Interview with Dr. Michael Ellison - ERC Grantee


The music of Michael Ellison seamlessly integrates contemporary and traditional influences into a unique and personal idiom. His first opera, Mevlana, Say I am You (Rotterdam Operadagen and Istanbul Music Festivals, 2012) broke new ground in transcultural music, achieving an unprecedented level of integration of Turkish traditional instruments into new music—a direction his second opera, Deniz Küstü (Istanbul Music Festival, 2016, Jones/Tanbay/NOHlab) extends. Ellison has been commissioned by BBC Symphony Orchestra, Acht Brücken Festival, Radio France, Grenoble Festival, New York Youth Symphony, Siemens Foundation, Nova Chamber Music Series and many others. He is Principal Investigator on the five-year, Bristol-based European Research Council project Beyond East and West: Developing and Documenting an Evolving Transcultural Musical Practice (2015-2020) and is co-director of the Istanbul-based Hezarfen Ensemble.


Before we start, for our readers who haven’t yet heard your talk could you tell us a bit about your research?

My ERC project, Beyond East and West: Developing and Documenting an Evolving Transcultural Musical Practice develops methods and means of facilitating music-making between musicians from the very different worlds of Turkish makam (and also folk Music) and players trained in Western classical music. While this sounds straightforward on the surface, because of significant differences in tuning, musical language and above all notation and ways of preserving and transmitting music, this is actually quite difficult to achieve in a way that it is actually musically convincing in more than a superficial way. By ‘Transcultural’ I mean music that draws from more than one musical culture, which itself is not necessarily aiming to strictly remain within either or any of those traditions. This can happen in a myriad of ways and in some sense has been going on for a long time. But there is something about the way in which transcultural attempts are happening in the 21st century that is really different than anything we’ve seen before, which makes it one of the key markers of our era. Concentrating on musical efforts between Anatolian and Turkish music and Western classical music—two musics I myself am nearly equally fluent in--is a focused way from which to explore, first, that East-West combination in itself, which will hopefully then in turn suggest more general principles of the forces at work when one makes such attempts of bringing musical cultures together. I hope our research will both suggest new ways of music-making and new ways of thinking about what is needed in practice for this to happen effectively.


The project has three research strands; the first of these is emphatically Practice-as-research based. The first strand is dubbed ‘Workshop-Rehearsal-Performance.’ In the workshop phase we bring musicians together from different traditions and work to break down the barriers that do exist between them in order to enhance collaboration. This means testing everything from different ways composers can elicit music from musicians, as in different and sometimes experimental forms of notation, through to developing the concrete skills needed to play in a mixed ensemble. For example, reading western notation at the level of contemporary music and following a conductor are huge challenges for most Turkish players, while conversely the western musicians find deep challenges in improvisation, in tuning according to makams and in learning nuances from an essentially oral-based tradition. We then develop some pieces or concepts through rehearsal to final concerts, with the main outputs two chamber operas which we are performing on major festivals such as Istanbul Music Festival. The first of these Deniz Küstü (The Sea-Crossed Fisherman) premiered in June 2016.


The second strand, Documenting Change in Action, mainly tries to keep track of what is happening in the creation of the new practice(s) within the first strand: most especially the processes through which musicians from different cultures must go through in order to learn to create music together. This is essentially ethnographic work. Amanda Bayley, who has done seminal work on analysis of performance and rehearsal processes with both string quartet, and with cross-cultural collaborations from a variety of regions is leading this strand.


The third strand is the most theoretical, and I call it ‘The Mystery of Sound in Turkish Music.’ In this, we introduce a new paradigm for mapping Western Turkish tuning systems onto a common template of just-intonation, which I posit is the actuality behind both makam theories of tuning as well as the way western music used to be tuned before temperaments took over beginning in the 18th century. We work specifically on the timbre of both instrumental and vocal music, which is really unexplored territory, especially Kurdish dengbejsinging study led by Robert Reigle. We work on recording methods for Turkish instruments with Istanbul recording engineer Can Karadogan, as well as on trying to figure out means by which highly ornate eastern vocal practices can be taught to a Western singer. The final output of these studies will include a book in 2020 called ‘Integrating Turkish Instruments into Contemporary Music.’ This will be basically an orchestration guidebook for composers on the basics to consider when using Turkish instruments and voices, laced by more in-depth articles from more ethnographic and theoretical angles.


Why did you decide to apply to ERC? How would you say the experience contributed to your personal and professional growth?

The immediate reason I applied was that I was advised at the University of Bristol’s research division that I would have a chance to succeed when doing so just based on my résumé. But the deeper and more far reaching reason was to be given time to work on something I’d never have a chance to develop with this level of consistency and depth otherwise.

