The Turkish Robinson of Manhattan

Though the topic of Turkish avant-garde composer living in New York may seem obscure, a documentary recently awarded at Antalya Film Festival, powerfully explores themes of love, politics, friendship, and immigration.

On Oct. 10, the annual Altın Portakal Film Festival was held in the southern Turkish city of Antalya. There were some surprise winners during the prestigious awards ceremony, including the Special Jury Award for Best National Documentary given to Mimaroğlu: The Robinson of Manhattan Island

The film depicts the life of writer, producer, and electronic music composer İlhan Mimaroğlu. Though the topic of Turkish avant-garde composer living in New York may seem obscure, the film powerfully explores themes of love, politics, friendship, and immigration. One must congratulate both the creators of Mimaroğlu (director Serdar Kökçeoğlu and producers Dilek Aydın and Esin Uslu) and the jury of the 57th Altın Portakal for taking a chance on this film. 

In 1959, İlhan Mimaroğlu, son of a famous architect, left Istanbul with a Rockefeller Scholarship to study at New York’s Columbia-Princeton Electronic Center. Today, electronic music is an inseparable part of our lives. More than 60 years ago, it was still a fresh field of exploration whose creation required enough clunky machines to fill a small warehouse. Back then, the Columbia-Princeton Center in New York was one of a handful of places with the programmable electronic synthesizers needed to compose this music. Throughout the 1960s, Mimaroğlu had the chance to work with electronic music pioneer Vladimir Ussachevsky and create his own experimental, mind-melting records. 

The documentary’s soundtrack features a number of Mimaroğlu’s compositions. The best for giving a taste of his musical project is the 1975 record Tract: A Composition of Agitprop Music for Electromagnetic Tape. The music is political but not in the way one would expect. 

The album’s two “songs,” if they can be called that, feature the interminable beeping, hissing, and glitching of that era’s computer music. Yet they also feature voices, including an Exxon advertisement and other radio samples. The great surprise is the presence of Tülay German. This jazz-singer-turned folk-revolutionary fled Turkey in the 1960s for self-imposed exile in Paris. In this collaboration with Mimaroğlu she reads the names of murdered revolutionaries from across the world and recites bits of manifestos in English and French denouncing imperialism. Snippets of her famous musical performances like “Burçak Tarlası” and “A Perdre Haleine” appear briefly in the background before being lost in the sonic maelstrom. Mimaroğlu himself reads statements from Henry Kissinger and former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that speak positively of military interventions in Turkey, Chile, and beyond. 

İlhan Mimaroğlu’s brought together musical and political radicalism in the 1970s partly due to the example of his wife Güngör Mimaroğlu. To the filmmakers’ credit, they refrain from portraying Mimaroğlu as the “tortured, isolated genius” and instead explore the relationships and milieux that shaped him. In fact, the film is as much Güngör’s story as İlhan’s. A childhood with polio gave her plenty of time to read and question the things around her. It also didn’t hurt to have adults around constantly discussing figures like Marx, Camus, and Sartre. 

From a young age, Güngör decided that conventional gender roles and being a housewife was not for her. After a brief marriage from which she had her first child, she met Mimaroğlu. The two fell in love, but she told him that she would only accept a non-traditional marriage; she would have to be able to do whatever she wanted without question. Agreeing to these conditions, the couple left for New York City, where Güngör lived for the next 53 years. During the 1960s, she got involved with the student movement, getting arrested several times, and identified with the African-American struggle. Her political commitments were a major influence on Mimaroğlu’s music.

One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is the way it portrays the Turkish-American expat scene of 1970s New York. At the Manhattan parties İlhan and Güngör would attend, activists and composers rubbed shoulders with diplomats and politicians. Mimaroğlu also began working with two of the most famous Turkish-Americans: founders of Atlantic Records Nasuhi and Ahmet Ertegün. As a producer, Mimaroğlu collabroated with jazz giants like Charles Mingus and Freddie Hubbard. He even had one of his own compositions featured in Federico Fellini’s film Satyricon, for which Güngör read an Orhan Veli poem in Turkish. In 1971, the Ertegüns let him create his own record company, Finnadar, under the Atlantic label. 

Art, love, politics, friendship, immigration: the documentary provides a window into this bygone world of Transatlantic connections and collaborations. Statements by Güngör Mimaroğlu and the couple’s friends reveal some of the costs of this freewheeling lifestyle: she left her child behind in Turkey while his self-isolation alienated many people in their circles. Watching the documentary, one wonders about the economic conditions that allowed to the couple to create what they did. With Mimaroğlu’s famous architect father, whose face was featured on the 20-lira bill, and his prestigious education at Turkey’s best schools, it is clear that there was wealth in the family. Similarly, the documentary mentions in passing that Güngör was a successful businesswoman in New York and even purchased a company at one point, but further details are missing. 

One wonders whether such figures could exist today. When Mimaroğlu stopped making electronic music in the 1980s it was partly because he felt the public didn’t understand his work and partly because computers had begun democratizing electronic music in a way that thoroughly transformed the conditions for avant-garde composition. We live at a time when you can compose electronic music on your phone, yet public funding for the arts in Turkey—let alone government support for unemployed musicians during the pandemic—is scarce to nonexistent. It is difficult not to thinking about how many potential trailblazers are forced to put their art on hold as they struggle from paycheck to paycheck, sell their equipment, or take up service work. 

Mimaroğlu’s dream was always to remain contemporary, both in his politics and art. As a voice says in one of his compositions: “I may as well speak out the truth while I’m here.” Art that successfully tells the truth about the conditions of our contemporary reality will necessary look differently than it did in the 1970s. Yet the examples of people like İlhan and Güngör Mimaroğlu remain inspiring.

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