February 24, 2024

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Interview with Dervis Can Vural: Improvisation stops me from dumping a ton of ideas into a song all at once

Interview with a bad musician, as if pianist, ungrateful person Dervis Can Vural. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music.  How exactly did your adventure take off? 

Dervis Can Vural: – I grew up in Ankara, Turkey, and trained as a classical pianist. In my early years I hated music and my mom would drag me to each lesson saying, “ok, let’s just go one last time!”.

One day, as I was getting out of my practice room in haste, I ran the door into a bunch of students who apparently have been secretly listening behind the door. I suppose I’m a vain person, so winning some competitions, wooing people etc. made me love music in a superficial way. Truly loving of music for its own sake, began years later, maybe when I was 12 or 13 when I got my hands on Bach’s preludes and English suites. I knew in a second that I was playing good music for the first time in my life. I trashed every other composer and played Bach’s music exclusively for the next ten years.

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It never occurred to me that one could make a living out of good music, so I became a theoretical physicist. Let me know if things have changed now, and maybe I will make a career move!

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

DCV: – At the age of 20, I left my hometown to do a Ph.D. in theoretical physics in University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Being an alien urges you to question your roots. In search of my musical identity, I learned how to play middle eastern percussion instruments (def, darbuka), various wind instruments (ney and kaval), and soon after, joined a Balkan music band.

Urbana-Champaign was a very cosmopolitan town with lots of international students like myself, so I was lucky to be able to interact with other musicians which specialize in classical Indian music, Indonesian gamelan, and so on, and was struck with how similar the aesthetic sensibilities can be, across musical traditions so diverse. With that realization, my origins and the borders of my “cultural heritage” started to expand. After immersing myself in the music of middle east and Balkans, I learned south Indian (Carnatic) vocal percussion techniques, and soon after, I was interested in the music of Bali, Sami, and Aymara. Then I started throat singing, and learned the blues harmonica. With this mindset, classical and jazz repertoire transforms into just some other kind of folk music. The mental de-glorification of art music and seeing it as the folk music of a certain socioeconomic class has served me immensely in establishing my own genre.

While my musical (and also national) identity was undergoing this ethnographic transformation, I’ve been, in the meantime, gigging in coffee shops, restaurants and bars, improvising music for hours, and while doing so, integrating these diverse musical traditions into my muscle memory.

More recently, I decided to no longer make a conscious effort to introduce these ethnographic elements into my compositions, because this feels a bit synthetic and didactic. However, since these ethnographic elements are very much part of my identity, whenever I improvise they inadvertently show up and shine through, as if they have their own free will. And when that happens, I let them free.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

DCV: – I never practice scales or arpeggios and I never repeat parts of a song tens of times. If I need to practice a certain musical pattern, I will improvise a tune in which the pattern is featured prominently, and eventually it gets integrated into my improvisational engine. All my practice is based on improvisation. This allows me to acquire musical language never in isolation, but always in appropriate context and serving a particular function.

I should emphasize however, that I am a firm believer of deliberate and continuous practice, as opposed to just “jamming around”: A musician should, at all times, have an agenda and set goals. I spend something like 70% of my wake hours thinking about these goals. If my goal is to master singing a vibrato, I will vibrate my voice while driving a car, or calling my daughters for dinner. If my goal is to bend a particular note with the harmonica, there will be a harmonica in my pocket at all times, and I will play it in the shopping mall, improvising tunes with that particular bend.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?

DCV: – My early compositions were very academically motivated, and I deeply cared about novelty. Novelty in timbre, texture, structure… I would for example, combine two heterophonic textures in counterpoint, or go out and get some field recordings and mix them with my synthetically generated signals and what not. For my tonal pieces I would always write sheet music and think hard about every note. Everything I composed was either an exercise, or an interesting idea.

I no longer care about being interesting, novel or intellectually sophisticated. The only thing that matters to me now is beauty. This ideology also led me towards a more naturalistic method of composing, consisting entirely of improvisation. Improvisation stops me from dumping a ton of ideas into a song all at once. It enforces the music not only to be natural and beautiful, but also accessible.

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JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

DCV: – In music, just as in language, one must first master the rules of grammar, and perfect the muscle control required to turn these structured phrases into sound waves. The acquisition of these skills demands heavy intellect. However, once one has mastered syntax, now it’s time for semantics. One must decide on what to say!

The syntactic structure of my music happens to be rather complex. I just want to say something beautiful, but my native tongue happens to be a little arabesque and convoluted! I have spent many years dabbling in counterpoint, heterophony, impressionism, and a plethora of musical traditions across the world; and these things built for me a language. Just as people speak without thinking much about the grammatical structure of their language, I speak in a strange, musical language, without thinking about the very many technicalities under the hood.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

DCV: – One must be truly shameless to express one’s inner, vulnerable world. Not all art and not all artists must be intimate like this, but my art happens to be very intimate. I view it nothing short of sexual activity, and I feel no shame prostituting myself.

My alexithymia makes this easier, because I don’t feel shame. But it also makes it more difficult, because it’s very hard to identify and express my emotions.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

DCV: – Over the course of history, young people have repeatedly proven that we can leave them alone, and everything still turns out just fine. If they’re not listening to jazz, they probably found something better.

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

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DCV: – I fully resonate with Coltrane, but I see it a bit more generalistically. I think one can find the meaning of life in any one dimensional function that has room for complexity, and music happens to be one of them. Some people, like painters, even deal with two dimensional functions! In my circle of people, some deal with infinite dimensional spaces. It’s a blast.

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

DCV: – I think we need more irreverence and disrespect. We should be able to say, look, Bach is alright, but look, these few notes are clearly wrong, so I fixed it. I’m not talking about, being oh so unique and reinventing his music, playing it on a synth or whatever. I’m talking about a typical concert pianist, taking the freedom to fix five or ten notes in a piece, still wear their fancy concert dress and give the concert without even mentioning the fix. Because seriously, it’s not a big deal.

There is too much respect for the “greats”, not only in music, but also in science, art, politics and everywhere, and I think that leads to stagnation.

For example, I hate Mozart, but whenever I say it, I get shunned. Seriously, Mozart was an idiot, and sparing aside Requiem, everything he wrote is trash. Ravel is one of my favorite composers, but clearly, Bolero was a mistake. Ralph Vauhan Williams is a pretty mediocre composer, but one time he lucked out, and composed the best song in the universe. Just by accident! Can you believe it?

JBN: – No, sure, are you idiot?

DCV: – I should emphasize that I am not advocating for anti-intellectualism here. On the very contrary, one must know the material inside out before attempting to cut something open. A butcher cannot perform surgery.

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

DCV: – I don’t listen to lots of music. I typically default to Chick Corea, Debussy and Shostakovich. Recently I discovered Lili Boulanger. From my contemporaries, I really admire my “compatriots”, Vardan Ovsepian and Tigran Hamasyan. I model the sweet tone of my vocalists after pop singers like Agnes Obel and Aurora.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

DCV: – As far into the future as possible. Far enough that not only would I be able to live in “some society” but also have access to the historical records describing what I missed during all those prior times.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Note: https://jazzbluesnews.com/2023/03/19/useu-jazz-blues-association-festivals/ You can express your consent and join our association, which will give you the opportunity to perform at our Jazz and Blues festivals, naturally receiving an appropriate royalty. We cover all expenses. The objectives of the interview are: How to introduce yourself, your activities, thoughts and intellect, and make new discoveries for our US/EU Jazz & Blues Association, which organizes festivals, concerts and meetings in Boston and various European countries, why not for you too!! You can read more about the association here. https://jazzbluesnews.com/2022/11/19/useujba/

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