Volume 034: Elif Yalvaç


This edition of the newsletter is part of an effort to send these out on a set schedule - streaming suggestions on Monday/interviews, reviews, etc. on Friday. That’s how you get more subscribers apparently.

Busy days for yours truly. Big project moving slightly closer to the goalposts. Other work waiting in the wings for someone to press “Publish” on. Some work snuck out this week:

And don’t forget that it’s Bandcamp Day, which means the site waives the fees that they take out of every transaction. “An average of 93% of your money reaches the artist/label (after payment processor fees),” reads a post announcing this month’s BCD. These folks needs our support now more than ever, especially from folks like me who can’t get into livestream performances and IG Live stuff. I’ve made my purchases; you do yours.

Interview with Elif Yalvaç

Mountains Become Stepping Stones, the second album by Turkish composer and musician Elif Yalvaç, collides many of my various musical loves together into one body high-inducing journey. Opening track “Brocken Spectre” floods the senses with washes of noise and the digitized blips and screeches of a GameBoy. The two tracks titled “Under The Aurora” pull apart the shoegaze/darkwave aesthetic like taffy. “Huginn and Muninn,” named after the ravens of Norse mythology that feed information to Odin, is a slurry of noise and electronic shudders (there’s that GameBoy again) interrupted by quick squawks.

Though the title and cover art give the game away, the music on Mountains (released in December via NNA Tapes) bears the clear influence of the natural world, evoking the beauty and breadth of the Nordic countries. Gorgeous in the daytime; foreboding and ominous at night. Even the appearance of the aurora borealis is both dazzling and unsettlingly alien.

Via email, Yalvaç opened up about how the influence of the glaciers, waterfalls, and skies of Scandinavia informed the sound of Mountains as much as this urge to express the inner torment she was feeling at the time. She also offers a look into the thriving experimental music and sound art communities in her home country of Turkey and what inspired her to explore those sonic worlds in her own work.

In the press release for this album and in your comments about some of the songs on it, there’s an undercurrent of pain—of having been shattered by a monumental experience and building yourself back better, in a sense. Is that something you could talk about?

Mountains Become Stepping Stones is an album that is very much about magical experiences, but also about how I processed the painful ones. The first sketches for this album emerged as my response to a painful heartbreak that shattered me back in Summer 2019. Besides, I had been trying to survive an MA thesis writing, submission and defense at that time. I was preparing to return to Iceland yet another time, this time with an immense anger, regret, and disappointment, yet I was determined to redefine my experience there including with a performance in Extreme Chill 2019, not limiting it to a particular event, but instead by reminding myself my motives for my very first travel there. This makes Mountains Become Stepping Stones an album of redefining, reshaping. I grabbed my electric guitar and created the first sketches for this album, then spontaneously as I processed the difficult feelings and my shock, rather than decide that it would be part of an album. However, in 2020, it took another shape: it became a lot more universal—it was no longer about a particular event, also after further visits to Iceland. I finalized this album in lockdown in Turkey, looking back at what I did in all my travels, when we were not allowed to go out, and when I was dealing with other threats that felt bigger even than the virus itself. Some days I spent were very unproductive, but others, I just spent hours and hours with what would become Mountains Become Stepping Stones especially when I felt desperate, miserable, and extremely weak, just like a traumatized defenseless child. Working on this music gave me strength and became one of my resources of coping. It was also a time when I reread Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which was a propeller in how I worked on and finalized this album in 2020. It would be unrealistic to expect painful events to not happen. They keep happening, but what do we do with them? I chose to turn them into stepping stones for the way ahead. And I do say this from a position full of pain, difficulties and setbacks, not from a warm luxury room or a cozy cabin as in social media cliches. I finalized this album when I couldn’t access the places that inspired me. So, in a way, it was about trying to recapture how intensely they affected me, as well as processing and coming to terms with difficult experiences that happened along the way. Hence, the title. Sometimes, you don’t need any lyrics to express how you are affected. The music is sometimes quite abstract and atonal, but emotionally affecting as well: it has a warmth and heart. That’s the balance I want to find.

What drew you to the Nordic countries at first and, what is it that draws you back there?

