ‘All right, let’s start!’ […laughs…] So, I would go to his place, something like every week. It was very interesting. I used to write a few things and he would take what I wrote and he’d start adding notes to it.”
The compositions Mimaroğlu completed during his years at Columbia were intuitive in formal approach. He was more sympathetic to Pierre Schaeffer than to the serialists, noting that “particularly the idea that electronic music and cinema were in a parallel, the same thing basically. One is for the eye, the other for the ear. It is the same idea for me and for Pierre Schaeffer.”
In contrast, of Milton Babbitt he said, “I may not be too fond of his music, but I must admit it’s important. It’s beautifully crafted. It’s not always a great pleasure to listen to, but he’s an important composer, yes.”
In Mimaroğlu’s 1965 electronic work for tape Agony, one hears within this construction of abstract sounds clearly discernable musical gestures and phrases. A three-pulse figure becomes a leitmotif, engaging in call and response. What is most striking is the accessibility of the music, despite the unfamiliarity of the sounds, the lack of pitched materials or conventional musical syntax. If anything, the music is like a conversation, and in the final minutes a delightful one at that.
At Columbia-Princeton, Mimaroğlu became an accidental teacher, recalling that “since [Studio director Vladimir] Ussachevsky was a busy person, he would say to me, at the very last minute during an electronic music class: ‘You go teach this class!’ He would just leave and I would take over. This happened a couple of times.”
But Mimaroğlu may have been aesthetically more at home downtown, during a time when there was little cross-fertilization. He befriended two young composers who were active in Mort Subotnick’s Buchla and tape studio on Bleecker Street in the Village. Charlemagne Palestine and Ingram Marshall (who was Mimaroğlu’s fellow musicology student at Columbia) were by day salesmen at Record Hunter on Fifth Avenue and 43nd Street. Palestine recalls that Mimaroğlu was a regular customer whose music he liked. He was “very nice to us. His music had a dramatic tinge to it; it wasn’t so dry. And he also wasn’t a dry professor type of guy. In those old days when the Nonesuch records came out, Silver Apples [of the Moon by Morton Subotnick] came out, and also a piece by him. They were more light, sort of accessible electronic pieces. They weren’t all that serialism. I do remember that. At the time I appreciated it because I was beginning to overdose on all that heavy profundity.”
I’ve wondered about his mixture of seriousness and humor; his disinterest in authority, and, maybe, his sadness.
Mimaroğlu’s jokester side could be disarming. For instance, he had come to admire the music of fellow countryman Bülent Arel, a future important figure at Columbia-Princeton, before either came to New York. “I remember playing a trick on him. I sat at the piano and started banging the keys [Mimaroğlu makes “busy” sounds with his mouth] and recorded it. I said, “Bülent, I want to play you something. It’s a new piece by Stockhausen.” So I played it. With great seriousness, he starts examining it, analyzing it. [...laughs...] When I told him what I did, he got very angry.”
But then, there’s a sense of absolute dedication not only to musical expression, but in a larger sense to justice. I asked Mimaroğlu where he gained the sense of moral outrage represented throughout his writings and musical works. He told me that he was raised during an era of serious moral questioning and danger, but within an environment where critical thinking was encouraged:
I guess I grew up in a country where you are allowed to think about such matters. Turkey, the Turkey of Ataturk, was a totally new country. We used to see signs here: ‘“How happy is the person who says ‘I am a Turk’,” for instance. And indeed as I grew up and found out what was going on in other countries of the world, [it became clear] that this was a truly exceptional country, no question about that! Particularly the [World War II] war years…. So, came 1939, and we were all scared that Turkey would be invaded by the Nazis. Thankfully it wasn’t. It came very close. We came to the center of Anatolia, because [we thought that] they were going to come. Then we returned again to Istanbul. Finally in 1945, I remember the day when the Nazis were vanquished and there were celebrations in the street. So, those were important years for me.
