Meyhanescapes Visualising embodied musical experience in the meyhane tavern

This article is the first in the series ‘Practices of Musicking‘, (re)thinking musical experience beyond limited understandings of ‘listening’. The series accompanies the theme of the upcoming first issue of Soapbox: ‘Practices of Listening‘. Read more about the issue here.

The term ‘Musicking’ offers us plenty of opportunities to question what listeners can do with a certain sound, song or musical case. Coined by Christopher Small, the word encompasses various forms of musical experiences beyond simply composing and performing.1 Music becomes more than a social event, a structure or a memory – understood instead as something that is done by taking part, in any capacity and in any form, including listening. Small considers the apparent thingness of music as merely a figment of imagination, an abstraction of the action.2 So how might music exceed the conceptual ways of associations and become an abstraction of practice? Thinking more about this question led me to consider what I, as a listener, can do with certain sounds, especially sounds that are strongly attached to certain spaces.

It also permits an enriched understanding of listening/musicking as more than simply hearing sounds. This is especially clear in the kind of space about which I now write: meyhanes. A meyhane (loosely speaking, ‘tavern’) is a type of restaurant found in Turkey and the Balkans where visitors share various mezes on large tables, singing alongside drinking alcohol. The name of these traditional restaurants comes from the combination of words mey, referring to fermented drinks, and hāne, meaning ‘house’ in Persian. Music serves an integral part of the drinking ritual in meyhanes, but the sensual experience of this environment goes beyond this music. How, therefore, can we work with music if we stimulate senses other than hearing? Since hearing never only stimulates our ears, but is also strongly attached to our other affective responses, how can we ‘work’ through music using other sensory modes? For instance, how can we visualise a soundscape or map sounds in a certain way, where seeing might collide with hearing? What can visualisations of soundscapes offer us other than writing about music or composing music?

Aural dimensions of knowing are not limited to aural ways of inscribing knowledge.

In the introduction of her book Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance, Tomie Hahn quotes her headmaster Tachibana Hiroyo, who encourages students to “[k]now with your body” during a dance lesson, explaining how theory arises from engagement in the bodily practices of dance.3 As someone who is constantly in need of transforming abstract discourses or philosophical arguments into illustrations and sketches in my notebook, it was not hard to empathise with Hahn, who defines ‘transmission’ as viewing a process that instills theory and cultural practices of embodiment.

In this piece, my intention is to create an unusual zone of contact that might hopefully bring us closer to how the music ‘touches’ people in a meyhane context. By the guidance of this new sensory mode, I am aiming to get beyond the limitations of the conceptual system of thinking by showing that it is possible to understand a musical case in depth by engaging with different layers of artistic and perceptual practices as well as theoretical ones. Aural dimensions of knowing are not limited to aural ways of inscribing knowledge. This, inevitably raises questions about both the inscription of knowledge and the material on which they inscribe.

In the visualised ‘meyhanescapes’ illustrated below, I have aimed to unveil this interplay between knowledge and its inscription by shaking the generally employed acts of knowledge acquisition.  These eight squared watercolour pages can be considered as a snapshot from a single meyhane experience, in a certain context. Specifically, this experience takes place on an October night in the year 2017, in a meyhane called Aret’in Yeri (‘The place of Aret’) in Beyoğlu, an area of Istanbul known for its nightlife and taverns. Since this is a specific snapshot from a variety of experiences of meyhanes, it cannot be generalised to all. It is, however, meant to give an idea of how a musical case can stretch beyond words and language systems.  The illustrated elements are abstractions of time, borders, emotions, music, lyrics, food, alcohol and dancing. (You can decipher the symbolisations by referring to the map key in the final image).

The first element I drew  to visualise this experience was the borders of this meyhane. Sonic borders are transcendental lines comparing static architectural bounds. The sonorous borders of the building of this meyhane are present in all frames. They are represented as short broken lines, enclosing the space of the meyhane with no start or endpoint. Their colour gets darker as the noise in meyhane space increases. By the end of the frames, the colours of the sonorous borders return to their initial state, as visitors exit the building, the music dies down and the dawn arrives. Even in silence, however, the borders of this building are sonorous.

Time is another element that never disappears from the frames. It is represented as longer, circular lines. The lines change their shape to a full circle (from more linear, half circle lines) when the revelry starts. This change refers to my understanding of time in a meyhane space, which is a timeless time that is not linear but circular: visitors often lose their sense of time when they start to drink, sing and dance. Just like the sonorous borders of meyhane, the colour of timeless time darkens as the music gets louder.

