Dunya Ensemble Traces 1000 Years of Istanbul Music on a Massive Double Album
Boston-based Turkish music group Dunya Ensemble has two new double albums out. The first of these is the lavish A Story of the City…Constantinople, Istanbul, a dreamlike, surreal and sometimes ghostly creation. These are the ghosts of centuries past, a homage to a melting pot that’s been a hotbed of musical cross-pollination for over a millennium. Conceived by multi-instrumentalist bandleader and Turkish music maven Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, it’s a sometimes drastically original take on about a thousand years worth of music. Sanlikol rightly sees Istanbul as a hub where genres from across the silk road, and beyond, mingled and created brand-new sounds, to which he adds his own eclecticism as an indie classical composer with a jazz background. Confusing? A little. This is an album to be enjoyed as a buffet: an atonal avant garde overture leads into a series of dark choral pieces – whose melodies date from the middle ages – to a graceful baroque waltz, lots of clanky lute-and-voice pieces where the Middle Eastern scales are just starting to emerge, and eventually rock. Depending on your personal taste, you may want to completely resequence these tracks; on the other hand, fans of choral music have a feast of mini-suites on their hands here, as do fans of 20th century Middle Eastern music. The big choral works are delivered by the powerful voices of Boston renaissance choir Schola Cantorum and Ensemble Trinitas; the Janissary music is by Janissary band New England Mehterhane. Many of this album’s 40 tracks clock in at around two minutes, although there are also some epics. It’s a mammoth undertaking and ultimately a mammoth triumph for everyone including the listener. Sanlikol has said that this music is not meant to reflect any sense of contentment: instead, in a city composed of foreigners, unease is the usual state of mind, and that’s usually the case here.
The first disc begins with that atonal overture, followed by what sounds like a series of Hasidic cantorial ngunim with hints of Middle Eastern microtones – this mini-suite grows gradually more complex in its counterpoint and arrangements. There’s a brief, stately Byzantine Palace diptych with clanking lutes and a rustic waltz; quaint European Crusaders’ ballads; dark ominous plainchant melodies capped with fiery zurna (Turkish oboe) cadenzas; an absolutely lovely choral miniature that could be Andrea Gabrieli; and a lumbering, explosive vamp with thunderous bass drums to close it out.
The second is where the readily identifiable Middle Eastern modes coalesce and eventually catch fire. Bits of raga and casually crescendoing improvisations for various lutes personify Istanbul, then other waves of outsiders arrive, adding their own tonalities to this rich stew. The Turks’ vivid contribution to Greek music is acknowledged by a slowly swaying, nostalgic Smyrniki ballad, while Greek melodies and Egyptian rhythm slink their way in as well, the klezmer element represented by a bracingly brassy dance tune. The ngunim of the first cd get lush, rich orchestration a second time around and dance out joyously. Perhaps with intentional irony, what sounds most overtly Turkish only appears toward the end: a gorgeously brief dance, a muezzin’s call and finally an irresistible 1970s style Mediterranean disco/funk epic. Eclecticism has never been more lavishly successful than it is here.