Istanbul-born, Boston-based composer Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol has resided in the United States for decades, performing and teaching all over Boston. However, he has never been made to feel like an outsider to the extent that he has recently.
“I remember being in a cafe in Belmont with my wife and my daughter,” he said, recalling then-candidate Donald Trump’s December 2015 call for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country. “Can you imagine, there were 10 screens in there, and nine of them it was Trump, saying what he’s saying. . . . It’s bizarre because I was here during 9/11, and even then I didn’t have that kind of feeling.”
Spurred on by his frustration with growing hostility toward Muslims in the country and stereotyping of Muslims in the public consciousness, Sanlıkol set to work on “DEVRAN,” a choral piece that intertwines Renaissance polyphony and Islamic mysticism. The new work is the centerpiece of two free concerts made possible by a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts’s Creative City program, with the first on Nov. 9 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
In his native Turkey, Sanlıkol was surrounded by diverse Islamic religious traditions and practices. In contrast, he said, the most visible images of Islam in the age of social media are drastically skewed toward the conservative. “It’s either ladies that are covered or men on prayer rugs,” he said. “Even if the content of the article is talking about something else, those are the images you keep getting.”
Raised as a secular Muslim, he now identifies as someone who “tries to follow a certain kind of Sufi brotherhood,” though he has not been formally initiated. “I do follow more and less a secular life, but I have this crazy craving towards these different types of sacred music. Not just the kind that I’m creating, but these other ones that I perform.” he said.
In his music and his life, Sanlıkol strives against being forced into boxes or being typecast. “The Renaissance mean-tone temperament and classical Turkish music are almost identical. Lots of people think because Middle Eastern music has these quarter-tone qualities, they think ‘that’s Oriental music,’ ” he said emphatically, gesturing as he spoke. “But actually, quarter tones are blue notes in Turkish music.”
The two texts in “DEVRAN” are drawn from Sufi devotional songs transcribed in a 17th-century collection. “O soul, why do you care for this world?/ Don’t think that this mortal wealth will remain with you,” it begins. “In the Turkish language, [“DEVRAN”] can refer to the cycle of life, life itself, and basically it has this immediate connection to Sufism, Islamic mysticism and the dervishes,” Sanlıkol said. “It really refers to that cyclical nature of coming and going.” He explained that the piece’s repeated patterns are similar to those that dervishes would use in their ritual whirling meditations.
“My first impression was [that it] sounds like Mehmet,” New England Conservatory faculty member Robert Labaree said via telephone. “My second impression was that it sounds like pretty much what DÜNYA would do.” The musician’s collective DÜNYA, which Sanlıkol and Labaree cofounded, performs music from across the former Ottoman Empire, from Austria to Morocco. The two also co-direct the NEC Intercultural Institute, a presenter of the Music and Monotheism symposium that Thursday’s concert concludes.
“He wanted to create ‘DEVRAN’ as a kind of polemic, to show another kind of Islam, one that is interested and outgoing and is utterly compatible with Renaissance harmony,” Labaree said.
This sort of musical and cultural syncretism is typical of Sanlıkol’s oeuvre. The composer’s musical background is tripartite, including Western art music, traditional Middle Eastern music, and jazz. His other recent projects include albums with jazz orchestra Whatsnext? and a coffeehouse opera, “Othello in the Seraglio: The Tragedy of Sümbül the Black Eunuch,” which weaves original music with period material to transplant the story of Othello to 17th-century Constantinople.
During a talk before a recent performance of “Othello,” Sanlıkol had what he described as his worst experience related to being a Muslim musician. One person “started roasting me with questions that were just so harsh, really attacking,” he said. He had described a recent radio program where the host asked a Muslim if sharia law was compatible with the United States Constitution. “Do we ask if Jewish law or Christian law is compatible — the whole point is the separation of church and state. Why do we need to bring it up with Islam? This is what I said. And in response this person was up in . . . arms. She attacked me, ‘You said that you’re a secular person but you also said that you pray’ — I wasn’t. I was talking about Sufi things. But they had no idea. It went on for, like 15 minutes.”
DEVRAN: MUSIC OF ISLAM, TURKEY, AND RENAISSANCE EUROPE
Featuring DÜNYA and the New England Conservatory Chamber Singers. At Jordan Hall, Nov. 9. Free. Repeats Nov. 12 at First Church of Roxbury.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.