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Interview with İlhan Mimaroğlu, Turkish Composer

Uptown and downtown, electronic music and “free jazz”, Ankara and New York

Interview from 3 January 2006 in New York City. Originally published at the EMF Institute. A version was published in Journal SEAMUS 21/1–2 (Spring/Fall 2010) and in Jazz 04 (October–December 2012) in Turkish.

İlhan Mimaroğlu (1926–2012), composer and writer, came to the United States on a Rockefeller Fellowship to study musicology at Columbia University, and in 1959 began a long association with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. He has also produced electronic music programs for the radio and, working as a recording engineer and producer at Atlantic Records, helped craft landmark jazz recordings by Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and others. His own music often engages with political concerns.

Law School and Journalism

[İlhan Mimaroğlu] To begin, let me read something from the back of one of my books. It is in Turkish. I’ll translate:

How bad I am with numbers, with dates. At least I know my date of birth, which is 1926. It was the time when the song Valencia was sung by everybody. And I was born on March 11, on the day when Kaiser Wilhelm II was born in Holland and I wanted to go to Switzerland. It was a Thursday. Where was I born? In the city which is the centre of the world, as some Byzantine emperor has said. Just like any other normal kid, when I grew up, I wanted to be a driver, a fireman and a water carrier. But since I was prevented from being such and since I didn’t know what else to do, starting with the “yo-yo” age, I was oriented to music. And in “hula hoop” age, I started writing about music. And starting with the “frisbee age”, I started writing music itself. The time came that I moved to another city, which pretends to be the centre of the world: New York. And I saw my name on a calendar, which mentioned Kaiser Wilhelm… And I started seeing my name in encyclopædia pages, which are regarded as cemetery stones [laughter] which someone put there a bit early.

[Bob Gluck] Like an epitaph, here lies so-and-so and here’s what their life was about…?

[Laughter] Yes.

You have a very creative way of seeing the world. In that biography, when you were talking about “in the Frisbee age,” all roads led to music. So, why did you go to law school?

Ha, ha. Good question. My father, whom I never met, was an architect. He died when I was a baby. 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.

Did you ever think about it again after graduating?

No, not really. Never. It was at that time that I started writing for newspapers, writing music articles. So that’s where my life was oriented — writing about music and writing music itself.

What did you write about?

Reviews of concerts. That’s what I used to write about. And I used to work at Associated Press, which was in the office of one of the main newspapers. At the same time, I was doing radio programs. Bülent Ecevit, who became Prime Minister later on, was working at the newspaper, too. Somehow, Mr. Marshall of the Rockefeller Foundation came to Ankara and asked Ecevit — they had this strange idea of having a music critic brought to New York. “Who would you recommend?” they asked. “Mimaroğlu.” So, Mr. Marshall came to see me and said: “Would you come to New York to study at Columbia University, to study music criticism, music history, whatever, for one year. I said: “I am busy here. I’m writing articles and so on. But for six months I will.” So I did.

The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center

So the idea was that you’d be in the States, get your education and then come back and be a critic there or, was it to be in New York and write for Turkish papers?

The idea was to be in New York and get a music education at Columbia University with Paul Henry Lang and Vladimir Ussachevsky. So, I started attending classes. When I saw the electronic music studios at Columbia, I said: “Well, that’s what I want to do.”

How did you know that?

That’s the impression that I got when I saw all the equipment.

Was it something about how Ussachevsky described the equipment or what it looked like…?

It was mostly what it looked like — and already I knew about electronic music.

How did you know about electronic music?


Where did you learn about them and where did you find them?

When I was in Ankara, I used to get them from abroad. From France, from America, by mail they would arrive and so that’s how I got to know about electronic music.

How did you know that you wanted to look for them — and what exactly you wanted to look for?

Well I knew of those music magazines. I used to read the papers and read the reviews. These magazines would arrive at customs. I would go to customs and get them. So, by reading, I knew a lot about electronic music.

Did you know anybody else who was also listening to electronic music?

No, not really, not really. If they ever listened to it, it was because I they listened to what I used to play them on the radio.

How did people respond to that?

Well, it depends on the people.

Did anybody ever tell you that they liked or didn’t like what you played?

Not really, not really.

But that’s really something to do that out of the blue.

Yes, well, 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.

