For Can Bilir, composition is a perpetual process. “I’m always contemplating unique sounds in my head, even when I’m walking on the street. I’m constantly looking for new methods and expressions to integrate into my music.”
Bilir grew up in a music-oriented family. His earliest musical inspirations, he notes, were his grandfather’s arrangements and music sheets. His grandfather was a professional trumpet player and a conductor in the military. Bilir’s brother played the classical guitar, and Bilir joined the Hacettepe University Ankara State Conservatory as a part-time classical guitar student in 2001. Then, he attended the Bilkent University Music Preparatory High School in Ankara, Turkey. Following bachelor and master degrees from Bilkent, he enrolled in Cornell’s Department of Music, where he is in his third year of his Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in composition.
Composing: Past, Present, and Back Again
He began composing music immediately after learning to play guitar. Initially, he would imagine brief compositions in his mind and practice them on a guitar he occasionally borrowed from his brother. Soon, he learned music notations and started writing his own pieces. Even now, Bilir says that he utilizes several of the processes he first applied when he began playing. “My typical process is to imagine a composition, deliberate over it, implement it on the instrument, and then articulate it on paper. Of course, while the process remains similar, I’ve learned to incorporate many complex techniques along the way.”
Bilir also believes that the context for a composition is almost as important as the piece itself. He even takes into account the nature of the specific instrument on which the composition will be performed. For example, when he realized that the internal structure of the piano in Barnes Hall was slightly different from the one on which practice is conducted in the music department, he altered his composition to complement the Barnes Hall piano for a recent performance.
Although Bilir has produced roughly 50 pieces to date at Cornell, he finds himself constantly revisiting past compositions. “My ideas on my compositions are always changing. In the past, my work tended to be more close-ended, but I’ve become increasingly open to incorporating technology and empiric techniques in my work.” He contends that it would be wrong to say his earlier pieces are not representative of his musical personality. They’re just a different version of who he is as a musician today.
He has made, however, a substantial change in his method of composition. In the past, he would produce works at a relatively quicker rate, relying on instinct and his practice. Now, he says that he has learned to deliberate and analyze his pieces more, often formulating several drafts and self-analyses before settling on a final version. Furthermore, the nature of his contemporary work often varies; while some pieces are rigid in structure and demand specific qualities of the musician, some are far more abstract and require the performer’s interpretive assessment.
Apparition of Ophelia, Fusing Music and Poetry
Bilir’s latest composition, Apparition of Ophelia, is based on “Doris at the River,” a poem from the collection Far District by Ishion Hutchinson, English. The subject of the poem, Hamlet’s Ophelia, is never mentioned directly; this juxtaposition of absence with a palpable presence fascinated Bilir when he first read the poem. “I’ve recently become engrossed with Jacques Derrida and his concept of the specter, and I saw this specter clearly expressed in professor Hutchinson’s poem. The poem appealed to me as an answer of a sort; it drew me in, and I began to visualize a composition around it. Eventually, the clash between the music and the text created the artwork.”
He also drew inspiration from Luca Marenzio, an Italian composer during the late Renaissance, who popularized the madrigal, a musical form that heavily utilizes secular vocal music such as part-songs in its composition. East Asian culture and mysticism influenced him as well. This wide assortment of influences meant that the piece took substantial time to formulate in Bilir’s mind.
Bilir says the idea behind this fusion of music and poetry is that he wanted to see different levels of meaning in other art forms. He was initially hesitant in reaching out to Hutchinson, wondering whether their respective interpretations of the poem would differ. Eventually, he contacted him and was advised to follow his own instinctual understanding of the text. These views were echoed by his mentors, Xak Bjerken and former artist-in-residence Rachel Calloway, Music.
Fascinating Soundscapes: From Emergency Blankets to Animal Sounds
“The paradox for me is that the freedom musicians crave has turned into a kind of un-freedom due to the constant drive to create something new.”
Recently, Bilir has also collaborated with Ariana Kim, Music, in utilizing circular moves from tai-chi techniques to create sounds through emergency blankets such as those distributed in refugee camps. “The key idea,” Bilir says, “is to harness the air to create sounds. The air itself is the medium.” The emergency blankets are meant to symbolize the refugee crisis the world currently finds itself embroiled in—with Bilir’s native Turkey a central player in the issue.
As a teaching assistant in the electro-acoustic class of Kevin Ernste, Music, he learned and applied an increasingly large volume of electronic elements in his compositions. Bilir prefers not to distinguish electronic elements from more conventional composition aspects in his music. He likes to think of a composition as a synthesized, coherent piece. During the summer of 2017, Bilir plans to participate in the Manifest Festival in Paris, held by IRCAM, a French electro-acoustic music institute.
Bilir’s views on electronic elements extend to the larger existential debate in music, regarding atonality or the lack of a clear tonal center. “Although I will not argue against the historical distinction between atonality and tonality or noise and tone, I don’t believe there is a real difference between them. Any composition, in my opinion, usually contains both elements. Tension and release principles, the coexistence of motion, and stability are constantly at work in a piece.”
He’s glad the discourse on music is far more open than it was in the era when music was taught in a more orthodox manner. “But we still have a long way to go, and the paradox for me is that the freedom musicians crave has turned into a kind of un-freedom due to the constant drive to create something new.”
A new focus for Bilir is to apply mathematical and empiric elements to his composition structures. “I never had a formal math education because I was in music schools since the middle school, but I’ve come to realize the utility that math and science can have in composition.” He frequently visits Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, searching for animal sounds which he can integrate into his compositions. Many animal sounds, he says, have a close resemblance to human speech, and he is seeking ways to juxtapose human and animal voices in his music. “I don’t want to keep animal sounds as peripheral elements in my compositions; they are the subject itself.”