A new documentary, Mimaroğlu: The Robinson of Manhattan, explores the little-known life and music of a pioneering Turkish composer.
By Eric Beyer
Photos by Bikem Ekberzade
Revisiting the life and legacy of Turkish composer İlhan Mimaroğlu is like putting on an old record that you haven’t listened to in years. As the needles pop the notes into the air, the songs reveal a resolute artistic persona whose voice was one of the most original of its time.
Yet, Mimaroğlu has been a relatively unknown figure in popular culture. A documentary entitled Mimaroğlu: The Robinson of Manhattan—to be released later in 2020—sets out to rectify that, not only by detailing the composer’s musical life, but also by exploring the romantic and creative relationship with his wife Güngör Mimaroğlu, their political activism, and his other artistic work.
Born in Istanbul on March 11, 1926, Mimaroğlu went on to build a career that led him to cross paths with cultural icons such as Charles Mingus, İdil Biret, Tülay German, Federico Fellini, and Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, starting his own record label and pushing at the horizons of experimental music all the while.
His life could easily have gone in a different direction, however—the avant garde composer, radio broadcaster, writer, and producer was the son of the celebrated architect Ahmet Kemaleddin, whose image adorns the back of the 20 TL banknote today.
Mimaroğlu never knew his father, as he died when he was barely a year old. It was his father, however, having bought a phonograph for his son, who helped foster his lifelong passion for music. While attending high school in Istanbul, he took piano and clarinet lessons and was inspired by such jazz greats as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, even hijacking the school radio station to play records he felt everyone else just had to hear.
At the time of his graduation from the Ankara School of Law in 1949, Mimaroğlu had been making a name for himself as a music critic while working as a radio broadcaster and penning piano compositions in his free time. This diverse and fervent activity eventually resulted in a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation in New York to study musicology under Paul Henry Lang at Columbia University in 1955. Mimaroğlu’s early days in that city proved formative as he bounced from one jazz concert to the next, soaking up the sounds of the famous metropole.
One of a kind
As an early career began to form, so did his romantic life; in 1958 Mimaroğlu met his future wife, Güngör Batum, through a serendipitous meeting with the radio programmer Erdem Buri in Istanbul. Their relationship would become a union in almost every sense as Güngör went on to play an integral role in her husband’s personal and professional life, and the two inspired and counseled each other in all things artistic and political.
“I have never known anyone quite like İlhan in my life,” Güngör told The Guide Istanbul of her late husband. “He was one of a kind. He went to places where nobody had ventured before, saw things nobody else could see, and turned them into art, music, and photographs.” Marrying almost immediately, the two permanently relocated to Manhattan in 1959.
Mimaroğlu began working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, which allowed him to learn from composers Edgard Varese and Vladimir Ussachevsky. At the time, Ussachevsky had been conducting electronic musical experiments on a piece of equipment called the Ampex 400 tape recorder. This was a groundbreaking machine that enabled faithful, professional-level musical recordings to be made years before multi-track recorders and synthesizer technology even existed. It was the perfect chance for Mimaroğlu to develop his interest in electronic music, which he began to explore in earnest in the early 1960s.
Agony, a nearly ten-minute-long tribute to Arshile Gorky’s famous painting of the same name, features an unapologetic opacity that reveals itself to be ever-more translucent on repeated listens. This bracing style is one of the dominant themes of Mimaroğlu’s career.
Serdar Kökçeoğlu, the director of the documentary Mimaroğlu, describes these early compositions as highly exploratory: “They were like collages, similar to editing a film,” he told The Guide Istanbul. “For İlhan, electronic music and cinema were very close disciplines.” Indeed, his flair for the cinematic may be what led Mimaroğlu to being chosen as one of four artists to score Federico Fellini’s 1969 masterpiece Fellini Satyricon.
While intensely cerebral, Mimaroğlu was never rigid in his approach to music. His goal was always to create and explore new sounds and ideas through musical experiments. “He was avant garde more than he was a standard classical or electronic musician,” Kökçeoğlu notes.
The Atlantic association
Working at Atlantic Records in the 1970s after having connected with Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, the Turkish-American brothers who founded the influential record label, Mimaroğlu changed his focus to avant garde jazz. While at Atlantic, he collaborated with such titans as Freddie Hubbard and Charles Mingus. Mingus himself was infamously as complex as his compositions and just as difficult to work with—Atlantic needed a personality of equal mettle and acuity to pair him with. Mimaroğlu was the perfect match, as is obvious in songs like Canon, the opening track to the 1973 Mimaroğlu-produced album Mingus Moves, in which elegiac horns patiently drift into view for nearly three whole minutes before erupting into a cathartic cacophony of sound.
It was through this association with Atlantic that Mimaroğlu was able to establish a sub-label of his own called Finnadar Records. The label pressed wildly experimental albums from artists like John Cage, German electronic visionary Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Jean Dubuffet, putting out Mimaroğlu’s own jazz work as well. Tract: A Composition of Agitprop Music For Electromagnetic Tape is perhaps the most distinctive among these releases. The album features exploratory jazz wanderings overlaid with quotes from Jean-Baptiste Clément, Karl Marx, Nazım Hikmet, and vocal performances from Tülay German.
It was under this record label that Mimaroğlu began collaborating with renowned concert pianist İdil Biret in 1972. Working together for the next ten years, the two produced nine albums that feature Biret’s interpretations of contemporary and classic work by artists such as Pierre Boulez, Anton Webern, Beethoven, and Chopin—work that received critical acclaim in both Europe and the United States.
“He struck me as an old school gentleman,” said Biret of “İlhan Bey,” as she refers to him, in an email correspondence with The Guide Istanbul. “He had very high standards, in music as well as in life. His impeccable manners didn’t prevent him from expressing a most original and daring turn of spirit.”
Mimaroğlu began to step away from the music industry after Finnadar Records folded in the 1980s, leaving him more time to focus on personal photography, film, and writing projects while trying to find new ways to express himself. Despite having lived in New York for decades, however, the bond he had with his homeland was as strong as ever.
“For İlhan it was different,” says Kökçeoğlu of his cultural allegiances. “He always wanted to make something for his country, to produce something for Turkey. He always preferred to write in Turkish.” His cultural commentaries appeared in Cümhüriyet newspaper throughout the 1970s and 1990s and he wrote a number of books in Turkish on topics ranging from music history to jazz and cinema, even up to just a few years before his death. Succumbing to pneumonia in July 2012, Mimaroğlu left behind a legacy of artistic and professional integrity that few other cultural actors can live up to.
While his life and art remain criminally unsung, the forthcoming documentary Mimaroğlu is an encouraging sign that that is about to change. The film features both new and archival footage, as well as animation and music videos.
Beyond the music and industry that Mimaroğlu made such an impact on, his story is one of resilience and fortitude, the traits that perhaps most impress Kökçeoğlu. “Here is a guy who came from out of nowhere, went to the States, and became a part of history,” the director says with admiration. “Mimaroğlu shows you that, if you fail, you have to keep trying new things. If you want to change the world, you have to keep your walk.”
Know the artist
- Listen to Sing Me a Song of Songmy, an album composed by Mimaroğlu and performed by jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. You can also find Mimaroğlu’s works in the soundtrack of Fellini Satyricon (1969).
- Read Caz Sanatı, the first jazz book in Turkey wrote by Mimaroğlu in 1958. His English writings are published as a collection entitled Other Words. www.dr.com.tr
- Watch the upcoming documentary. Stay up-to-date with it through mimaroglufilm.com or @mimaroglufilm on Instagram.