Bushra El-Turk on cross-culture collaboration

Florence Lockheart
Monday, October 31, 2022

The composer talks about what we can expect from this year's edition of contemporary music platform Soundings, as well as giving an insight into her creative process

The 2022 edition of contemporary music platform Soundings makes its return this week. Curated by pianist Mary Dullea, London’s Austrian Cultural Forum will play host to composers and musicians from Austria and the UK for four days of open rehearsals, discussions and public performances. This year’s event will feature Austrian composers Hannah EisendleDaniel Oliver Moser, and Roozbeh Nafisi, alongside UK composers Litha Efthymiou, Robin Haigh and Bushra El-Turk (pictured above).

I sat down with El-Turk last week to learn more about what she’s looking forward to at this year’s Soundings, as well as to find out more about her own works and explore how they reflect the event’s themes of creative collaboration and sharing across cultural borders.

What sparks your inspiration as a composer?

I’m interested in the integration of Western cultural elements with cultural elements from different parts of the world. I have Lebanese heritage and Lebanese parents, but I was born and educated in London so I've also been very curious about what home means. This constant search for home has been the thread that ties all my work together.

I’m very interested in exploring the spectrum between the written and the improvised, between the spoken and the song and between music and theatre. These spectrums really make me hungry to explore and question these divides in my practise.

I'm also very passionate about raising women's issues in my work as well as more general social, cultural and political issues.  It's not just about the music that comes out, it's the whole act of music making, so I include a lot of improvisational and collaborative elements in my music. When I'm working with musicians of different cultural or indigenous traditions, I'm sharing my platform, giving voice to marginalised voices and giving them each a perspective on the issues.

You work across the concert hall, the stage, film, TV and live art performance – how do you maintain your unique musical voice across these different media? 

It's a good question because when you're working with improvisers, how much of your voice is recognisable? Your voice is kept partly from the act of choosing collaborators that are representative of your artistic intention. As an artist, collaboration can be demanding because you're constantly challenged to justify your musical choices. But there's always a sense of osmosis in between myself and my collaborators so my voice inevitably comes out. It will obviously compromise for the benefit of the production and what we are trying to say as a whole, but there's always my musical language there.

I recently worked with a repetiteur called Samir Bendimered. He’s also a composer and pianist and he was analysing my work every day. He would look at my chords, my harmonic structure, my overall arc, and say, “This is so Bushra right here.” You don't realise you’re doing it until people bring it up.

Looking forward to the upcoming Soundings event, what can audiences expect?

It's going to be illuminating from an audience perspective to hear the processes behind the composers' works. I’m desperate for an opening into a different musical path myself, so I'm looking forward to being questioned and challenged, hoping it'll illuminate that.

Audiences will get a chance to observe how a composer works with their performers. That will probably be quite eye-opening for them. The way I explore my musical ideas is not just through the score, but also through the music. I end up showing diagrams and charts to make it clear and I sometimes express my musical ideas orally or tap the rhythm. There are all these things that you can't really notate exactly because, how can you express the feel of a certain a musical phrase? You can write all the dynamics, of course, but then you lose the spirit.

I'm sharing my platform, giving voice to marginalised voices and giving them each a perspective on the issues.

In this event the audience will probably observe me trying to plead for the musician to take their heads out of the page, asking how they would sculpt an improvisation, so in a sense we're co-composing together. I've already sown the seeds with all the written material and the musicians can then develop that, distort it, elongate it, decorate it.

This event combines formal performance with discussions and open rehearsals. What do you feel that those additional formats bring to the event as a whole?

They'll make everything come to life. They melt the divide between audience and performer/composer. There's always a psychological barrier, but when the audience are given the insight and it makes sense to them how and why you wrote a work, how it came about, what musical materials you used, it's like their bodies come off their seats in the performance - they get it. These insights are their way in, and our way out as well - reaching each other somehow.

Your Saffron Dusk for string quartet (2021) and Marionette for flute and piano (2008) will be performed on 2 and 3 November – what made you choose these works for this event?

Saffron Dusk and Marionette were the pieces that came naturally from my tongue. Conceptually, they made so much sense for this event. Marionette was one of my very first proper commissions. It was commissioned by flautist Wissam Boustany and it has all the elements that I've later refined.

Saffron Dusk was very meaningful when I wrote it. In it I’m reflecting on being very much affected by the Beirut explosion of 2020. I was there looking after my dying father around six months after it happened and everyone I met told me their connection to it. Either they were seconds away from being bombed themselves, or they were working in the hospital trying to get into the corridors before the building collapsed. I didn't expect it to take off and be adopted by other string quartets as well, but it means a lot.

How important to you is Sounding’s theme of creative collaboration and sharing across borders?

It's the way into common understanding, it's our way into finding all the common denominators between us. British ways of music education are different from Austrian ones and schools of thought are very different all over the world. It's going to be interesting to explore the way these cross-border interactions will spark similarities and differences.

I'm really excited about the five other composers participating. For example, there's an Iranian composer coming from Austria, Roozbeh Nafisi, and there’s an overlap in what he does with what I do, so it will be very interesting to see.

You hold the role of co-director of The Alternative Conservatoire and work a lot with young people. In your experience, what are the main issues affecting the next generation of musicians?

The real problem is the musicians from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who are not getting in, that's the biggest obstacle. I teach such wonderful, talented kids, they inspire and amaze me every day, but it's quite sad that they're mostly from private schools.

That's what I'm addressing with the Alternative Conservatoire. It's a three-month accelerator course designed as a starting point for music creators who are financially challenged and who find themselves alienated by the traditional mold of the Conservatoire and of the university. It's also addresses the idea of a world village where we look at melody, not from a Euro-centric sense, but as expressed through different cultures.

What’s next for you?

After five or six years of working on it, my opera Woman at Point Zero just had its world premiere at Aix en Provence and will be going on tour. It'll come to London at the end of June at the Royal Opera House and will be going to various European venues and festivals too. It's about an interview between two women. One is a sex worker on death row for killing her former pimp and the other one is interviewing her as a filmmaker. It's based on the novel by Nawal El Saadawi that's more than 40 years old now so we're bringing it into the present day using the voices of women that were in the same prison and also killed their abusers, questioning whether that’s right or wrong.

Woman At Point Zero will be performed at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre from 28–30 June 2023. General booking opens on 13 April 2023.

Soundings will take place at London’s Austrian Cultural Forum from 1-4 November. Further information can be found here.

Bushra El-Turk's Saffron Dusk and Marionette will be rehearsed in workshops open to the public and performed in two evening concerts on2 Novemberand 3 November.