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Meet Munir Beken

Today we’d like to introduce you to Munir Beken.

Munir, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I live in Santa Monica. For the last thirty years, I have lived in various other cities in the United States. My beginnings, however, was in a fantastic city far, far away… I had to travel across continents and oceans to come here. I was born in Istanbul, Turkey. There was something I have always carried with me from the very beginning wherever I was. It was my perpetual companion and it was never secondary. That was music. My mom told me that she always knew that I was going to be a musician as soon as she heard me crying the moment I was born. “This boy’s voice sounds like music,” my parents told each other. They sometimes recorded my voice on an old fashion Schaub Lorenz tape recorder. Indeed, my early profound interest in sound and music was not just my parents’ imagination; as a matter of fact, it was impossible to miss this deep-rooted affection from the very beginning. I could learn songs very quickly and sing them with the correct intonation.

One of my earliest memories as a three-year-old boy is a funny scene with some young girlfriends of my mom who were trying to get me into singing a popular film music song, “one day in a year.” These cheery women were pretending to frighten me by lighting a match and saying “sing that song for us or we will set you on fire.” As the young women were cracking up with laughter, I knew they were being facetious and I, without hesitation, would start singing the song right away. When I sang for them, they would listen to me with languid eyes and a smile on their faces. I remember, they all would appear to be daydreaming and lost in this hopelessly romantic song.

In Istanbul, we had only one television channel and it broadcast only on certain days. There was, of course, the daily broadcast of the state radio and that was it. It is hard to imagine, but smartphones or the Internet were not around at that time. There was no chance of searching for a song as we pleased. When I started to play on the streets, my playmates in the neighborhood would be astonished by the fact that I could hum—accurately I imagine—the intricate musical themes from the American television shows like Star Trek or Fugitive. Just like the girlfriends of my mother, I remember, my friends would frequently ask me to sing various themes from the Mission Impossible.

Sometimes I imagine and wonder how I would have reacted if someone had whispered in my ear that many years later I was going to meet the flutist who played the very MI original soundtrack that we all heard on the television, and I was even going to work with him as a colleague at the same institution. Indeed, for many years, before his recent retirement, professor Sheridon Stokes taught flute here at UCLA where I have been working for the last twelve years.

Istanbul of my childhood may be found in the writings of the Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. When I read his novels and other writings, I know exactly which n’things store or what kind of candy (that really unhealthy one) he is talking about. What Mr. Pamuk does not mention, however, is that Istanbul has always been a musical city. In Istanbul of my childhood, one could hear music everywhere. When you took a jitney taxi to visit the relatives, you could hear the songs from the driver’s collection of recordings. We used to go to gazino-s, a type of daytime family restaurant-club, where you could hear a variety of music—such as pop, folk, tango, belly dancing, etc. A good portion of the domestic movies were melodramas with lots of songs performed by the protagonists. In Istanbul, you would constantly hop from one musical-scape to the next one.

My journalist uncle—my father’s older brother—maintained a Western-oriented “alla franca” culture in his household. I recall, he would play Jazz and other popular Western genres on his turntable. I remember, for instance, records by Frank Sinatra or Tom Jones. My family was more “alla turca.” Nonetheless, if nothing else, the public radio was always on and blasting music of a wide variety of genres, including—thanks to a few cultured DJs—some substantial repertoire from Latin America, all day long. I would listen to them as I was laying on our red oriental carpet in the living room and playing with the cars that I made from matchboxes. No Hot Wheels were available at that time. The only ones we could buy were those super low-quality nylon ones at the farmers market with a long thick wire you would attach for steering. So, I would slide my self-made cars on the carpet and make them dance to the rhythms of the music that was playing on the radio. I understood at a very early age that there was another world outside of my mine with many different languages, different melodies, and different rhythms. As the radio aired the tunes, I can remember, I traveled to all these mysterious worlds in my matchbox convertibles on our red carpet, moving differently to every piece of music.

My family had a record collection of 45s reflecting the contemporary alla turca favorites of the family. Besides, my father had a personal collection of old 78 rpm records and, to my mom’s dismay, he played them for pleasure after work every day. My parents would have conversations about music and my father would tell us anecdotes from various music history books and music journals that he used to read. It was funny how my mom and dad compared and rooted for their favored pieces. My father’s favorites were too old fashioned for my mother’s taste. When the only television station started broadcasting in the 1960s, much of the programming included pop music from Western Europe, especially Italy and France, as well as, of course, popular genres from Turkey. I think there was not a moment without music in our house. When there was an occasional silence in our house, I would fill the sonic void with humming various tunes. Sometimes, I would carefully arrange all sorts of metal tools according to their sizes from my father’s toolbox on our red carpet and I would improvise music on them with a big hammer. In my world, music was everywhere. Was I going to become a musician?