Music is represented in two distinct but integrated pieces. One piece is a yellow, fluid figure that corresponds to the music’s structure. The second piece is a black, fluid figure that corresponds to the semantics (usually lyrics) of the same music. The black, fluid figure nestles in the yellow figure and it appears after the visitors come into the space. Visitors in the meyhane tend to love the songs mainly because of their melancholic lyrics. Many know them by heart and sing along as the music starts. Lyrics, then, are vital in engaging with feelings like longing, wistfulness and grief.

Another couple that come together after some time are alcohol and food. Constant consumption of these contributes to the noise of the space. The emotions of the visitors are represented as an organic, flexible figure. This figure gets bigger simultaneously to the appearance of music, food, and alcohol as they elicit intense emotions. Gloomy emotions transform into a somewhat joyful bodily performance when the dancing starts. This change in the manifestation of the emotions makes their presence milder in the frame because dancing often functions as a relief mechanism. By the end of the night, colours fade away and only some residues of emotion stay behind in the sonic space of the meyhane.

Martin Clayton presents an ontological fallacy that is produced when we see music as something outside of itself – when we say: music is essentially a thing that refers to another thing. This argument leads to the conception that music has no identity in itself, but that our intentional perceptions create one. And if we can identify musical perception only through metaphors of different perceptions, then visual abstractions can be expressions equally as false as verbal or written descriptions. Clayton asks:

If (objectified) music is not a natural fact but a construction, an aspect of cultural knowledge, then where can its meaning be found? If meaning is to be found solely in the ascriptions of listeners, as some would hold, in what ways (if at all) is it generated or communicated by music?.4

If music’s meaning is constructed, then searching for it might in fact lead us to a dead-end. Its meaning is already multi-layered, complex and abstract. It is not solely about the ascriptions of listeners, nor does it rely alone on the agency of musical form. This understanding of multiplicity and embracing fluidity can lead us to say that – just as there are as many languages as there are people – music has multiple identities, rather than no identity at all.

Moreover, this multiplicity engages uniquely not only with individuals but also their particular surroundings. Clayton cites James Gibson’s theory of ‘affordances,’ arguing that any musical event is meaningful insofar as it offers multiple and effectively unique affordances to each individual simultaneously.5 What Gibson calls an ‘affordance’ defines what the environment offers, provides or furnishes. The realisation of these afforded possibilities come long before the music starts. This means that each individual is loaded with learned behaviours and specific cognitive pathways (such as fears) that might guide how they will or will not listen to a certain piece. As Clayton suggests, some aspects of listening are in this sense particularly hard to explain in words because they are the least closely related to linguistic modes of signification.

As an embodied expression of listening, the meyhanescape adds or perhaps complicates another layer over the linguistic mode

Clayton describes how musical experiences can be imagined as bounded entities, which in turn can be thought of as networks of relationships between bounded musical elements.6 When creating this snapshot of a single night in a meyhane, I thought of different experiences of ‘musicking’ and tried to take into account the elements (for me) that make the meyhane a sonic space. These elements – emotions, food, alcohol, music, borders, time and dancing ‒  make up only some of the wide sonic experience in a meyhane. However, such abstract visualisations (and the materiality of watercolour) often elicit fluid ways of thinking, in which different thought processes of people, in different places and times, are welcomed. In other words, my illustrations are only one way of interpreting this specific sonic experience, but they also present multiple ways of interpreting an interpretation. They are a conglomeration that is metaphorical, but also an embodied way of dwelling with music and a practice of listening.

Ultimately, my intention here was not to propose that the visual (abstract) mode of signification can fill this gap. Rather, I suggest that, as an embodied expression of listening, it adds or perhaps complicates another layer over the linguistic mode. Hahn considers the senses of the vehicles of her ‘dance transmission’ and asks: how does the culturally constructed process of transmission influence our sense of self?7 Our bodies, along with our senses of self, become zones that can leave us exposed and vulnerable. However, as Hahn agrees, while reflexive writing can be often painful and difficult, it can also take us somewhere that we couldn’t otherwise get to.8 When, like Hahn’s dancing, I feel like narrating sensational knowledge – which demands more than engaging solely with theory – I draw. And, when I draw, my sense of self slips into the realm of other selves, in such a way that I end up questioning my own affordances while affording to something about that thing.

A version of this piece was originally written for the course ‘Cultural Musicology’ at the University of Amsterdam, led by Dr. Barbara Titus.

  1. Clayton, Martin. The cultural study of music: A critical introduction. Routledge, 2013. Page 9
  2. ibid., page 2
  3. Hahn, Tomie. Sensational knowledge: Embodying culture through Japanese dance. Wesleyan University Press, 2007. Page 2
  4. Clayton page 5
  5. ibid., page 7
  6. ibid., page 6
  7. Hahn page 3
  8. ibid., page 10