Composing is always a form of improvisation: with ideas, with musical particles, with imaginary shapes. And it is in this sense that the artistic itinerary and the world-view of the Turkish composer and pianist Fazıl Say should be understood. For it was from the free forms with which he became familiar in the course of his piano lessons with the Cortot pupil Mithat Fenmen that he developed an aesthetic outlook that constitutes the core of his self-conception as a composer. Fazıl Say has been touching audiences and critics alike for more than twenty-five years in a way that has become rare in the increasingly materialistic and elaborately organised classical music world. Concerts with this artist are something else. They are more direct, more open, more exciting; in short, they go straight to the heart. And the same may be said of his compositions.
Fazıl Say wrote his first piece – a piano sonata – as early as 1984, at the age of fourteen, when he was a student at the Conservatory of his home town Ankara. It was followed, in this early phase of his development, by several chamber works without an opus number, including Schwarze Hymnen for violin and piano and a guitar concerto. He subsequently designated as his opus 1 one of the works that he had played in the concert that won him the Young Concert Artists Auditions in New York: the Four Dances of Nasreddin Hodja. This work already displays in essence the significant features of his personal style: a rhapsodic, fantasia-like basic structure; a variable rhythm, often dance-like, though formed through syncopation; a continuous, vital driving pulse; and a wealth of melodic ideas that may often be traced back to themes from the folk music of Turkey and its neighbours. In these respects, Fazıl Say stands to some extent in the tradition of composers like Béla Bartók, George Enescu, and György Ligeti, who also drew on the rich musical folklore of their countries. He attracted international attention with the piano piece Black Earth (1997), in which he employs techniques familiar to us from John Cage and his works for prepared piano. After this, Say increasingly turned to the large orchestral forms. Taking his inspiration from the poetry (and the biographies) of the writers Nâzım Hikmet and Metin Altıok, he composed works for soloists, chorus and orchestra which, especially in the case of the oratorio Nâzim, clearly take up the tradition of composers such as Carl Orff.
In addition to the modern European instrumentarium, Say also makes frequent and deliberate use in these compositions of instruments from his native Turkey, including kudüm and darbuka drums and the ney reed flute. This gives the music a colouring that sets it apart from many comparable creations in this genre. In the year 2007 he aroused international interest with his Violin Concerto 1001 Nights in the Harem, which is based on the celebrated tales of the same name, but deals specifically with the fate of seven women from a harem. Since its world premiere by Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the piece has already received further performances in many international concert halls. Fazıl Say scored a further great success with his first symphony, the Istanbul Symphony, premiered in 2010 at the conclusion of his five-year residency at the Konzerthaus Dortmund. Jointly commissioned by the WDR and the Konzerthaus Dortmund in the framework of Ruhr.2010, the work constitutes a vibrant and poetic tribute to the metropolis on the Bosporus and its millions of inhabitants. The same year saw the composition, among other pieces, of his Divorce String Quartet (based on atonal principles), and commissioned works like the Piano Concerto Nirvana Burning for the Salzburg Festival and a Trumpet Concerto for the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival, premiered by Gábor Boldoczki.
In response to a commission from the 2011 Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Say has also written a Clarinet Concerto for Sabine Meyer that refers to the life and work of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Fazıl Say’s works are issued worldwide by the renowned music publishers Schott of Mainz.