I have always been fascinated by what is remote, and what feels different than where I am. Gazing up in the sky or watching the mountains has always been one of my favorite activities since my childhood. When I was younger and when I read about the existence of settlements and their accessibility in the far North, I was fascinated so much that I was determined to find a way to get there. Back in 2015, taking a train from Oslo to Bergen was a highlight of those Nordic journeys, and in 2017 summer, walking alone in the midnight sun in a forest filled with deer in Finland was another. I always wanted to travel to Iceland especially but it took a while until I could do that. I finally could, back in 2018, and I kept returning ever since, until the outbreak of the pandemic. Iceland had a tourism boom, such a big one that it sadly affected the locals quite negatively at times. I appreciate that it was accessible to me, before the pandemic, but I hope that its wilderness and beautiful landscape remains untouched and protected. What I appreciate(ed) the most in there was solitude where it looked like a place from another planet. Seeing something different from my own culture feels always intriguing. I really love the culture, arts, and cuisine of Nordic countries: each has their own unique culture and nature even if we simply group them under the term “Nordic” or some as “Scandinavia”, but there are common parts I particularly appreciate such as stopping to appreciate the moment (with concepts like hygge, fika or sakte-TV) and avoiding drama, and they look after their nature very well although everywhere with humans is far from perfect. No place is perfect but these are the places where I feel the most like myself as a woman and musician. Far, cold but feels like a warm home to me. That’s the feeling Iceland evokes in me whenever I land in and look out of the window on the aircraft that carries me, alongside that solitude in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere. Basically, being in a place where it feels extremely different from where you are made to call “home” can actually be a mind-blowing experience, and then that becomes where you wholeheartedly call “home.”  

What can you tell me about the field recordings you captured in Iceland that are part of this album?

I take my field recorder with me everywhere to capture whatever I can. I believe in the power of sound in exploring a place. We always see visual references to places to visit, but I believe sound is a key aspect and it would be great if we had more blogs where they introduce a place with its sounds, not merely photography. Iceland is very interesting when it comes to sounds. It is brimming with boiling lava fields. You can hear the sound of fire, but you can also hear the cold slowly moving glacier sounds. It is a cliché reference but true: the land of ice and fire. I recorded the deadly waves of Black Sand Beach or waterfalls, which you can hear in my piece “Black Sand Beach” or sometimes the storms, which you can listen to in “Breaking My Rose Tinted Glasses.” Magnus Bergsson is a field recordist I met in my first journey to Iceland. He has been recording the sounds of Iceland since the 1980s and has been very supportive for my journeys there. We made some of the field recordings together, which I used in several pieces in this album. Jón Friðriksson (Nonni) was also very supportive when I wanted to record the very strong and striking sounds of North Iceland, including the Dettifoss waterfall and part of Krafla lava fields.

Have you always been drawn to the natural world? Was there a formative experience in your past that made you truly love and appreciate it?

I am especially inspired by the skies. It is sometimes the clouds or a clear sky brimming with stars. What I always remember dearly is a moment from my childhood when I saw millions of sky objects very clearly on a road trip at night. I literally froze onto the window in the car while we passed through “the middle of nowhere.” I had never seen that many stars before. That made me extremely curious about being in the nature, being away and remote, and showed me how astonishing the sky can be. In 2013 when I lost my father, one way of reconnecting with him for me was (and it still is) to simply gaze up in the sky. Then I created my EP CloudScapes with this in mind.

And in my visits to Iceland, I was lucky to witness the Aurora several times. Those are all once-in-a-lifetime nature events and observations that are buried in my brain forever and shaped my perspective. These also include the experiences I mentioned as an answer to your question on what inspires me about Nordic countries. It is not only those countries: simply being remote, accessing the nature, disconnecting and being safe from humans - talking about the kind of humans causing discomfort - is something I deeply appreciate, while being in the middle of wilderness, or in the woods as I currently, and fortunately, have access to despite a lockdown, can sometimes feel eerie because you don’t hear any sound of that familiar urban life, but what you hear makes you feel very much “naked,” and very human or animal. And by the way, I did not get to see that comet so many people talked about back in summer and part of me was very sad about it. But then I try to focus on the experiences I could have: making music that creates intense experience and that helps me understand my own experience. 

