‘Topical themes inevitably seep into my compositions’ – Meriç Artaç artist in residence for two seasons of Dag in de Branding

Meriç Artaç (c) Nine IJff

Born in 1990 in Istanbul, Meriç Artaç rapidly made a name for herself in the Netherlands, after graduating from Rotterdam Conservatoire in 2015. She realized topical operas such as Zonderland, Madam Koo and Vrouwenstemmen, leads her own ensemble AKOM and teaches at Amsterdam Conservatory. For the coming two seasons she will be artist in residence of Festival Dag in de Branding.

At the tender age of 5 you entered Istanbul Conservatoire to study the piano. How was this possible?

I was indeed the youngest student to be accepted to the piano class. This was on a suggestion from my teacher at kindergarten, who was a musician herself. I had trouble reading and writing and she noticed I had a really good ear for music, so she advised my parents to send me to a music school.

This was a very fortunate advice. Music has been in my life for as long as I can remember. My father is a movie/theatre director, my mother is a script/theatre writer, so I was immersed in the arts from day one. However, I only studied at the conservatoire on a part time basis. During the day I went to primary school, and later the Lycée Saint-Michel, in the evenings I would go to the conservatory.

At 18 you obtained a degree from the conservatory alongside a French baccalauréat from the Lycée Saint-Michel. So how come you ended up in Rotterdam, not in France?

To be honest, I also applied for conservatories in France. I was accepted there, too, but the moment I entered Codarts in Rotterdam it was love at first sight. I found the Netherlands in general really free and sensed straightaway I would be able to develop my talents as an artist here. In Istanbul the teaching method was completely different, quite disciplined and very conservative. – Debussy was considered the most contemporary composer.

At Codarts I felt that everything was open. I had to take responsibility for my own choices, whereas in Istanbul everything had been planned and formed for me. In Rotterdam I found a space in which I could shape my own study and my own future. I chose Peter-Jan Wagemans to be my teacher, for I wanted to refine my music/theatre language. Peter-Jan really helped me understand what I was passionate about. He also made me aware of how to connect my own background with what I was looking to achieve within my style.

You often describe your compositions as ‘musical representations of characters and stories’. How are we to understand this?

From a very young age I was interested in stories of people and humans in general. I consider myself an observer, and like to exaggerate things that are overlooked but strike me as worthwhile. I always draw my characters before I start composing. They are inspired by people I see in the street, personalities I admire, details that make someone special… Mostly I focus on one specific aspect of a character, a dominant mood which I then represent in my composition.

I am interested in situations or persons that are overlooked in everyday life. Thus, in Madam Koo, the whole play is set inside Madam Koo and her neighbour Mr. Oak’s house. We see her habits and obsessions, such as counting her pearls, organizing her house and all those small details that make Madam KOO who she is. Or take my opera Kayra, in which we see Kayra and her mother. Kayra is standing next to her mother, dying in the bathtub. This is not a big story line but a highly personal and intimate moment, and therefore all the more poignant to me.

You often address topical themes like discrimination, refugees, suspicion and fear in unfree societies. Do you see it as your task to relate to problematic themes in society?

 No, I don’t see that as my task. I am a very expressive person, which inevitably seeps into my compositions. I am inspired by life in general, so my characters and my music relate to what’s going on around me. Those subjects are so dominant in my life, people talk about them, I see and read about them on television, the internet, the newspapers etcetera. I react to these themes immediately, so naturally they become the subject of my operas.

You lead the AKOM Ensemble. In how far does it differ from other ensembles?  

AKOM Ensemble was formed by Jan Kuhr who was my classmate during our studies, I took over the artistic direction in 2015. We thought there was a lack of ensembles willing to play work by young composers, especially in Rotterdam. So, basically we formed it for our own interest. AKOM bridges the gap between graduating/graduated students and well-known professionals. The musicians are immensely dedicated and the ensemble gradually became more successful. Over the years we have become a strong team, with a passion to work together.

On 12 October AKOM will perform ‘Rudan’s Coffee Break’, that was premiered earlier this year in the Pera Museum, Istanbul. What can we expect?

Rudan’s Coffee Break was commissioned by the Pera Museum for their Kütahya Tiles and Ceramics Collection Exhibition Coffee Break. I was inspired by the ritual of coffee making. – Though not by just anyone, but by a man whose mind is highly chaotic and disturbed. Rudan is a business man who has been working hard all his life, running away from his personal dilemmas. He is a workaholic. The moment he stops and decides to make himself a coffee, all these suppressed thoughts and emotions spring up. We are stuck in his head while he’s making his coffee, the music whirls around him like a huge cloud of emotions.

The piece was premiered in May, but in The Hague I will present a re-arrangement/rework. Rudan’s Coffee Break was originally set for a trio of strings and electronics, the new version is for flute, clarinet,piano, violin, cello and electronics. Rudan is a character who is still alive and who is spending time at his place, but a couple of months have passed, also in his universe. I want to investigate the feeling of time passing and how this affects and transforms Rudan. 

You are artist in residence with Dag in de Branding for two years. What are your plans and how do you relate to the festival?

I have already programmed the upcoming 4 editions, we are still looking into the festival of 2020/21. Programming music for a whole day festival has helped me to understand how to create a bigger picture. It’s been interesting to think how to reach the audience and consider how I could connect different themes with my own pieces.

In each edition I will work on an aspect I want to develop further, such as light, space, scenery, and costume. I will be working with different coaches and artists to learn from each other and develop my pieces. For the December edition I have scheduled another run of Madam Koo.

For the March issue I’m working on a composition about multiple disorder, presenting my 3-headed figure Zizos. This character is sarcastic and self-destructive, and I want to investigate its inner psychological talks. I’m thinking of combining three singers with wind ensemble and surround electronics, but the work is still in progress.

Over the coming two years I want to sharpen my language in operatic installation, focusing on mentally disturbed characters. However, the mental disorder is not a concern in itself, but merely functions to explain the dominant mood of the character in hand. I am grateful for getting the chance to dig further into my own concerns. I hope to write seven new, short pieces. The last one will be premiered in the 8th edition.

For my final edition of Dag in de Branding I will create a big music & theatre installation. This will bring all the characters together in what I call the “character house”. I really look forward to presenting the outcome of my learning process in 2021!

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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