Thursday, August 1, 2013

Transcribing Ottoman music

Until the19th century, music in the Ottoman Empire was based primarily on oral tradition. Compositions and playing styles were handed from generation to generation through a master-apprentice system called meşk. The meşk system created thriving performance relationships, but also led to a plethora of variations on popular compositions. Often, the original composer might have been forgotten, and attribution given to a more recent performer instead.

But some music actually DID get written down. The earliest extant collections of Ottoman music are two manuscripts attributed to Wojciech Bobowski, better known as Alī Ufkī, Born in Poland in the early 1600’s, Alī Ufkī was kidnapped as a young adult and later sold as a slave to the sultan’s court. He had been musically trained in Poland, and began recording what he heard at court in western notation. In order to fit better with Ottoman written language, Alī Ufkī notates from right to left rather than left to right. Several hundred compositions are recorded, together with lyrics and comments.

Alī Ufkī’s manuscripts had little effect during his lifetime, however. Both were brought to Europe, and lay neglected in archives until only a generation ago – one manuscript at the British Library, and the draft version at Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. These manuscripts have recently been transcribed, published and sections recorded by Bezmârâ Ensemble, Pera Ensemble and others, providing a unique resource for interpreting Ottoman music of the seventeenth century.

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