The album perfectly balances these internal and external influences. Is that generally true of your other work as well? Does inspiration for music tend to come from trying to reflect the physical world around you or is it an interpretation of that as filtered through your personal experiences?

I am a very sensitive person and what surrounds me affects me quite deeply but I have been also learning to dive deeper in my inner world, basically unlocking my inner strength. Some of the external events can reach that deeper part inside, sometimes just like a stabbing of a knife but instead of letting it cut me, I try to take a control of the part that shakes the boundaries. My filter can sometimes be very gloomy though, and that’s the dark interpretations in my music. I reckon that is part of much of the music I have produced so far, not only this album. There are calm moments but there is also an explosion of abrasive dark energy, the dark voice in me that speaks.

You also utilize a GameBoy on the opening track, an instrument which you apparently wrote about in your master's thesis. How did you come to start using this as a musical instrument? And what can you tell us about what you wrote about it in your thesis?

A Game Boy or other old-school gaming technologies such as a Commodore 64 were extremely limited tools to create sounds. At the time they were introduced, computer programmers had no choice but to create game audio with those limitations; today, however, with the tremendous range of availability of technologies, using them is no longer a last resort, but becomes a self-imposed choice. Limitations can have a creative value. In my very first year of master’s study in Sonic Arts, we started with very limited sounds, with a relatively short duration, or a very limited number of effects. I later realized that it gave me perspective about designing the form of music. There is a big chip music scene in the world and this enthusiasm for chip sounds goes well beyond a mere longing for nostalgia: it is about the aesthetic and creative value of the sounds generated by the very limited old technology. My thesis is focused upon the creative and aesthetic value of limitations and limited sounds in the context of chip music. I grew up with old school computer games, but my appreciation of chip sounds goes beyond nostalgia, too. After writing so much about it, I decided to make music myself with it and grabbed a Game Boy with an LSDJ tracker program cartridge in it. It gave me so much perspective about sounds. You have only four channels you can use, and these are very simple beep sounds. But once you start working on it, you begin to see you can craft very sophisticated sounds from a severely limited tool; limited in terms of its memory, the range of sounds. And the bottom line is that you have a portable tiny synthesizer, which looks like a toy. I created the opening track which now features with a video with a Game Boy, and parts of it with a guitar. It is not the only track I used a Game Boy in the album. I discovered that it can be a great accompaniment to the other elements I used in the album. A Game Boy can be a great synthesizer for when you want to create experimental music, not only uplifting music that sounds like ’80s game audio.

The notes on the album touch a bit on your interest in music at an early age. Was that something that your family encouraged?

I grew up in a house where music was always on. All sorts of music from Western art music to Turkish art music and Greek folk music, or popular Russian music, or just ’70s world hits, and sometimes rock ’n roll, etc. You name it. My father introduced me to a huge range of music, and my parents were members of a Turkish art music choir which arranged weekly events. When I wanted to play a guitar, though, it was not their first suggestion and they did not seem very enthusiastic about getting it for me. They wanted me to grab a saz/bağlama instead and I was sent to a course for it. One day, I simply skipped the course and escaped in a break. I could not connect well with that instrument when I was young, especially when I was mainly listening to rock music, not Turkish folk music. They gave up and got a guitar for me and there were no guitar teachers in where we were at the time. So, I taught myself guitar by being exposed to so much music in the house, and listening to rock music and trying to play whatever I heard around me by ear, and by drawing on the music knowledge of my father who could also play several instruments, including the saz and oud, and a bit of guitar. In places where I could not connect with anyone with a “similar music taste” in primary school or high school, my home or where I escaped to listen to music was an oasis.

When did you start to listen to experimental music and sound art? What attracted you to it?

