Digital Tradition: Arrangement and Labor in Istanbul’s Recording Studio Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016), a book supported in part by an AMS subvention grant, is the culmination of research I’ve been conducting since 2004, including more than two years spent within recording studio and music industry workplaces and ongoing online research. The project began with two questions: why do recordings produced in Turkey have an immediately recognizable aural signature? And how did digital technologies, especially computer-based digital audio workstations (DAWs), become incorporated into existing musical practices, especially the production of traditional (acoustic) music?
Aural signatures and digital technologies quickly led to a whole host of other issues which became far more interesting than my initial questions:
- the continuing infatuation with “traditional” repertoires and often esoteric rural/local instruments in the twenty-first century in Turkey
- the sensory experience of studio work (and related to that, the materiality of this sensory experience)
- the social networks in which production takes place
- the traditions of work within highly clustered industries (in this case, the recorded music industry, the film industry, and ancillary industries)
- the effects of studio architecture and technologies on sociomusical interactions
- and finally, the relation between musical aesthetics and social aesthetics
The period I was in Istanbul was defined, perhaps by more than anything, by the immense growth of activity in creating minority-language popular musics. While I did encounter some Turkish-language repertoires being recorded, two studios I worked at attracted clients who performed songs in languages such as Lazuri, Hemşince, Kurdish, and Zazaki – four of the many minority languages that continue to be spoken, to an extent at least, in rural Anatolia and increasingly in migrant communities in Turkey’s larger cities. Yet, most of the people involved in the production of these musics (except the singers whose photos appeared on the album covers) were also involved with other, non-ethnic musics. This was particularly the case for studio musicians, a prolific group of highly skilled professionals who in some cases have contributed to four thousand or more recordings spanning numerous musical styles. But the album arrangers I worked with were also extremely versatile, moving between arranged ethnic music productions and creating the soundtracks to feature films and TV dramas. Arrangers, in Turkey, are at the center of production labor, taking on some of the roles that might be done by a “producer” in the west.
The slippage between what might otherwise seem as different, or even incompatible, kinds of musical aesthetic products was very interesting to me, as were the eclectic approaches that arrangers took to reimagining folk songs. For example, it’s not immediately obvious how we get from a basic 8-bar dance song melody such as this:
“Denizde Dalga Birdur (Heyya Heyya)”, by Gökhan Birben, arranged by Gürsoy Tanç
where the regionally-specific kemençe fiddle and tulum bagpipes are in competition with a wall of Pink Floyd and King Sunny Adé-inspired guitar parts and a massive battery of acoustic percussion and programmed drum loops.
Similarly, Özlem Taner’s unaccompanied vocal lament, in the masterful hands of arrangers Aytekin Gazi Ataş and Soner Akalın, became an epic filmic exploration of the traumatic aftermath of the 1937-38 Dersim Rebellion, and when placed as the closing credits music for the 2006 feature film Beynelmilel, connected that earlier history with the 1980s suppression of leftist and Kurdish movements in the same southeastern region of the country:
“Seher İnende”, by Özlem Taner, arranged by Aytekin Gazi Ataş and Soner Akalın
This tendency to excess in arrangements was widespread, but didn’t go unchallenged by other musicians. At the same time as these arrangements were being made, singer Fatih Yaşar and percussionist/arranger Yılmaz Yeşilyurt were exploring a sound for Eastern Black Sea songs more inspired by modal jazz and the recorded aesthetics of ECM’s albums. They referred to their aesthetic as sade (plain, spartan, elegant), accomplished by leaving a lot of “space” in the mix. Particularly interesting is how they built up multipart microtonal harmonies, extending a jazz language into the traditional modal system known as makam:
“Sirlarumi Söyledum,” by Fatih Yaşar, arranged by Fatih Yaşar, Yılmaz Yeşilyurt and Erkan Oğur
None of these examples are based on how musicians perform live together on stage – these are recording-specific aesthetics. In particular, there is a considerable difference in instrumental performance practice. One group that I got the chance to record a few times was the Kempa Yaylı Grubu (Kempa String Ensemble). Highly sought after, the group is best known for their contributions to the sentimental popular music genre known as arabesk, but they perform for higher-budget folk and urban art music arrangements as well. Most often, a studio would hire four musicians from the larger group and have them double-, triple- and quadruple-track parts to simulate the sound of a larger string orchestra. Kempa had a striking approach to bowing and ornamentation, eschewing the norm for string players to bow together and to match each other’s vibrato speed and depth. This was exacerbated when they overdubbed, as the players would change up their bowing and vibrato again. The cumulative sound is very distinctive and “slippery,” a large sound but quite different than any string orchestra.
Kempa Yaylı Grubu, tracking an arabesk song introduction
In attempting to analyze examples such as these, I found that existing methodological and theoretical paradigms shed little light on what seemed, to me, to be the most interesting aspects of these productions and their creation. I felt that what was needed was initially a certain methodological naîvité, specifically around questions of how to study the art and practice of recorded music. To do this required letting go of assumptions about entities that we might otherwise take for granted, especially regarding questions of what the music industry was, what defined “musical genre,” what performance entailed in the studio environment, and how studio technologies were used and to what purpose during tracking, editing, mixing and mastering.
Instead, I worked with a variety of approaches from the field of science and technology studies for studying the interface between people, technological objects and built environments (including actor-network theory, Madeline Akrich’s concept of scripts/ de-scription, and Brian Pfaffenberger’s concept of technological drama). I also used findings from cognition research to make sense of the experience of studio work, especially concerning issues of timing and latency. The book makes considerable use of visual material, including the edit windows of ProTools sessions, spectral analysis of individual parts within mixes, block diagrams, and still photographs documenting the experience of studio work. So I developed a mode of musical analysis that works with DAW session files and edit windows to elucidate the intersection between musical aesthetics, technical work, and the social relations in studios. The book ends up suggesting a new methodology for the study of recorded music production. It also suggests elements of a new theorization of the digital, not conceived empirically as data or as sets of ones and zeroes, but rather as something cultural, as something fluid.