I once heard that you didn’t want to go to music school because it wasn’t going to teach you the way you wanted…

It was because they would teach me the wrong things and I was saying that it’s only when I know enough about music that I will go to a music school. Because then I will know whether what they are teaching is wrong or right. And when I started knowing enough about music, [I could tell when they were wrong]. I have a few examples of that.

I was a student at Teacher’s College here. Why Teacher’s College? Well, at Columbia, if you attended any particular school, you can follow classes at the other departments. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my mother and my three aunts were all teachers [laughter], so I said “Fine, I’ll go to the Teacher’s College.” I was following classes at other departments of the University — and here’s one good example of the wrong things they taught: I remember the conducting class. How does it go? First they show you how to hold the baton. And then how to beat the rhythm. Good. And then, come out, they say, “Start conducting!” [Laughter] There were many other things I had to learn about conducting! They told me to start conducting the orchestra. I made too many movements and they say, “No, no, no, you have to give them one movement to start them.” I said: “You didn’t teach me that!” [laughter] And so on, yes.

Did you challenge Lang and Ussachevsky?

Not really. No. I was listening to what they were saying, taking my notes. The thing is that since 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 say “take over”?

Yes, he would just leave and I would take over. This happened a couple of times. [Laughter] I would just start with something, like how to use a reverberation chamber or something like that. I would try to manage. In the meantime, I was also taking some private lessons from Edgard Varèse. Most of the time, I used to talk to him over the telephone. 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!” 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. [Laughter]

Was there something in particular that you learned most from him?

Just knowing him is learning about music. He was an exceptional person, a very exceptional person. I even asked Varèse to come to Columbia to teach an electronic music class, which he did. Just one day. He came and talked to the students. He did.

What was that like?

Well, he was quite angry about what was going on in the music world.

Did you ever spend any time with him in the studio?

No. No.

Music and Politics, Music and Ideas

When did you start thinking about art and politics? Was it in Turkey or when you got to the States?

Well, it must have started most particularly when I came here. You would know about those days (the 1960s)! I’m still watching them on television! [Laughter] And it was not only television for me, but I was in the middle of it. So it did have certainly some influence.

Was there a particular event or just the climate?

No, not really, just the climate. Yes. Columbia was a particular centre of activity.

What do you remember about WBAI?

I don’t recall how I started at WBAI. But I did several programs. I didn’t go to the station. I just prepared recordings and sent them over and they would broadcast. Some of my WBAI talks or excerpts are in my book, which is in English — it’s called Other Words. It was published in Turkey. A few quotations from it were printed in issues of the magazines EAR and Bananafish. For instance, “Take an ‘o’ out of ‘good’ and it’s ‘God’. Add a ‘d’ to ‘evil’ and it’s ‘devil’. To recognize ‘God’ and ‘evil’ and ‘good’ and ‘devil’, one must be a proofreader.” Here’s another: “We composers worry so much about posterity that we fail to notice what’s happening to our posterior.”

Let me ask you something about your ideas. Most composers are interested in sounds and musical form but very few seem interested in ideas. You seem very unique in that way. What do you want most to communicate in your music?

What I want to communicate is written in the title of that given piece, if there are no other words. But if it’s music with words, either sound words or spoken words, those words communicate what I want.

But how important to you is communicating ideas through music? Some would say that music in itself cannot communicate anything.

Well, music in itself cannot communicate anything, yes, verbally. But as I said, if there are words connected to that music… a common example is a cantata; another common example is an opera: words, words, words, words! They should be clearly understood. Thankfully nowadays, operas have supertitles. You cannot understand a word of what they are singing, but you can read them! [Laughter]

But your messages seem much more important to you than to a lot of other composers.

Yes, they are important. I’m trying to use music as a means to communicate what I want to say. This book, Other Words, is full of such examples [flips through the pages of his book], for example: “Calling a judge ‘justice’ is like calling an artist ‘masterpiece.’” [Laughter]

Where did you gain your sense of outrage? Did you grow up with that, with a sense about morality and justice? Where did you learn that?

I guess I grew up in a country where you are allowed to think about such matters. 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 War years (World War II). Thankfully, we did not enter the War. But I am reading Ataturk’s diaries, here and there. About Hitler, he says: “Hitler is not only a crazy man, but look at the vulgarity of his style.” That’s after he read Mein Kampf. [Laughter]

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 centre 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.

So, it was really during the War and the context of Ataturk and the Nazis that helped build your sense of justice…

Well, all that built up, I’m sure.

Had you done anything that was a work or act of protest before the 1970s, or was that new for you at that point?