Discovering the music of Porcupine Tree in my late teens was a milestone for me. It paved the way for a broader horizon of music, opening the gates of progressive rock and Krautrock because some of Steven Wilson’s music is hugely influenced by those ’70s acts: with each act being more beautiful than the other in a golden age of music. Later, I discovered that much inspiration comes from early pioneers of electronic music. Composers in these areas such as Zappa, Roedelius, and Robert Fripp named and acknowledged the influence of prolific pioneers including Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer or Eliane Radigue. I simply wanted to understand who these composers were. Subsequently, when I lost my father in 2013 summer, I could not listen to any music. I instead chose to listen to the surrounding sounds. That was when I grabbed a field recorder. I needed sounds from “another place” or sounds that I had never mindfully listened to before. Then I revisited and fell in love with Warp artists: Autechre, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin. Quaristice, Music Has the Right to Children, and Selected Ambient Works II are among my milestones that resonated deeply in me at a difficult time of grief. All of this further inspired me to delve deeper into early electronic music. Then I fell in love with women pioneers such as Eliane Radigue and Else Marie Pade. When I found that the Sonic Arts program was opened at Istanbul Technical University for the first time, I was extremely excited and getting an admission also depended on knowing about electronic music history, among other things. It was basically a whole new journey of research, but it started from a very familiar place: from familiar bands and acts I explored for many years. 

Was it easy to find people in Turkey that were playing that kind of music?

Not when I was in high school but I met several people in high school and more, later in my undergraduate study at Istanbul University with some interest in music; however, none of them had any passion to pursue a path in music. I mostly had found myself frustrated whenever I attempted to make music with others in the past before I delved into the music scene more, especially by being at MIAM at Istanbul Technical University for my master’s study. So, I familiarized myself with others. And speaking from my experience at MIAM, and having been active in the music scene in Turkey, yes, it is no longer so difficult to find others that engage in that kind of music.

Is there a thriving experimental scene in Istanbul and Turkey? Who should we be listening to from your home country?

Some pioneers of electronic music such as Bülent Arel and İlhan Mimaroğlu came from Turkey. Most recently, a documentary on Mimaroğlu came out. If you ask me about the current scene, before the pandemic, you could find a lot of acts frequently performing in some of the bars in Kadıköy, Istanbul or the MIAM community arranging a lot of performances in some of the bigger venues. It is booming, despite all the difficulties, including the political ones, with numerous self-released works. An Anthology of Turkish Experimental Music 1961-2014 can work to familiarize yourself with the experimental music scene in Turkey, featuring among others Erdem Helvacıoğlu, Meczup, Reverie Falls on All, and Tuna Pase, who is currently based in Barcelona and keeps inspiring me with her down-to-earth approach. Klank Ist is a notable ensemble of electroacoustic music and performance, with mostly women participants. Ekin Fil's music is giving me so much joy. And most recently, Uğur Can Akkaya/Santilitre has released a great album, Monologues of a Technophile.

What comes next for you?

With 2020, it became very difficult to plan. I basically adopt the Icelandic “last minute” way now because it is a time when much is beyond our control. I am referring to an approach the Icelandic author Alda Sigmundsdóttir quotes on her book The Little Book Of The Icelanders: as the weather is so unpredictable in Iceland, people don’t tend to plan anything, because otherwise, they just get cancelled. So, instead of committing, they just do it at the last minute. I was initially frustrated by that especially when it came to organization of festivals and concerts but now I, myself, adapt to it. So, I am unsure if I can do all of the things I am planning to do but the next thing to do is to definitely go back to Iceland when travel restrictions are no longer in place. Last time I was there – in February 2020 - I had the opportunity to have a lot of recording sessions in the Icelandic studios with various artists based in Reykjavik. I need to revisit these recordings, as maybe they become a travelogue if they fit together, and a reminder of journeys I made that may inspire when I have chance to travel again. Currently, I am in the UK, and have been spending the second (or third? – I lost the count) lockdown here, and I am working on musical collaborations here, including my work with Michael Bearpark of Darkroom and no-man, and works with audiovisual artist and photographer Jason Arber who created videos for my track, including the most recent one for “Brocken Spectre.” And I want to revisit some of the previous plans that were “shattered” by 2020; they mostly include performing more, when the concerts are back. I also cannot wait to visit NNA Tapes for a face-to-face meeting and for further explorations of what we can do together.

photos by Michael Bearpark and Magnus Bergsson

Thank you so much for reading, friends. Back again on Monday with streaming suggestions, and next week with some film reviews. If you have questions, suggestions, feedback, etc., let me know.

Artwork for this edition is by Than Kyaw Htay’s solo exhibition Silent Steps. His work is on display at River Gallery in Yangon, Myanmar.