My father never missed an opportunity to remind us, i.e., his children, that music could only be a hobby, not a profession. He thought we should only invest in more serious careers, like medicine, law, or engineering. For his entire life, music remained his passion and never became a profession. He was an amateur singer. He was a decent musician and he loved the ancient Ottoman Turkish repertoire. He did not know how to read music very well, but he was educated in the traditional style of learning the vocal repertoire by heart. This meant that he was able to beat the ancient rhythmic cycles on his lap and memorize the poetry for hundreds of songs. Among others, he studied with one of the last representatives of the classical tradition of the Ottoman Empire: an Armenian, violinist Serkis. He would encourage and sometimes teach my older brother, my sister, and me singing some of the classical songs. I can imagine that in his mind my dad always carried an unresolved conflict and could not bring himself to practice his music as a profession. When I asked him why he did not become a professional musician, he told me that at the time he was advised by his elders that music could not be practiced for a living. Nonetheless, although quite a few people influenced me to become a musician, probably, my dad is the most important one.

When I was just eleven years old, one of my father’s friends alerted him of a newspaper announcement about the state conservatory entrance exams for children. My dad understood how I felt about music and empathized with my sentiment. After discussing with my mom, he asked me if I would be interested in studying music at the state conservatory. I cannot remember what I said, but I do remember I was exhilarated with joy. Soon, my mom registered me for the scheduled auditions. Even after being accepted at the state conservatory, however, studying for a more serious profession remained to be an important issue for my parents. My dad probably figured that my conservatory adventure might be a slippery slope and he had reservations that I might lose my perspective in getting a real job first. He was conflicted between his heart and mind on this issue, perhaps because he was carrying a feeling of disappointment that he did not pursue music more seriously when he was young. In the end, however, he did not object to my musical pursuit as supplemental. Consequently, I was asked to attend the conservatory as well as a regular high school.

Being enrolled in two schools was not easy. I had to wake up at 6:00 a.m. every weekday to go to the conservatory on the European side of the city, take a bus after a short lunch break to go to the high school, and come back home on the Asian side around 7:00 p.m. I remember vividly, the ferry rides with street vendors, fishermen selling their daily catch in rocking small boats, and, of course, a small slice of helva, or another sweet treat, would be the highlights of my trips every day. I bet, only a few people can say that they had to go across continents to attend school every day.

Around the age of fifteen, I declared to my family that I wanted to become a musician and continue my studies exclusively at the state conservatory. I will never forget the horror that one could read on the faces of my parents. They thought that, eventually, I would have to hold a real job in law or engineering and studying music would not provide the security I needed for my future. When they could not persuade me to reverse my decision, they discretely alerted my teachers at the conservatory. The very next day, following our conversation with my parents, I was summoned by one of my teachers at the conservatory in his office on the top floor. When I arrived, I saw there were two other professors—all facing me like judges in a courtroom. They interrogated me and, siding with my parents, questioned my plans. They asked me why I could not become first a professional in another “real” field and second in the field of music. One of my teachers Mutlu Torun told me that perhaps I could emulate him and his colleagues in the room as role models. He told me that although they were instructors at the conservatory, for example, he was first an architect, his colleague next to him was a lawyer and the other was an economist. In their view, professional musicians did not hold very high regard in society. Although I was known to be a shy person, I insisted that I was going to pursue my formal studies in music alone—and that was that.

Both my parents and my teachers at the conservatory have supported my decision and never brought up this subject ever again. I think it took an act of real courage for my parents to finally accept that I could pursue my passion at such an early age without a concrete plan B. Having the opportunity to study music for eleven years at a prime conservatory starting at the age of eleven was a tremendous luxury and I was aware of it. Perhaps, in his mind, my father was giving me the opportunity that he was never given when he was young.

