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There is a stellar cast of soloists all acclaimed by the international musical community: Carolina Eyck, one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi; Bülent Evcil playing the flute, Cağatay Akyol playing the harp and Fazıl Say himself playing the piano.

It is a musical homage to the epic tale of death and warfare in Mesopotamia’s past and present, against a backdrop of Mesopotamian mythology and military history. The sequence depicts the futility of and the devastation caused by war using a leitmotiv inspired by a tune from the Urfa region.

The sequence opens with the piece ‘Two Children in the Plain’ which unfolds a vision of a vast scorched plain, filling the listeners with foreboding. The collective subconscious is overflowing with the memories of savage campaigns that have haunted the region.

The two children will be the witnesses of a futile journey from time immemorial into timelessness traversing wiped out civilisations in relentless warfare. The highlight in this piece is the angelic sound of the theremin which evokes the protective Angel either keeping a watchful eye on the remaining members of an inexhaustible human supply or leading the souls of the fallen to where they belong.

The next piece is ‘Tigris’ which Say prides himself to have a first-hand knowledge of. The piece is relatively tranquil emulating the ripples of a restfully flowing river with its sombre echoes in the surrounding valleys in lower notes in non-legato fashion.

‘The Culture of Death’ is a piece that is emotionally charged, dark and eerie forces dominating the scene. Mesopotamia is not only the spiritual home of monotheism but of inexhaustible variety of cults of which the cult of death is the most prominent. It has its origins in the Neolithic times and is the brainchild of war. Say takes it up as the principal inspiration of his work.

He as the mediator of musical narration asks himself the question “How will I narrate war in musical terms and against which forces will music battle?” His answer reveals the utter chaos ruling the universe. He says:

“Music battles anti-music, music battles the composer and the composer battles his own music as well as the 120 instruments battling each other and the audience…”

Then comes the piece ‘Moon’ where the moon is represented by the piano. It is not about moonshine but redolent of Cult of Moon which Say finds threatening and mysteriously dangerous.

EAs a counterpoint to the menacing ‘Moon’ the following piece, ‘The Sun’ whose allusions to the exultant Cult of Sun are reflected by the unrestrained and brassy jubilations of the four trumpets.

‘The Bullet’ is the climax where the swelling sounds of the trombones recall the fury and the might of marching armies and the triumphant rejoicing of a transitory superior power. The dangerously biting four-note war theme played by the drum is extremely powerful and reminiscent of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The piece as a whole brings the listener face to face into the reality of roughshod confrontation.

It is followed by the ‘Euphrates’ which in stark contrast to Tigris is thunderous and roaring, nature reflecting alternating aspects of human temperament.

The following two movements, ‘About War’ and ‘Ballad of Mesopotamia’ are interwoven themes reflecting the content of previous pieces. All themes are unified at the end with a riotous finale portraying the meaninglessness of cyclical wars always ending in devastation and lament.

Say evokes the nature with ease by creative use of all the instruments available to him. In The Black Earth we had witnessed his non-traditional use of the piano to give us a taste of the vast and arid Anatolian plateau. In the Mesopotamia Symphony he introduces the audience with the theremin, an electronic musical instrument controlled without contact by the player. The instrument suggests spirituality amidst mayhem and soothes and relieves.

Harmonically speaking his music is daringly creative, his melodic phrases kindling nostalgia for times gone by, his dissonant producing vividness and sharp characterization, such as portraying the post-war devastation with the use of screeching sounds played by percussions or the serenely flowing Tigris by a cluster of wooden bells.

Say employs musical language not for the depiction of a narrow understanding of epics but to convey the intensity of human drama. Contrary to Bohemian and Russian composers who treated the form symphonic poem or programme music as a vehicle for the nationalist ideas, Say takes it philosophically to a higher level of all-encompassing and more dramatic quality where peoples on all sides share the common fate of death and destruction. This universalist element in his work turns it into a message for peace.

Say’s most recent work, The Mesopotamia Symphony which he calls justifiably his masterpiece will be treasured in the years to come as a milestone in the history of Turkish high culture.

Bilge Erengül, June 2012

Fazıl Say interview about this symphony project