Mimaroğlu emerged from this experience having learned a cautionary tale, a profound and large one for a teenager. His father had died when he was still a baby. His mother no doubt felt an additional sense of weight when thinking about the future career of this musically focused child. She supported his interests, provided they remained just an interest. As a result, Mimaroğlu embarked on training for a professional career, as a lawyer, a choice made quite casually, a story he tells with some humor:
My mother wanted me to be an architect, like my father. Since I didn’t know what else to do, I said, “All right, let’s go to that school where they teach architecture.” The people at the school said, “You’ll have to pass an examination to enter.” What is the examination? They put a vase on top of the table and they said [to] draw it, which I did and I failed [...laughter...]. What’s that got to do with architecture? So, what do we do with this child? At that time, my mother and stepfather were in Ankara and the only university where you can enter without an examination was the law school. So they said, “Why don’t you enter the law school?” And I said, “Why not?” And I did. And that was the story. Well, I finished it. I have a law diploma that I am keeping [...laughter...] somewhere.
The musical young adult decided instead to become a journalist, landing a job with the Associated Press. One thing led to another and he was selected to receive a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study music journalism at Columbia University.
Mimaroğlu’s sense of commitment to people translated into his concern for young composers. Eric Chasalow, then a student at Columbia-Princeton during Mimaroğlu’s time, is one example. Chasalow, now the Irving Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis University, recalls, “While I did not know him well—Ussachevsky introduced us in about 1979—he programmed my music on his radio program on several occasions. He was a refreshingly no-nonsense guy with no patience for anything but the music. He was very generous to me. He was eager to hear what each generation coming into the Electronic Music Center was doing, and when he heard something he respected, he would support it however he could.”
Arguably, Ilhan Mimaroğlu’s most substantial impact was as a jazz record producer at Atlantic Records. One might not expect a Columbia-Princeton composer to engage with jazz. At Atlantic, Mimaroğlu produced some of the most important recordings of the 1960s, including works by Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. This was an interest that began early in life. He cultivated it with persistence and, ironically, through a form of intrigue:
I was into jazz all the time growing up. I had a group of friends who were also interested. We used to listen to recordings. I used to play the clarinet. I used to give concerts myself, with this friend or that friend, a guitarist, whatever—it was a jazz group primarily that I was into. At school that’s what I was doing. I used to go to the [school’s] radio station and I started playing records. It was my pleasure. And then one day, the discipline board was in session. I was playing jazz records again. They sent someone, made me turn off the radio and gave me a punishment. [...laughs...] That I told to my mother and she went to the director of the school and said, “Is it a bad thing that the child plays music to his friends? Does he interfere with his classes? Why are you doing this?” On that day, they permitted me again to play music on the sound system, but the punishment remained in my [academic] records. And mother didn’t tell me [until] after I finished school, so I didn’t get spoiled [from] what she did to protect me.
Ilhan Mimaroğlu became a record producer, he explained to me, “just to earn some money…. When I came here on a Rockefeller Fellowship, I had heard about Ahmed Ertegun [and] Nesuhi Ertegun, and I went to visit their offices. I remember Nesuhi taking me to a nightclub to hear Errol Garner. That’s one of the memories, yes… They were jazz experts. So they said go ahead and do jazz, do whatever you want.” After a time, Mimaroglu expressed interest in producing recordings with less commercial potential. “I just wanted to do some recordings and release some that wouldn’t sell. [...laughs...]. So, [my label] Finnadar was born. They were happy to let me do it.” The label became an offprint of Atlantic Records. The Ertegun brothers were supportive and told him that they would keep paying, as long as he didn’t spend too much money. “And I knew how not to spend much money!” said Mimaroğlu. The array of Finnadar recordings would include works by Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Frederic Rzewski, John Cage, Mimaroğlu’s own work, and that of many others.
Open-minded yet sometimes quite sure of himself, warm and sometimes cantankerous, Ilhan Mimaroğlu was at his core complex and mysterious. His life was one of musical multiplicities. While living in the United States, he and his wife maintained strong ties with their homeland. Throughout his life, Mimaroğlu continued to write and publish in Turkish. While the music of this eclectic composer remains little known, he produced iconic records and created works of depth and breadth. Hopefully the passage of time will help motivate greater interest in the music of this truly fascinating man. Surely over time, stories will continue to emerge about his kindness and commitment to students and colleagues.
Please note: The following audio files—recorded during Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006, interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu—are unedited and unprocessed and are occasionally less than optimal. They are presented here due to their historic importance.
Part Two of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu
Part Three of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu
Bob Gluck is a pianist, music historian, and educator. He is associate professor at The University at Albany and the author of You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press, 2012). His latest recording, Textures and Pulsations, a series of piano and electronics duets with Aruan Ortiz, will be released this fall on Ictus Records.