I don’t recall anything before that time. No. But certainly my articles here and there contain a few political notes.

I can think of other composers whose music reflected an engaged message. I think of Nono, of Berio’s Sinfonia and some others. But you did this in a sustained kind of way. That was unusual, no?

In a kind of way, yes. But then, what purpose does it serve?

What was the purpose that you wanted it to serve?

Well, it’s no different than speaking in a meeting or writing a book about whatever. Hoping that what you say would influence certain people towards changing the world, or leading the world to a direction that it should go.

But it’s not so usual. I don’t know many composers who think that they have the power to do that or even care about that.

Oh, they don’t even think about it. For them music is just music, that’s all.

Is that an issue about which you spoke much with other composers in those days?

No, not really.

Was there anybody to talk to, if you wanted to?

No, not much. Actually I didn’t care about talking about these matters with composers. It’s up to them to do whatever they wanted to do. [Laughter]

Memories of Vladimir Ussachevsky

Can I ask you a few things about Columbia?

If I can answer them! [Laughter]

From whom did you learn the most in the early days?

I cannot single out this or that teacher. I learned something from every one of them.

Did you learn anything special from Ussachevksy?

Well, that he was a good teacher, yes? That’s true. I even have an interview with Ussachevsky, somewhere. I wish that I could play it to you. It is a recorded video interview. He used to live right around the corner down from where we used to live. This brings me to the question of why I stopped going to Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Actually, I didn’t quit. But it was such a difficult place to go. The studio at McMillan Theater on 116th Street was closed. That was a place where it was convenient for me to go. Ussachevsky used to give me midnight hours. Actually, after midnight, so that I could go all the time I want to do what I want. So that’s good. Then that studio was closed and the Center was moved to 125th Street. It was such an inconvenient place. Go down the hill and to the edge of the Hudson River. I could not afford taxis and even you can’t find taxis when you want to come back. And climb that hill. I remember that Ussachevsky used to have a bed there. [Laughter] He used to sleep there! He was living around the corner from where I lived and it was difficult for him to go down the hill. That’s the reason I stopped. It’s not that I composed enough; I decided that I couldn’t go there anymore.

Were you still going when Mario Davidovsky was in charge?

Yes, but only a couple of times. I didn’t continue.

Who were the people with whom you talked to at Columbia?

I cannot single out anybody. We didn’t have much time… we used to gather for class and the class would then finish.

And then you’d come in the middle of the night…


How did you learn how to use the studio? Did somebody teach you or coach you?

I discovered it and figured it out myself.

What did you most like working with? Was it tape, the tone generators…?

All the equipment. Ussachevsky of course did teach how to use pieces of the equipment. I remember him when one of my loudspeakers at home broke down and it was the same kind of loudspeakers used in the studio. I remember Ussachevsky carrying it the whole way, from 125th Street, one of the speakers [laughter], bringing it to my home, to my apartment. I remember that. Yes. I still keep it.

A few people say that you helped them in the studios.

I was assigned students.

Who assigned you the students, was it Ussachevsky?

Yes, yes.

Were you ever paid to do this?

I wasn’t paid. I don’t think so. I don’t remember.

Pierre Schaeffer and Musical Listening

My contacts with Pierre Schaeffer were very good.

How were you in contact with him?

I talked to him. Sometimes I still make calls to the Group for Musical Research in Paris. But I can’t go there anymore. They invited me once to give a lecture, when I was still able to go there. But now, because of the prohibition on smoking on planes, I can’t go.

You won’t go anywhere that you can’t smoke?


That must be hard for you.

It is. It is. But at least I can smoke here in my apartment. I used to smoke on the planes. I remember going [to Paris] once to give a lecture. In my biography for the event it says that I’m a smoker. Yet, during the lecture I didn’t smoke at all. At the end, someone asked me why I didn’t smoke. I said that when I was a child, my mother said to me: “My son, the day will come when you grow up, you will go to Paris and at the Group for Musical Research, you will give a lecture. It is not in good form for you to smoke in front of an audience.” So, it was my mother! That’s why I didn’t smoke. So my mother saw the future! [Laughter]

How sympathetic were you with Schaeffer and his approach to composing?

Very much, very much. 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. The same idea for me and for Pierre Schaeffer.

Did you ever do any work that combines things for the eye and things for the ear?

Did I? I can’t recall that I did. No.

