Using Turkish Usul with Midi

I came across a piece of Turkish notation that completely baffled me. I can’t remember where I got it (possibly Istanbul); it had no title or composer in the heading. What baffled me was the melody; it did not seem complete, as though it was a section from another longer piece. When I played the section, it also seemed incomplete, there was too many pauses (3rd line), as though the melody was following a lyric (there was none, it indicates it is an instrumental piece “Sazlarla”), or perhaps another instrument was complimenting the melody, a duet, or call and response?

Since Sanat music is generally monophonic, the only other instrument could be the percussive kudum or bendir. Turkish rhythms (usul) are complex and there are many beats to 1 bar (from 2 to 120). I felt that this melody was using the pauses, or possibly a syncopated rhythm, to let the usul come through. This dialogue between melody and usul is common and characteristic; both play “the spaces”.  In this instance the usul was called “Duyek” and 8/8 rhythm.

When I wrote my M.A. thesis I had to think up a way to notate Turkish Sanat music, the normal European way of writing music falls short. Turkish Ney is a non-pitched instrument; you can have any root note within a range of a semitone of what is written on the notation. So when I looked at this unknown piece of notation I felt I needed to look at it in a new way. To understand what it was sounding like, so I could “hear it” and therefore play it.

I could have used a metronome of course, but that did not allow for the usul being part of the music, a metronome did not have the accents and phrases; it was a duet after all. I thought about tapping the usul out on my bendir, recording it and then playing it back in a loop. But there are disadvantages with this method:

That might solve this particular piece of notation, but what of other difficult notations I came across in the future? What about tempo, what speed should I play at? What about mistakes? Do I trust myself to play the usul correctly, to use the different textures that are wanting from a bendir or kudum, otherwise it would sound bland. Learning the usul and bendir might be useful but it is also time consuming, having to learn complex multi-layered beats and play them correctly takes years of practise.

1 bar loops of different Turkish usul

I approached it from another angle. I would use a sampler! If this was 2003 then I would not of dreamed of doing this. But I have now achieved a happy balance between acoustic and electro-acoustic music. They do not have to be opposed to each other, they can complement each other, and I think in this case they can help gain an insight into a historical music (and as a foreigner trying to glimpse into a historical conversation, without the aid of a translator, I need all the help I can get).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sampler-and-midi.jpg
Reaper’s Sampler (right hand side)

I used the sampler that comes in my Reaper DAW. I used sounds from the kudum and bendir, and I allocated them keys on my keyboard.  Then I opened the midi editor and I decided how many bars I would use to indicate a: Dum2, Tek2, tek, dum, ke, ka…etc. which are the phonetic symbols that help memorize the beats of the usul.

Duyek usul. Midi notes

“Dum2” would be minim/crotchet, “dum” would be a crotchet/quaver, and “ke” would be a quaver/semi-quaver…etc depending on the time signature of the piece. The important thing was the equal distances I gave to each sound/beat. These beats I arranged in the midi editor, by typing in the values of the usul, or to look at it another way – I played the spaces.

3-4 minutes length of midi files, using different Usul

When the usul was correctly played into the sampler, and the sounds that were coming from the keyboard were actual textured bendir/kudum sounds, I could experiment with tempo, I could loop the midi, if it was too fast I could slow it down, when I got used to the melody I could speed it up. I could copy and paste the midi file to a given time, having it repeat for 3-4 minutes or how many bars that was in the notation. It became more versatile as an education tool, not just a fixed recording, as it would have been if I had recorded my playing. I could use this method to achieve a more versatile informative approach.

Vst “Mellotron” playing midi notes of the Sanat melody

I have tried doing this technique via Finale or Sibelius, music notation software’s, but the result was disappointing. I ended up with a cheap sounding electronic sound to listen too. Now with Reaper and the advance in Vst sounds I can also play the melody using more interesting sounds. By combing the usul and the melody I can hear the duet in full. By familiarizing myself with the melody (without the microtonal intervals) it also helps memorization and how the structure of the piece works together. The vst I chose is the Mellotron, a vst of the 60s synth.

Recorded, Midi usul & melody side by side

Vst sounds can be experimented with (different flute sounds for example) and an interesting combination can be achieved, taking the original acoustic feel and transforming it into a synthesis of sound textures. The piece is transformed, one level it is an educational exercise, but on another it is becoming something in its own right, not Sanat music (I no longer can call it so), it had become another genre.

I have tried teaching with the sampled usul with one of my students. I think it would work better if we were in the same room together, as then I could change the tempo to suit his ability. But as I am teaching via Zoom at the moment I have to keep it simple for now. Also the constraints of Zoom is another factor…but that is a different blog posting!