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The piano of Turkish Music Kanun

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Posted 20 March 2005 - 22:06

Turkish novelist Kemal Tahir describes the kanun humorously as 'a spider's web which large flies rip right through, while small flies are trapped.? He also refers to it as ?Artaki's instrument,' Artaki being a celebrated Armenian kanun player at the beginning of the 20th-century. Closely resembling the zither, the kanun has many strings stretched across a wooden sound box, to whose edges it is attached by pegs.

Since musical instruments were born and evolved with human beings, establishing their origin with precision is extremely difficult. Some sources attribute the invention of the kanun to the renowned Islamic scholar Farabi, who lived in Turkistan in the 10th century. Albert Lavignac says in his musical dictionary and encyclopaedia that the kanun was an invention of the Arabs, while others say that this instrument was developed much earlier in Central Asia by the Turks, who carried it westwards with them into Anatolia. It is also said to have found its way to Arabia via Iran.
Other evidence points to this instrument having a very ancient origin. The kanun was not known by Europeans until relatively recently, however. The French, for example, only made its acquaintance after Napoleon's Egyptian campaign
in 1792.
With its bright, clear sound capable of expressing all kinds of emotions, this instrument was widely used in Ottoman Turkey. In the 18th century it was particularly popular with women, as we gather from accounts of palace life and illustrations. Drawings of an Ottoman orchestra, including kanun players, by the Swiss artist J. E. Liotard, who lived in Istanbul and Izmir from 1738 to 1742, provide further evidence of its widespread use at that time.

The kanun has undergone various changes since its invention. The strings used to be made of gut, but since the early 20th century these have been superseded by nylon strings, which give a more powerful sound and are easily available in various gauges. The pegs used today are another recent modification which did not exist in the original instrument.
Before these were introduced the musician obtained the notes he desired by pressing on the strings with the nail of his left thumb, making it a far more difficult instrument to play. Haci Arif Bey was the greatest virtuoso of the kanun in this original form in the 19th century. The next kanun virtuoso was the 20th century musician Ferid Alnar, who won a reputation as a very young man with his unusual style of playing, and was regarded as a master before he had reached the age of 20. In 1946 Alnar composed his Concerto for String Instruments and Kanun. Other celebrated kanun players were ?Blind? Nazim Bey, Vecihe Daryal and Ahmet Yatman. The wooden soundbox has six fretwork sound holes which give greater body to the sound. On the right hand side are four sections each 12-19 centimetres long covered with kid or sheathfish skin, and the bridge has four feet which transfer the pressure of the strings to the leather-covered sections. Diverse types of wood are used for making kanuns, including fir, cedar, plane, lime, hornbeam and beech.

The kanun player sits with his instrument on his knees, and with picks made of tortoiseshell attached to rings on the forefinger of each hand.
With the left hand he adjusts the pegs to the correct pitch for the piece as the makam changes, while playing the melody with his right. The ringing sound of the kanun can be heard even at the noisiest gatherings, and it makes a uniquely colourful contribution to music.
Like the piano, each string produces the single note to which it is tuned, so the sounds are ready-made as it were. This is why it is said of the kanun that, 'A cat walking across it can make music.? The instrument is played with all the fingers, using a technique comparable to that of the harp and guitar. It is the instrument best adapted to polyphonic music, and might be called the piano of Turkish music. Since 1981 I have given recitals of kanun music in almost forty countries from the United States to Japan. Everywhere I have noticed how quickly it captivates listeners owing to its versatility, which allows it to play music of all kinds.

It is equally at home as an accompanying or solo instrument. When played in an orchestra or ensemble it sweeps up all the other instruments and leads them on. So I regard it as the maestro of Turkish music. The kanun is an instrument of special importance, since it can play both jazz and chamber music, and also has the advantage of being a solo instrument which can play symphonic works.
Finally, I wish to close by reminding our composers that the kanun needs them.


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