Did that idea ever appeal to you, as opposed to just sounds, where people don’t have anything to look at.

No, it doesn’t appeal so much to me. Because the eye is always more receptive than the ear, so they will look at what is being shown and not listen to what is being played. For me, it’s not like that, but for most people, that’s the way it is. In the movies, I always listen to the soundtrack music together with what I see on the screen. But for most people, music is an accessory. They don’t listen. That’s my impression. I don’t know, maybe.

Is there a particular way that you hope they will listen? Do you want them to do nothing but listen? To close their eyes? To listen abstractly? What kind of a listener do you want?

As you say, abstract listening.

Like Schaeffer, do you want them to specifically not make associations, not to reference things?

Well, for me it is hard to make references. It is not easy to follow both things at the same time. So, when I go to a concert, a standard regular concert when somebody is playing the violin, what do I care about the man who is playing the violin? It’s what is being played that’s important to me. For that reason, it’s difficult to both see and hear at the same time, which by some effort I manage to do, particularly in the movies.

My typical student does not have a background in listening abstractly. It takes them a long time to learn skills to listen without making references, without saying “that reminds me of this or that, or of another piece of music…” This skill seems like something that is hard to learn.

Well, it shouldn’t be. Because there’s nothing abstract about sound. It is something real.

What do you mean by that?

Just like things that we see, there are things we hear. If you listen to a piece of music, you don’t have to make any references to something else. But there are works that combine both.

I didn’t mean composers choosing to make references, but listeners who can’t seem to help themselves from making references in their own heads, when the music is abstract. The uneducated listener doesn’t seem to know how listen as Schaeffer says, with “blinders”, so to speak…

I don’t know whether it’s a matter of teaching. Music is something very concrete. Sound is something very concrete, so why shouldn’t we listen to sounds as they are? Again, when we go to an orchestra concert, is it the presence of the orchestra, with all those instruments playing, the conductor conducting? Is it sight that makes the difference, that makes us listen to it? No, it shouldn’t be.

As a Record Producer, Memories about Jazz

Would you prefer to listen to music on recordings, then?

Yes, it’s not a preference really. It’s the way I was brought up, the way that I listened to music all the time, through recordings.

Is there something different for you about the experience of listening to music “live” or on recording? Or do you listen to both in the same way?

As a maker of recordings, the thing that makes a difference for me is to regard myself as a recordings producer. That’s often how I listen. “Oh, that note on the oboe, stop! Another take!” [Laughter].

I’d like to ask you a few questions about your career as a producer of recordings. What was most important to you — was it the performance, the recording technique, a particular æsthetic?

Both, of course. Sound has to be right, whatever that is. And the performance has to be “correct”. That included recording multiple takes and fixing the recordings in the studio.

How did you respond to Teo Macero’s work with Miles Davis, recording and very creatively editing, in a sense re-composing in the studio?

I don’t know what kind of difference it would make in the case of Miles Davis. Here and there in restaurants I hear a trumpet player and I think: “That’s Miles Davis. So many bad notes, so meaningless.” Well, Miles Davis is one player that I never liked. Technically, musically, seems to play the wrong thing all the time.

Did you like Freddie Hubbard better?

Definitely, oh definitely.

What did you like about Freddie Hubbard?

He has good technique. He expresses himself. I don’t know where he is now… It is unfortunate when a player like Freddie Hubbard disappears from performing and public view.

What other jazz musicians have been special to you?

Oh, quite a few since I grew up with jazz recordings. I don’t know names. I always liked jazz, from the beginning. Something new, always something different.

Did you get into record production because of jazz or did you get into producing jazz because you were a record producer? Which came first?

Well, both. I became a record producer just to earn some money. And thankfully, at Atlantic Recordings, Ahmed Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, they were jazz experts. So they said go ahead and do jazz, do whatever you want.

Did it help that you were all from the same country?

[Pause] I don’t think so. Why should it be? That they trusted me to do what I wanted may have something to do with my being a Turk. They offered me a job and I said that I didn’t want to work in an office. I went back to Turkey. But then, I gave them a call, said that I wanted to work. They said “fine” and I came back.

How did they know about you?

It was when I first came here on a Rockefeller Fellowship. I had heard about Ahmed Ertegun, 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.

What was it like working with Ornette Coleman?

He was fine to work with. That reminds me, I should give him a call. I have to call him and just talk. I want to call him to tell him about a film, a British film in which on the sidewalk they put a sign in front of a restaurant that says “Omelette Coleman.” [Laughter]

You did a lot of records with Charles Mingus. What do you remember about that?

