Fazıl Say’s Mesopotamia Symphony is beyond words

Music is no doubt a universal language and a very powerful at that.

It has the potential to evoke a myriad emotions…comfort, solace, jubilance, bliss, joy, sorrow, misery, distress, anguish, grief, heartache and the feelings it stirs can go on and on…but above all it has the power to soothe and feed the soul.

There are of course composers one feels closer to, perhaps because of the emotional impact they convey with their music, perhaps because their themes strike closer to heart, perhaps due to the historical context, perhaps due to choice of instruments, the familiarity of the melodies, perhaps because of the resemblance to one’s native sounds. In any event, emotions are a very sacred area and they have staying power…

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Fazil Say and I share the same native land, and are the same age, hence our lives have pretty much been shaped by the same “historical events” of the past 45 years. Presumably because of these afiliations I very much feel akin to his music and am in awe with his his musical genius.

He is a rare talent who wrote his first piece – a piano sonata – in 1984, at the age of fourteen, when he was a student at the Conservatory of his home town Ankara.

The French newpaper Le Figaro has quoted of him as “He is not only a brilliant pianist, but will without doubt also become one of the great artists of the 21st century”.

This past December (2014) I was fortunate to watch him live as he performed his “Mesopotamia symphony”, his second symphony to date, to a breathless audience in Istanbul.

Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning ‘between two rivers’) was an ancient region in the eastern Mediterranean corresponding mostly to today’s Iraq, as well as parts of modern-day Iran, Syria, and Turkey. The ‘two rivers’ referred to are the Tigris and the Euphrates. The area was a collection of varied cultures, producing multiple empires. In fact this land is often referred to as “the cradle of civilisation” due to many inventions. The two most prominent being “city entity” which developed with prosperity and “writing” which apparently evolved due to trade.

Intellectual pursuits were highly valued across the region, and schools were apparently as numerous as temples. Many more “discoveries” credited to “Mesopotamians” include the invention of the wheel, domestication of animals, agriculture, common tools, sophisticated weaponry and warfare, the chariot, wine, beer, demarcation of time into hours, minutes, and seconds, religious rites, the sail (sailboats), and irrigation.

However I would really like to think this fertile land was called the “cradle of civilisation” due its attitude towards women. Men and women both worked and the work apparently was not considered simply a job but one’s contribution to the community. Women enjoyed nearly equal rights and could own land, file for divorce, own their own businesses, and make contracts in trade. In fact it is known that the early brewers of beer and wine, as well as the healers in the community, were initially women.

Prosperity of course always creates envy and leads to sackings and lootings. The land became a battleground between many civilisations and the entire culture of the region once known as Mesopotamia was swept away in the final conquest of the area by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century. Today the great cities that once rose along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are arid plains, and the once fertile crescent has steadily dwindled to a wasteland.

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With this symphony, Fazil Say narrates the story of the present day Middle East as well as the culture of Mesopotamia throughout history. The music touches the myriad cradles of civilisation within its “bygone times” moving along from culture and beliefs of the Sumerians, to today’s contemporary issues facing the Middle East and Turkey; the Kurdish problem, the never-ending wars, the terror…

It is no doubt a very comprehensive work and is apparently his masterpiece, his best with the biggest improvements, with which he supposedly has reached a different dimension.

Although the Mesopotamian region is known as the cradle of culture and humanity, many philosophers refer to it as the “culture of death.”

This very symphons is Say’s “call to peace”.

It is a symphony in ten movements requiring 120-130 orchestra musicians.

  • Two children in the plain
  • Tigris River
  • The culture of death
  • Melodrama
  • Sun
  • Moon
  • Bullet
  • Euphrates River
  • On war
  • Ballad of Mesopotamia

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There are many soloists who have symbolic duties.

The bass flute and the bass recorder represent two children, more precisely two brothers – “innocent human beings” who are shot.

The theremin, an instrument which uses electromagnetic waves, which apparently Say used for the first time and I watched in awe being performed for the first time, symbolises the “Angel,” the protector of Mesopotamia.

There are parts about the sun and the moon, and the tremendous effects of these two elements on our lives. As well as being romantic, the moon has also been been feared. The darkness of the moon is reflected by strong chords. The sun, especially the rise of the sun, the joy, is expressed via trumpets.

There are parts which convey the emotions of the Euphrates river and the Tigris river.

Tigris is a slightly smaller river which flows calmly among the mountains. One can “hear” the characteristic echoes of Tigris behind the mountains as it flows, the foam of the rivers.

As for Euprates, it flows thunderously, sweepingly, digging up the ground, it is a river with a powerful flow.

The dark and deep side of war and the culture of death sounds are expressed with trombones.

The final part is the requiem for Mesopotamia or “ballad of Mesopotamia” whence arrive the Euphrates river, Tigris river, the moon and the sun again emerge over a sad song, war retaking its place and all these elements flash like a movie scene before us.

The symphony keeps the listener on edge, constantly waiting desperately to hear the next wonderful note of the melody.

It is of course very very intense listening to the whole “story” with an orchestra of approximately 120 instruments, a thunderous orchestra at that– it is simply magic, timeless.

I find Fazil Say’s oeuvres intensely moving, admire his innovative styles.  He is an internationally renowned pianist and a brilliant composer whose works defy any genre.

His music is very focused, very wide in scope, vast in aspiration and immaculate in execution

His compositions soar above the “normal”, contain “multitudes”. He carries a different “soul”. He always does something that is very out of character, which of course is always very prized in all arts.

January 3, 2015 marks his “40th anniversary at the piano”. He was introduced to the instrument at the age of 5 in 1975 and has since then been touching the hearts of many music lovers across the globe with his musical genius. Here is to many more compositions, concerts and memories.

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More information on his upcoming concerts is on his official website.


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