One of the delights of Istanbul is İstiklal Avenue, which leads through to the Galata district consumed mostly by music shops of every persuasion, literally a mecca for musicians! It comes with a deep and rich history, going back to the earliest bridge built to cross the Golden Horn in the 14th century with fortifications that lasted up to the 19th century.
Now you can walk down through these glorious shops towards the new bridge, and if you’re game, perhaps even strike up a conversation with many of the learned shop owners, some of who helped me on my quest for markams and their approximate guitar tunings… which eventually led me to purchase the bağlama, or saz you can see here in this photo.
I was originally interested in an oud, but given it has no frets and I’ve not a lot of time to spend finessing my fingering over a fretless instrument, and with the saz being such a popular instrument in both the Arabesque and Fasil styles, I was hooked.
Curiously, İstiklal Avenue morphs out of Taksim Square. Taksim, or Taqsim is the name given to a style of melodic improvisation that generally leads Arabic and Turkish music! Got to love that!
Getting to know you
Firstly, I’ve just got to say, I am totally and utterly smitten with the music of Turkey… from it’s Byzantine origins to it’s deeply ornamental “art” music, from the profoundly moving choral work of the Sufi composer Dede Efendi to the gorgeous lyricism of the much loved and missed singer, Zeki Muren. I was entirely overcome and moved at one point to tears during my brief listening trip to Istanbul, which, I must add, began during my first move to Melbourne in 1992 when I’d met the Kanun player, Ali Ozsoy and his sprightly, lovable daughter, Nilufer.
I’d not heard a Kuhnen before nor had I’d had any experience of traditional Turkish music, but I was transfixed and from there began a journey exploring the traditional music of various cultures, from Sarawak to Korea, China to Mongolia and of course more recently, Turkey.
Getting to know the music of Turkey is a long but joyful journey which, I hope, will become far more enlightening through the process of learning the saz.
Tune me please
And so it came to pass that I would have to learn to tune my saz… Not surprisingly it didn’t hold its tuning at all! So much so, I had no idea where to start. I started by sending an email to the lutherier. All the documents I’d read pointed to various tuning options, including the rather open ended “tune to the vocal range of the singer”!
As I’d purchased a chromatic tuner I was keen to get this puppy sounding as sweet as it did when I’d played it in Istanbul. The other thing I wanted to ensure was that it would tune to concert pitch as I don’t intend to play it in isolation, and given I’ve got a reasonably strong 4 octave range on my voice, I wanted both a tuning that would be acceptable for Turkish tunes and my own compositions.
The saz is strung in three sets of 7 strings called courses, commonly referred to as X, Y and X. The closest tuning I’ve found to that I’d walked out of the shop with is A on the X, G on the Y and D on the X. It seems to work, but does sound some what odd, particularly the G. I think it may have something to do with the wooden tuning pegs. I can’t seem to get an entirely accurate tuning on at least 2 of the 7 strings. But at least I can start work on how these intervals are managed across the neck and and get some scales and fingering technique down.
After a few hours with A-G-D and twists and grunts across the tuning pegs I’ve managed to get the saz in tune and the tunes are starting to make themselves present. My fingers are gradually gaining confidence and I’m already working on a couple of new pieces. I want to hear the saz with a chamber group, or as part of a violin and cello trio… But this is how it always happens with me. As soon as I start work on a new instrument, no sooner have I got it under my fingers than I’m writing with it already, often resulting in poor technique, but a constant flow of ideas.