One thing that I remember is doing a take of a given piece and it was such a good take in one [attempt] that at the end he says “mother [unintelligible mumbling].” [Laughter]. That I kept on the record. Occasionally I talk to his wife, Susan Mingus.

One thing that is big right now is record companies going back into their vaults and releasing alternate takes, practice sessions, and so on. What do you think about that?

I don’t think it’s a good idea, basically. Because for whatever reason for the artist or the producer, the others have been eliminated and the best accepted, so why [release] outtakes? They may not be so good or they may be ok, but I don’t think that it’s basically such a good idea.

Were there times when you recorded a few takes and they were all basically good and it was a judgment call to decide which to include on the record?

Well, yes, that’s a normal thing to do. [The decision is] just a matter of appreciating music, that’s all. If the performer is around, yes, I always listen to it together [with the musician] and reach an agreement. If my judgment is rejected by the artist himself, he wants the other take, fine, it’s his record; I do it that way. [Laughter]

What do you remember about the recording session for Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. Did you know that Atlantic recently released a new CD that includes alternate takes?

How do they sound?

They sound good, but the CD is different from what I grew up expecting of that recording.

When you mention Free Jazz, that reminds me about one of Freddie Hubbard recording sessions. There was a section that I wanted to do in that way and I explained it to the performers in very academic terms. And Freddie says: “Free, man, free!” [Laughter] Yes, that is what it was.

Did they talk much before making the recording of Free Jazz? How much did they know going into that session?

It was just like any other session. They came in, fixed their instruments. Go out, drink something. They didn’t talk much to each other. Then, when the time comes, they go about playing, just like anything else.

How did your record label within Atlantic Finnadar Records come about?

I just wanted to do some recordings and release some that wouldn’t sell. [Laughter]. So, Finnadar was born. They were happy to let me do it.

Did they ever give you any trouble about anything that you did?


They just said: “Great, we’ll keep paying.”?

Yes. As long as you don’t spend too much money. And I knew how not to spend much money. So they said: “Just go about doing what you do…” [Laughter] 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, meaning school has a radio, meaning a sound system that covers all the grounds, up in the air, on the ground, in the refectories. I used to go to that radio station and I started playing records. It was my pleasure. And then one day, when 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. [Laughter] Oh, great. That I told to my mother and she went to the director of the school and said: “Why are you doing this? Is it a bad thing that the child plays music to his friends? Does it 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 records. [Laughter] And mother didn’t tell me after I finished school, so I didn’t get spoiled from what she did to protect me.

Bülent Arel, Turkey, Stockhausen and Babbitt

After returning to Turkey and then coming back again to the United States, did being Turkish in any way impact on how you thought of yourself as a composer?

No, except the language that I speak. My wife and I often meet with Turkish friends. At the Turkish Consulate they ask me to give some lectures.

Was there any special connection you had with Bülent Arel because of a shared common culture?

Well, I knew him when I was in Ankara, before I came here. We were living in the same city. He was an important composer — I knew that. Then, when I came here, he was just living across from where I lived. Harvey House, I think it was, uptown.

Did you ever listen to each other’s music, talk about each other’s music? You’re both really different from one another.

Yes, very much so. He had at the time started working at Columbia-Princeton. I wasn’t there yet. Yes, I knew him very well.

Did you ever work together on anything? Ever talk about doing that?

No. No, not really. 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. When I told him what I did, he got very angry. [Laughter]

He was unfortunately a very under-appreciated composer.

Yes, he was a good composer. You know, there really are many under-appreciated composers. But being under-appreciated doesn’t make someone special! [Laughter] The world is full of them!

Since you brought up Stockhausen, how did you relate to his music?

Overall I liked it very much, yes. Overall, whatever of his music came to me I liked very much.

What about other, more serial composers at Columbia, like Milton Babbitt?

Ah yes, well, Milton Babbitt. 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.

Were you able to have your music played at Columbia?

Well, it is difficult to have it played there. The sense is that there are no organizers of concerts. With all the sound system and everything. I used to organize concerts there. It’s a very good hall, good acoustics, good sound system, so why not? Nobody is doing anything. They should do it. It’s one of the rare places in New York where concerts should be given. It’s the centre of the University.

I think that it’s better now.

Somewhat. They have great pianos.

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