The conservatory provided me a sense of belonging. I was at a place with lots of precious people who possessed the answers to my questions. They could understand me and nurture my needs. They helped me to learn a common language in which I could finally communicate my creative ideas. Despite being notorious rascal among my fifty or so cousins, I became the calmest of my generation in my family soon after I started at the conservatory. Finally, I found a place where my vast energy could be streamed. When I became a teenager, while many friends considered smoking as a passageway to manhood, I was never interested in cigarettes or any other drugs. I was not interested in nightlife or clubs either. I was no longer interested in anything other than music. Music was my only love. Being at the conservatory was a precious gift from my parents and I took this opportunity very seriously. I always worked very hard during the year and even in the summer. Every summer when my school friends were going to summer vacations, I preferred staying in Istanbul. I liked the vacant city and calm. It was like the whole city was evacuated for my enjoyment. I felt inspired, practiced hard, and wrote many pieces during that time.

In music, as you can imagine, my real devotion has always been for musical composition. I remember my very first day at the conservatory and listening to my first lecture in a solfege class. Our teacher mentioned that some of us were going to become instrumentalists, some of us singers, and some were going to become composers. I knew right there and then, at the age of eleven, I was going to be a composer. Gradually, I shifted my focus to the piano—not to become a concert pianist, but I was told that the piano was essential for mastering the art of composition. My piano teacher Faris Akarsu had a tremendous influence in setting up my early career goals at that time. Later, I studied composition privately with the legendary composer Cemal Resit Rey. He was a student of the French composer Gabriel Faure. Rey was a monstrous pianist and a remarkable conductor as well. When I worked with him he was quite old. Some days he could not remember what he ate earlier that morning, but his brilliant musical mind could recall some incredible details of anything related to music. He was a true master of musical composition.

My eleven years spent at this French-style conservatory in Istanbul would probably provide enough materials to fill up a book. So, I will have to shelve many exceptionally gifted personalities and other inspirational anecdotes from those years for another occasion.

When I was twenty-three, as I was finishing up my Master’s degree at Istanbul Technical University in Social Sciences Institute, I was offered a fellowship to study for a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. At first, I was not very enthusiastic. I already had a fulfilling life in the cosmopolitan Istanbul of the 1980s. Things were not like how my dad feared at the beginning. I was a professional and I had already a well-paid career in music—I was told that my salary was higher than the mayor of Istanbul. I knew that had I stayed in Istanbul, I, at least economically, would have been content. At the time, I was one of the founding members of a state traditional ensemble, I was the conductor of the conservatory orchestra, teaching at the university, composing music for films, and carrying out many other rewarding activities. Furthermore, my family was not thrilled about the idea of losing their young son to an uncertain adventure in the US. One of my professors at the Istanbul Technical University Sabahattin Ergin, who played a pivotal role by providing a reference, however, insisted that I might still come back to Istanbul once I gained a more global perspective in the US. In a way, I was briefly experiencing a similar dilemma that my father had when he was young. I had to choose between my passion, i.e., solving the secrets of the musical universe, or the security of a well-paying job and staying put where I was safe. After briefly contemplating on this issue, I have decided that I had to shatter the artistic ceiling that I have reached and go beyond. I accepted the offer from the University of Maryland and opened myself for much more learning and growing.

I recall, just before my move to the US, I was feeling tremendous anxiety and fear of the unknown. You have to remember that this was before the age of the Internet. I was getting my information about Baltimore and Maryland as much as I could from the available print books—this was also before the age of audio or e-books. I studied only at a British-English school and I did not have much of a chance to hear American English. Then, I started watching the American sitcom Golden Girls while listening to its original audio portion from a special broadcast on the radio. I vividly remember not getting any of the jokes. Not that I did not understand the English language but I was not getting the cultural nuances and famous personalities imbedded in the jokes. I started to panic…

I must confess; however, I was still looking forward to the gigantic food portions about which I have heard so much from people who have been to the US.

I took my first steps in the US at the JFK airport in New York and I was supposed to catch a flight to Baltimore in one of the last flights by Pan American Airlines. I was welcomed by Robert and Yusuf, some friends of the Turkish-American community in New York City. They came to assist me to catch my flight to Baltimore from Newark. My repeated attempts to order some coffee at the airport was transformed into a learning experience of how to pronounce coffee with the Brooklyn accent—”caw-fee.” Similarly, in Baltimore, I quickly learned that Baltimore was pronounced as “Bawl-ah-mur,” of course, with an almost invariably added “hon.” That same night in Baltimore, I was greeted by Dane at the BWI Airport. Dane and his roommate Svanibor were fellow Ph.D. students and both from Yugoslavia. They generously accommodated me in their small apartment near the UMBC campus.

