Cenk Ergun : composer and improviser

Cenk Ergün (b.1978, Turkey) is a composer and improviser based in New York. His chamber music has been performed by artists such as So Percussion, The JACK Quartet, Alarm Will Sound, Wet Ink, Yarn/Wire, Ensemble Laboratorium, and Joan Jeanrenaud. He creates electronic music recordings and live performances in collaboration with choreographers, film makers, and other musicians such as Alvin Curran, Jason Treuting, and Samita Sinha.

Venues that have featured Ergün’s music include New York’s Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, 92Y, Le Poisson Rouge, The Roulette, The Stone; Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw, Zurich’s Tonhalle, Istanbul’s Babylon, and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie.

Ergün’s music has been heard at the NY Phil Biennial, Lincoln Center Festival, Lucerne Festival, Gaudeamus Music Week, MATA Festival, Bang on a Can Marathon, WNYC New Sounds Live, Peak Performances at Montclair University, Stanford Lively Arts, and the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.

His first solo composition record, Nana, was released in 2014 on Carrier Records. Other releases include The Art of the Fluke with Alvin Curran and So Percussion’s Cage 100: Bootleg Series.

Ergün’s music has been described as “intense”, “haunting”, “ominously throbbing” (NY Times); “psychedelically meditative” (New Music Box); and as showing “conceptual rigor” (The Wire).


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

I must have been about four, lying in my parents’ bed alone, perhaps waking up from a nap, and I heard a singular, quiet ping, like that of two small glass bottles hitting each other. I couldn’t figure out what caused the sound. And I think I heard it on at least one other occasion. Did that sound really happen, did anyone else hear it? Was I fully awake? I don’t know. Whether it was real or imaginary, I still have a strong memory of it. In music, single, quiet sounds surrounded by long stretches of silence still fascinate me.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?

Morton Feldman, John Cage, La Monte Young have been formative not only musically but conceptually. Later, studying with and hearing the music of Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Curran, and Fred Frith had a major impact on me. My taste doesn’t really change but seems to expand over time as I discover works of music and in any form of art, old and new. When I was younger I didn’t really get Haydn for example, but now I love him. These days I am inspired by the music of Jason Treuting, Christopher Otto, and Eliane Radigue. Performers influence and inform my work just as much. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud has been an inspiration to me since the age of 15, as have recent collaborations with So Percussion, JACK Quartet, cellist Mariel Roberts, and singer Samita Sinha.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

For me, form is mostly a question for works under twenty minutes. Concert works in this duration range seem to evoke strong expectations in us with regards to pacing, form, structure, and content. Whereas works lasting an hour or more can invite the listener into an alternative listening experience, where form becomes a space to be in, rather than a shape that unfolds in time. I only ever want to do a single thing with each piece, and I find that’s easier to do with long pieces, whereas shorter pieces require more things, or variation.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?

Whether electronic or acoustic, collaboration is an essential part of my work. Most of my electronic music comes out of the experience of playing with others, developed together through the process of improvisation. My acoustic compositions are almost always created for a group or performer I already know and admire. Throughout the process of developing the work I like get to know each performer’s playing closely, try out musical material together and discuss possibilities. This might be the part of the creative process I enjoy the most.

Though I don’t work in a regular schedule, once I commit to writing a piece, I become fully immersed in it, continually thinking, listening, and imagining, and taking notes on any surface I can find. I prefer to work slowly, taking many months, and in some cases, several years to complete each work. I think of the experience as living with the piece, as well as developing a relationship with the performers through collaboration.

Until 2004, I composed with pencil and paper, sitting at a piano, and produced hand-written scores. Since then, the tools I use to compose with have included notation software, keyboards, synths, custom design software instruments, and recording/editing software. I find that each work requires a specific and new way of working with a variety of tools. For some pieces, all I need is pencil and paper, for others, a combination of conventional instruments as well as audio software and hardware is necessary. My string quartet, Sonare, is a good example of a piece which required me to develop a specific process of working. Most of the rhythmic patterns in the piece were generated using Max, a programming language. Later, using notation software, I was able to create countless combinations of these patterns. The textures were so dense that I could only decide if they would work by hearing them on actual instruments. JACK Quartet recorded this material in multiple rehearsals within the span of a year. Using these recordings, I was able to select the combinations and variations that worked best, and composed by splicing and sequencing hundreds of tiny audio files in a digital editing software. I created the final score by transcribing the digital audio to notation software. Sonare wouldn’t have been possible without the use of this technology and the collaborative input of JACK.

Please describe a recent work.

Written in 2014-2015, Celare, also for string quartet, is Sonare’s counterpart. The two opposing types of material employed in these pieces were on my mind in that period. At first, I thought both belonged in the same piece but later decided to separate them, giving each its own space. Celare is mostly sparse, slow, and quiet, whereas Sonare is dense, fast, and loud. Sonare employs quarter tone tuning within a very limited frequency range, whereas Celare employs Just Intonation, using the entire frequency range of the quartet. Come to think of it, the opening of Celare reminds me of that sound memory I recalled in answer to your first question!

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