Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Music

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who has received a Palme d’Or award in the prestigious Cannes Film Festival with his film “Winter Sleep”, is now accepted as an auteur director. “Auteur” is an adjective attributed to directors who have their own “style and expression” in cinema and examples to this include masters such as Federico Fellini, Theodoros Angelopoulos, and Ken Loach. However, Ceylan is distinguished among them with a major difference: He doesn’t feature original music in his movies…

It isn’t a coincidence that we think of scenes from Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films when we hear Mozart’s “Concertante E-flat Major K.364 (Andante)”  or Domenico Scarlatti’s “Piano Sonata in F minor, K. 466”. Ceylan’s approach to cinema pays attention to minute detail, requiring every scene to be shot over and over again while the scenario transforms and changes as the shooting goes on. The use of music is naturally regarded with the same diligent attention.

Despite Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s going over the use of music with a fine comb, he does not produce original music specific to his films. In addition, he criticizes the use of music in increasing the dramatic effect in movies:

“I don’t like the use of music in cinema, it feels unnecessary to me; if you cannot express something through cinematic techniques, you end up using music to put emphasis on that. I am not fully against it but I try to avoid using it as much as I can. I experiment with different genres of music during the editing process, but I end up not using any. Also, the ambient sound is the best sound in cinema in my eyes, that’s why I opt to use that sound instead of music, for music causes damage on many things.”

However, we can feel that Ceylan has chosen beautiful examples of classical music in his usual attentive approach when we watch his films from Cocoon (20 minutes long short film), which was accepted to Cannes Film Festival in 1995 putting Ceylan in the limelight, to his latest movie “The Wild Pear Tree”. Our aim is to introduce the music pieces this prominent director chose to feature in his movies in this article.

“Vyacheslav Artyomov”

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s first cinematic work, the short film called “Cocoon” features Russian composer Vyacheslav Artyomov’s work. The composer is one of the most prominent Russian composers still alive today and is currently still writing music. Vyacheslav Artyomov is a master of depressive and melancholic melodies, and his composition is “the story of an old couple who try to live together again only to fail” feels very fitting to the atmosphere of Cocoon.

Ceylan’s first full-length film “The Small Town” (1998) features possibly the only original composition he chose to include in is movies. The melody played by clarinet master Ali Kayacı, also known as “Kara Ali” (meaning “Black Ali”), expresses the dark and light atmospheres of the movie with great success.

The Small Town is the first film in the “Provincial Trilogy” which consists of three full-feature films. This movie, shot in black and white, is followed by “Clouds of May” in which works of J.S. Bach, Händel and Schubert are featured.

… I was actually hesitant whether to use classical music, I used local melodies in The Small Town and I ultimately liked that, but I wanted the music of Clouds of May to be alienating, I wanted to connect that local quality with a more international music. Actually, I initially didn’t want to use music at all but I couldn’t resist after the montage. At least, I paid attention to this: I tried not to use the music to elevate a certain feeling, meaning not to express the feelings of an protagonist or to intensify that feeling, I tried to use them in irrelevant scenes. This made my feeling of guilt subside a little.”

The last film of the Provincial Trilogy “Distant” brought Nuri Bilge Ceylan the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes Film Festival in 2003. This film features Mozart’s Köchel 364.


Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s wife Ebru Ceylan acted alongside her husband in “Climates”, a turning point in the director’s cinema following the trilogy, and the film features incredible scenes shot with digital camera as well as two magnificent works of music;  Domenico Scarlatti’s “Piano Sonata in F minor, K. 466”  and  Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Für Elise”.

It can be assumed that Nuri Bilge Ceylan enjoys classical music among the other genres from his various anecdotes, and he uses “jazz” only as a license plate. We see “caz” as the license plate of an Istanbulite advertiser’s car in “Climates”, showing Ceylan’s sense of humour when it comes to the pairing of music and characters.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2008 film “Three Monkeys”, a milestone in his filmography that won him the best director award in Cannes Film Festival, features only ambient sound.

“Yıldız Tilbe”

The only melody we hear in this film which takes place in depressing areas of Istanbul, is Turkish cult singer Yıldız Tilbe’s “Seninde Yüreyin Yansın”, heard through the mobile phone of the head actress, who is struggling with her forbidden love.

Flora that consists of xerophytic and herbaceous plants in hot and mild climates, ecologic areas without trees, are called “Steppes”. These steppes dominate the mid-sections of Anatolia and are used as the main backdrop in “Once Upon A Time in Anatolia”, an important movie in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s filmography.

“Hacı Taşan”
“Neşet Ertaş”

Nuri Bilge Ceylan did not use classical music to intensify the effect left on the audience by these endless steppes, but instead he opted for Turkish Folk Music. The esteemed director chose a folk song called “Allı Turnam”, which belongs to “Hacı Taşan” who was born in Kırıkkale’s “Keskin” district where the film also takes place. This folk song is performed by “Neşet Ertaş”, one of the most important musicians and composers in Turkey, in an important scene of the film.

We see that Ceylan has gone back to using classical music in “Winter Sleep” which won our prominent director the prestigious “Palme d’Or”.

Franz Schubert’s “Sonata in A major D959 – Andantino” and Luciano Michelini’s “Desolation” are used in this film to help us internalize the many emotions of various characters in the beautiful scenery of Cappadocia.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan doesn’t hesitate to explain how influenced he is by Andrey Tarkovsky’s cinematographic works, and is known for his love for J.S. Bach just like Tarkovsky:

“I find Bach’s music very painful, it also sounds melodically very rich… I don’t know, this music seeps into my soul; I rather enjoy baroque music. I actually like Bach’s choral works better. His cantatas, oratorios and similar, but that would have been too much, I didn’t want a feeling of Christianity to be felt. I only used the harpsichord from Bach, I also considered using the piano version, because the harpsichord has a church feeling to it, that’s why I was hesitant, but I ultimately chose the harpsichord.”

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s highly anticipated movie “The Wild Pear Tree”, which received standing ovation in Cannes Festival despite not winning any awards, features Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582”.

“… And there is also this: Third-World countries are pressured into using their own local music. There is such a pressure in the West and these countries also seem to have embraced this as well. But they aren’t criticized when they use music of their own choosing from wherever in the World. Tarkovski uses Japanese music as well as Bach and can make a film out of their works, but when a Turkish director does the same, they are pressured into using Turkish music instead. Therefore, I might have used Bach’s works as a reaction to this situation. I feel like classical music belongs to everybody, it belongs to humanity.”

With our utmost respect to our esteemed director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose works are always highly anticipated by not only Turkish cinephiles but also by international cinema-loving audiences around the world…

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