Following a brief stay with my instant good friends Dane and Svanibor, I rented a room in Randallstown, a suburb of Baltimore, in a house owned by a terrific family from Hyderabad, India. At that time, I honestly knew nothing about surviving on my own—cooking food, washing dishes, or doing laundry. My sister has sent me an encouraging letter with recipes detailing how to fry eggs sunny side up and cook rice with butter. My American family sympathized with my complete inexperience. The father of the family would take me to the supermarkets and give me advice on what simple dishes I could prepare for lunch or dinner. I have learned how to make a tuna salad sandwich from him. How to wash dishes, how to make yogurt, doing laundry, etc., I have learned all from the lady of the house. Perhaps they considered me as just a tenant, but I have tons of wonderful memories with my adopted family. I will never forget, one hot and humid summer night, they introduced me to fireflies in the backyard—hundreds of them hiding in the bushes. It was indeed a spectacular scene of a light show. As they shook the bushes, suddenly, the fireflies all flew into the air; I had never seen so bright and so many of them twinkling in the pitch dark. It was just beautiful.

In my first year in America, several experiences—like studying an intense technical vocabulary related to the Indonesian and West African musical traditions with classmates from all over the world, watching Bollywood movies with my Indian-American family, attending some underground Avant-Garde concerts in downtown Baltimore, observing bluegrass players rehearse and eavesdropping into Arsenio Hall Show—really altered my perception of American culture. First time in my life, I was experiencing that other world—with different languages, melodies, and rhythms—as I imagined in my childhood while sliding my homemade car on our red carpet. Finally, this time for real, I was in the core of so many cultures and discovering the secrets of the universe.

I had an insatiable appetite for learning at the university. Not only I got to study aesthetics, composition, conducting, history, ethnomusicology, etc., but I also learned much through assisting professors who specialized in theater, dance, film, visual arts, Rock’n Roll history, and many other fields and topics. This was indeed academic heaven. Studying composition with Stuart Smith, ethnomusicology with Philip Schuyler, Jozef Pacholczyk, and Mantle Hood, and conducting with Jenine Trent were thrilling academic experiences. While at UMBC, Philip Schuyler was a great mentor and he has been a role model to emulate as a great scholar and an extraordinary human being. He, in effect, became my second father in America.

In a few years of my arrival in the US, I established my company Beken Productions Original Music and provided original soundtracks for Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and independent movies. This was the time when I received The International Golden Orange and Ankara International Film Festival Awards for the best soundtrack in a future film. I was unable to come to the award ceremony but I was delighted that my father was able to attend and accept the Golden Orange award on my behalf. After a few years, I wanted to take a break from the film industry and I have decided to go back to academia to finish up my Ph.D. During this time, I focused on writing instrumental concert music. In Seattle and New York, my professional activities fluctuated more towards performing and conducting. Composers like Yalcin Tura, Melodie Linhart, and Eric Flesher wrote original contemporary pieces for me to perform on the ud, a kind of fretless lute. Conducting the Siena Chamber Orchestra with a repertoire ranging from Haydn to Villa-Lobos was a tremendous experience.

Today, my eclectic background allows me to tell people that I have a multiple personality (dis)order in which I hold roles to play as a composer, performer, conductor, social scientist, and educator. In one of these personalities, as a composer, I had a collection of teachers from diverse stylistic backgrounds who provided with the tools of the art of musical composition starting at a very young age. Learning the traditional Turkish Art Music during my formative years and the field of ethnomusicology in my twenties provided me with an aesthetic rationale from which I still draw as a composer. Eventually, in addition to having to study the classical and modern composition techniques in Istanbul, now I was able to put under my belt another set of teachers many of whom belong to the American Experimentalist school, Avant-Garde, and musical postmodernism in the United States.

I imagine I still travel in my little toy car, just like I did when I was a child in Istanbul. I continue my activities as a professor, composer, performer, conductor, and scholar. I have been truly lucky to see what is out there, hear and feel the other rhythms. My compositions have been performed all over the world in such countries as the US, Germany, China, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Albania, Bulgaria, France, Italy, Portugal, Cuba, and Venezuela. The performance of my Triple Concerto featured the eminent violinist Shlomo Mintz. The world premiere of my Blue Monologue was performed at Carnegie Hall. “I Am A Corpse” for violin and orchestra was released with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Pacific Serenades commissioned my Memories of a Shoehorn in Los Angeles and Issa Sonus Chamber Music Ensemble featured several of my compositions in their concerts in New York City. My music is published by Isuku Verlag in Germany, Pacific Serenades in the USA and Amplitude Music in France and I am a member of ASCAP. I have written several articles for the Grove and other scholarly publications. I was the director of the UCLA World Music Center. Currently, I am a professor of world music theory and composition at UCLA.

