By Juliana Russell
Following the release of her immense project and compositional masterpiece “Bloodbenders”, Ipek Gorgun took some time from her busy schedule as a Ph.D student to speak with Juliana Russell from Black on the Canvas, over Skype from Istanbul to California, where we talked about improvisation, starting small, and the importance of introspection and unyielding perseverance.
How did you get started in music?
Ipek: When I was a teenager, I was so enthusiastic about playing the electric guitar. But since I was living with my family, they were controlling the resources a little bit. (laughs) They encouraged me to begin with the classical guitar. I began trying to learn the classic guitar, and also got into classical music, classical Western music. After that, at some point, I got stuck. The classic guitar demands so much from you, in terms of not only music theory, but exercising, playing, discipline… You know, as a teenager, I wasn’t into that a lot. (laughs) So I was like, I want to do something else. By that time I was listening to a lot of punk rock and everything, so I got more into that feeling, that approach to the instrument. So I was like, okay, let me try… The drums! So I began teaching myself how to play the drums. And after that, I joined this band called 4 Handle 1 Scandal, which lasted for about a year. Their repertoire was basically made of covers of both new school and old school punk and hardcore. One day we were just improvising in the studio, and I grabbed the bass guitar. I was like okay I just want to try it out. And then… That was the time I fell in love with the bass guitar. And then I joined this band called Bedroomdrunk. I performed for 12 years, both as a singer and a bass player, and I wrote songs with them. Yeah, so Bedroomdrunk was a really influential period for my songwriting. But when I got into Ph.D studies in Istanbul, ITU-MIAM (Istanbul Technical University-Center for Advanced Studies in Music), I started to get more into developing and exploring the composition side of the story, instead of just avant-garde and experimental rock. I also started to get more into like systematic… (laughs) You know how it goes with composition.
Ipek: Then I started focusing more on composing, exploring the spectrum, trying to understand sounds in a more profound way. I did a lot of noise rock before, improvisation, in a free-style sense.
Where do you generally draw inspiration from?
Ipek: Well, actually it’s everything I see, everything I smell, hear, touch, everything I dream about. Everything that I interact with has left its impression on me. It’s not only that I draw stories or ideas from my relationships with people, or through some concepts that I have learned. It’s always on a more daily basis. Because of that, in regard to the compositional process and inspiration, I’m not inspired by some divine source. (laughs) It can be pretty daily, anything that I have seen in the news, anything I see on the street can become a theme or an idea for a new piece or track.
So what is your compositional process like? How do you get started on writing a new piece?
Ipek: Well there are a lot of ways that I do it. Sometimes I just begin with an idea. I never try to start with something big, like this big plan, this whole road map or something, where I say like this is going to be the beginning, this is going to be the ending, this is going to be the middle part, and these are going to be the passages. I try not to do that, because every time I have an idea on my mind, I realize that my interaction with the material always surprises me. And the material responds to me in a different way. So I try not to take that road, actually.
I try to start with just tiny little ideas, or a scene that I have in mind. I try not to connect that initially with the sonic material, because the way I create the sonic material is 90% improvised. I usually improvise with instruments or I make field recordings, or I just rip some recordings off from radio or television. I also write a patch, see how it goes, how it connects with all the analog equipment that I have. I like starting a little bit vague in the beginning. So it’s always a little bit chaotic for me.
As the improvisation goes on, I pick small particles out, building something upon them, and then I add more stuff, trying to see how each type of material I add affects the structure… Like how do they communicate with each other? That just makes me understand my own compositional process too. It helps me refresh myself, instead of going through a comfort zone, or a safe formula. By contacting the material, I start to imagine something. Like okay, this material is saying this to the other one, and how are they going to talk to each other as the piece goes on? And how are they evolving over time?
So I begin thinking of the bigger scales. I work with milliseconds in the beginning, then I switch to seconds, more seconds, then to minutes. Then I begin understanding how larger structures begin communicating with each other. And at the end, I think about the whole arrangement of the structure. Is there something not fitting in that particular environment? So I zoom in, zoom out, and try to find a way to fit everything in place. But it’s a lot of trial and error.
What programs and equipment do you use?
Ipek: Nowadays I’m using my acoustic guitar. I also have two bass guitars, one is fretless, and the other one is the usual precision bass guitar. I also have this little Eastwood electric guitar. I process them through pedals, like ring modulator, distortion, fuzz, reverberation, phaser, flanger… I usually prefer using Max MSP and Ableton, trying to combine the analog equipment with the digital, and then I just clash them all together and see what happens! (laughs) Also, every time I start to do something with the modular synthesizer, it always finds a way to surprise me a little. Yeah, that’s my set up for now!
Did you face any challenges while creating “Bloodbenders”, technical or creative?
Ipek: Oh. (laughs) That’s the question for that piece! That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the most challenging thing, actually. I had never been through such a process until Bloodbenders. I worked on that one, just to find the material, to create a small database specific for that piece, for two months or something. I kept creating stuff, chopping them into grains, or synthesizing them, going back to the basics, and mashing them up with each other… That was a part of my academic work at the Ph.D studies. I was supposed to deliver it to my professor for a class, which added the deadline factor. I spent five months on composing it, and I think I worked like 13 or 14 hours each day, minimum, for that piece. There were times I re-wrote everything, then I’d throw it away, then I’d start re-writing again. It was a very intense, almost 7-month study for me. I remember myself avoiding a lot of things while doing that piece. (laughs)
At some point, well I ended up being really happy about it. It just signifies a period of hard work, and trying to explore the world of sounds. Also I usually work in a messy way, so I ended up with 72 or 74 channels. I mean for a 4- or 5-second grain, a micro-sonic structure, I used at least 5 or 6 channels for the raw material, processed material, and filtered versions with just tiny grains. It was all the same material, just in different forms. Sometimes I just bounced them together to create a single channel, sometimes I would separate them, listen to them over and over again, see if they fit… A lot of… Lot of sad nights, lost Friday nights. (laughs) I can tell that for sure. But yeah I learned a lot through that piece.
So along the same vein, how do you generally deal with challenges and set-backs, when things don’t go quite how you want them to go?
Ipek: You mean like in life, in academics, in composition?
I guess I was just talking about music (laughs) but yeah, anything!
Ipek: Anything! Well, it’s a typical human reaction, I usually get frustrated at first. (laughs) Then I think about like, why? Some of us love that question—I am one of those. I just keep trying to find some answers. When I don’t like the answers, I just keep going back to the question. And sometimes I just let it go, or think that I need to learn from this experience. It depends on the context actually.
So what are some of your future plans? What are you working on now? I guess you’re working on your Ph.D!! (laughs)
Ipek: Oh yeah, absolutely. Actually, I’m about to enter my Ph.D qualification exams. So my focus is pretty much on the Ph.D right now. Once I get done, I will go back to composing… Reading books… You know, doing normal stuff that regular people who are not getting Ph.D’s do! (laughs) Hopefully I will do so many more concerts.
Cool, awesome! Do you have any final thoughts, parting comments?
Ipek: Oh, thank you! I’m so happy to go through this interview with you, Juliana!
Yeah, thank you so much!!