  • Freeing up time to concentrate was the most important gift of the ERC, but being able to assemble both the project and a research team completely as I saw fit has also been intensely rewarding and liberating. This was the first time in my research that my two interests of composition and ethnomusicology truly could come together in an organic way.

The workshops and performance practice-altering research we are doing is really hard work, and five years of these are going to make much more of an impact on performance and compositional practice than any single project would alone. As a researcher, one reward is also to have my ‘field’ recognized at the highest level. I’ve become used to operating in a space we have ourselves largely delineated. This in turn allows me to be much more proactive in applying principles we ourselves are discovering, with applications that seem most appropriate to each situation on its own, rather than following in the footsteps of others, which, for me, at least, at a certain phase in one’s career one needs to stop doing, or at least question.


What would you say the biggest challenge in the application process was? How did you overcome it?

It is probably neck and neck here between, first, conceiving such an ambitious project in a unified, comprehensive way, and then actually writing it. 20 pages of project description is a lot to provide, so both planning and the writing process were very intense. As I say in the talk, I actually wrote a draft proposal one year and then decided not to submit it on the final day of the deadline. I then revamped the entire structure of the grant and its project team the following year. Looking back, I think the first year I was still trying to find musicological terminology for what I wanted to do, whereas the second time round to this I had added my own definitions and had a much clearer idea of exactly what I wanted and needed to do, as well as a much better sense of what the potential implications of this research might be.


From your experiences, how does the research environment in Europe differ from that in North America, if at all? And, how do you think EURAXESS North America can further promote research collaborations between Europe and North America?

I did my PhD. in the US but have always worked at either Turkish or UK institutions. But ITÜ/MIAM in Istanbul is modelled on a US style structure. I think what is radically different for me in the attitude toward research in Europe—at least in music—is the emphasis on expanding and contributing to the discipline itself. It’s a much more scientific attitude–-the way I imagine mathematicians or physicists are working: there are certain known problems and you go after one or more of them. This whole idea of research and then, critically Practice–as-research in music I found far more articulated on the European side of the pond. And it’s the main reason I went to Bristol, actually, as I find it incredibly liberating. Another difference for students is that you are led much further along the way in the US PhD structure, while in Europe you’re thrown out on your own with the big ideas much earlier. Both of these have advantages, but I think ultimately the European approach is more stimulating for me.

  • Probably the most concrete way Euraxess might help promote research collaborations between Europe and North America is to make researchers more aware that US researchers can be on ERC grants, in other words that not everyone in the project needs to be based in Europe, and that even for the PI one only needs to spend at least 50% of the grant time in the EU. Its mostly about increasing awareness, because due to the ‘bottom-up’ researcher controlled and very flexible research milieu an ERC makes possible, I think once people know about it, it would be difficult to find anyone with a serious idea who would not be interested in having support like that.

Do you think it is important for researchers to have a mentor? Why/Why not? 

I think having a mentor is probably very important in one’s field especially, when one is in one’s 20’s, and probably when doing a PhD. But it is important to point out there are many forms of mentoring. In the ERC application, as a mid-career applicant, my mentor (someone who first encouraged my proposal and then read my early and final drafts, giving valuable feedback) was mainly a 9th century Medievalist, and I mixed her feedback with any other opinions I could get from around my department and university. In other words, there’s a point at which one can hopefully let go of your own field’s mentors and relate to a wider community. But I think this is a very personal thing, and surely also has to do with the kinds of mentor or mentors one has been fortunate enough to have.


What would you tell someone who is hesitant to apply to an ERC grant?

There are good reasons to be hesitant, at first because you will need to devote probably three months of your life, minimum, to designing and writing the proposal unless you have an ambitious project already sketched. And also, what will you do if you have more time for research? Given the percentages, you won’t necessarily succeed in receiving funding. But so far in my experience the challenge of the application, interviewing process, feedback form the committee were extremly helpful at seeing better where I was in the larger world in the area I’m in. And the resources and again reasonableness of the way ERC is set up facilitates one to do what one should be doing, by one’s own definition, probably more than any other grant. The five-year duration has a lot to do with this, since one can actually develop in that time. So for me it was definitely worth the stress and time sacrifice of the application process. I’m also a lot clearer about what I want to do as a result of all of the above.


What’s the next phase of the project?

In terms of instruments, we are getting now very deeply into Anatolian instruments and voices. The second opera is going to integrate these, and it is going to be an enormous challenge. The other challenge is getting all of these recorded and documented and onto our website and archive, and beginning the process of choosing what material will go into the book. One exciting thing is that several very prominent composers have expressed interest in writing for my ensemble in Istanbul with its Turkish instruments.


Finally, we know you’re still very much in this project, but what are you most excited about upon completion?

I think the book itself will be a great resource when it comes out. We may have obliterated record-bin style classifications of music once and for all.