What are you working on these days?
I have two recent projects coming out soon.

The first one is a recording of my ballet suite Dino and Ceren as part of an album by the Izmir State Symphony Orchestra with the world-renowned conductor Hakan Sensoy. Dino and Ceren was commissioned in 1985 by the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet. The world premiere performance took place next year in Istanbul. In the 1990s, the ballet was staged again by the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet. The world premiere of the expanded version of the Dino and Ceren has been performed in 2016 by the Izmir State Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Hakan Sensoy. The scenario of the ballet was based on an award-winning novel by a Turkish author. It depicts a love triangle between a landlord, his peasant fiancé Ceren and a handsome shepherd Dino. During the wedding of the landlord and Ceren, the fight between Dino and the landlord turns into a duel and ends with Dino’s death. The ballet is considered to be one of the early examples of Turkish symphonic music that utilizes traditional instruments. It employs classical symphonic colors with contemporary techniques and joins elements from folk and art musical traditions. It aims for an eclectic style that organically intertwines distinct musical ingredients. I composed all of the themes in this composition when I was a teenager. Thus, Dino and Ceren reflect my early compositional period.

My most recent album A Turk in America will be released in a few weeks. The album has been recorded by New York’s Issa Sonus Chamber Music Ensemble with virtuoso flutist Laura Falzon as the artistic director. This CD includes my recently published Memories of a Shoehorn and my other chamber pieces for various instrumental combinations. Memories of a Shoehorn is dedicated to my father who died just before I finished the piece in 2008. Naturally, it has a special place in my heart. The “shoehorn” in the title refers to a specific object that my father carried with him when he went to musical gatherings at other peoples’ homes in Istanbul in the 1940s and 1950s. Since the guests would have had to take their shoes off, he always carried this shoehorn with him. The liner notes of the album are written by eminent musicologist Benjamin Court and the cover art is designed by a fabulous German-American artist Olivia Dong.

In these days, I have been working on another album of two of my completed orchestral pieces, namely Simple Symphony and Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. I am thrilled that a world-renowned violinist and a virtuoso conductor have agreed to be a part of this project. A symphony orchestra in Europe has also expressed their commitment to the performance and recording of these pieces. We have been looking for additional funding for this very exciting project. We are open to solicitation by recording companies, producers, and donors.

I have been working on the soundtrack for A Winter in LA, an independent feature fiction movie directed by Emre Korkmaz, a Los Angeles based filmmaker. We will go into the recording studio next week.

I have been commissioned to write a special piece to honor a Grammy Award-winning musician whose name I may not reveal at this time—top secret. This composition will be a Double Concerto and it will be performed during the 2019-2020 season here in Los Angeles.

There are two other large-scale compositions in preliminary stages. I also hope to finish an album of collected samples of my film music. I have been working on a film project with my wife Ela Elisabeth on three musical portraits and spirituality in Germany. Elisabeth and I have also been putting the finishing touches for establishing our company of film and music production in Los Angeles.

Can you tell us a little about your family?
I am married to Ela Elisabeth Beken and we have two wonderful children—one 7-year-old boy and one 5-year-old girl. I honestly feel very lucky to have found Ela in my life. It is not possible to express what she means to me in words. We communicate our shared emotions and thoughts through film, music, and other artistic conduits. She has been a tremendous source of inspiration in all aspects of my life and work. She is not only the woman of my life, a wonderful wife, and mother to our children, but she is also an extraordinary artist. She is a filmmaker, author, and actress. She has done some work in her native Germany. Now, she continues her work here in Los Angeles. Recently, we collaborated professionally in her award-winning documentary film A Piece of Germany. We have several up-coming collaborative projects soon.

Has it been a smooth road?
I must confess, compared to some of the immigrant stories we hear in the media, I had it easy. I feel especially lucky to live in the city of angels.

We’d love to hear more about your work.
I take commissions for writing original compositions for instrumental concert music, incidental music, and soundtrack for movies.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
© by Elisabeth Beken for all the Münir N, Beken photographs.

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