The Avant-garde Genius of İlhan Kemaleddin Mimaroğlu


İlhan Mimaroğlu, who passed away in 2012, was both a multi-faceted artist among the prominent musicians of the world and an intellectual. He was interested in mainly electronic music as well as different branches of art such as literature, cinema and photography. In addition, Mimaroğlu did not only produce art but also focused on the theoretical aspects of it. For example, he released “Caz Sanatı” (The Art of Jazz) in 1958 and “Müzik Tarihi” (The History of Music) in 1961. However, I do not think that we can include these works in the category of the history books on classical music. Mimaroğlu was directly involved in these books and the direction of the history of music. He emphasized that these books both give encyclopedic knowledge and illustrate his own perspectives and honest commentary.

Mimaroğlu’s valuable and unique place in the history or art is possibly due to his political/avant-garde and even modernist side. The fact that he worked with two most important branches of art; namely cinema and electronic music, is a clear proof of his modernism. Modernism alludes to “novelty” as well as embodying the concept of progressivism. Mimaroğlu had always searched for what was “new” in his art works, just like the early modernists. This is why he was one of the representatives of an artistic movement that didn’t fit in with any categories; an approach that rebelled against any and all categories. Therefore, we cannot place his music, authorship or relationship with visual elements under a single category. Naturally, the life of such a unique artist becomes a source of curiosity. On the other hand, there isn’t a satisfactory biographical work written about him to this day. It can be said that Mimaroğlu isn’t much known, especially in Turkey. Director Serdar Kökçeoğlu’s documentary on Mimaroğlu, released last year, fills this important gap. This is the first documentary made on Mimaroğlu, and therefore has been the focus of much attention since its release.

Director Kökçeoğlu takes a look at Mimaroğlu, who was such an unconventional, avant-garde artist who didn’t abide by any categories, from a unique perspective. Instead of following the traditions of conventional documentary-making with a chronological order or transforming the artist’s life into a myth through narratives about him; the director uses Mimaroğlu’s 8mm analogue recordings shot in New York and Istanbul as his narrative. The documentary follows these short films and photos taken by Mimaroğlu himself, as well as the explanations of his wife Güngör Mimaroğlu and the words of musicians and academicians. We have an “anti” biographical story about Mimaroğlu’s aesthetical and intellectual world here due to Kökçeoğlu’s narrative approaching the format of found-footage, experimental or even a pilot film. We can claim that Mimaroğlu’s kino-eye can be categorised as videoart as can be seen in the film. Therefore, the director’s choice to steer away from the classical Turkish documentary types goes hand in hand with Mimaroğlu’s life-long avant-garde approach to his art.

Moviemakers such as Peter Forgacs and Alan Berliner who wanted to push the classical narrative format of documentaries in the past 20 years had used archival images and recordings in the entirety of their montages. These moviemakers questioned the relationship between memory and history through the archival material they have used, while showing how ordinary and personal recordings can become parts of collective memory with an aesthetical language. Those who told their stories through archival images mainly finished their work on the montage table. They created an emotional and cinematographic atmosphere by connecting one image to the next while also creating metaphorical meanings. For example, Alan Berliner used the visuals of a black and White boxing match to explain his fights with his father in his film Nobody’s Business, in which he told the story of his father.

Serdar Kökçeoğlu used a similar cinematographic language in his Mimaroğlu documentary. For example, he uses the images of a stormy sea as Güngör Mimaroğlu talks about her problematic marriage. When she mentions that she cannot recognise Istanbul anymore as she puts on her sunglasses, and we are taken back to Mimaroğlu’s recordings of Istanbul. His life is told through the cinematographic images he had recorded himself. It could be said that director’s choice might be led by the fact that Mimaroğlu was passionate about cinema and that electronic music has an affinity to this form of art.

We hear him say “Music is a cinematographic concept. A type of cinema that is observed by the ear. This applies especially to electronic music… Just like a movie” as he fervently walks left and right in the frame as he records himself. The film portrays the close relationship between İlhan Mimaroğlu’s kino-eye and his compositions. Mimaroğlu recorded the skyscrapers of New York, its neon-lit boulevards, its crowd, traffic, billboards, the bag that flies from the manhole covers towards the skyscrapers, people’s faces and its venues in an aesthetical way. You can feel that Mimaroğlu was making these recordings and walking around the city as he was accompanied by an orchestra in his head as he created his compositions. Watching this artist’s life from this perspective, especially given that he saw music and cinema as a whole, is an interesting experience for the viewer. It could also be said that this documentary is like taking a stroll in the consciousness of a musician. We are wandering around his mind throughout the film, just like a stream of consciousness novel. There is a deep connection between the Mimaroğlu’s approach to collages in his compositions and the way experimental moviemaking creates a narration directly through montages. The editing and narrative perspective of the director creates an affinity between his work and experimental cinema as well as the intense relationship between Mimaroğlu and New York in a way similar to the narratives of city symphonies shot in the 1920s and 30s.

Two people one story

The documentary on Mimaroğlu is directly İlhan Mimaroğlu’s story. A considerable portion of the film follows the narrative of his wife, Güngör Mimaroğlu. İlhan and Güngör Mimaroğlu couple met in the 1960s and moved to the USA upon getting married. Their New York days facilitated radical changes for them. Güngör Mimaroğlu, a free and independent woman, was heavily influenced by the glittery big city life of New York as well as the political atmosphere of the period that was on the rise. İlhan Mimaroğlu, on the other hand, took an interest in electronic music during his time at Colombia University and met musical geniuses such as Edgar Varase and became friends with them. The couple lived their separate lives during the day and told each other about their stories at night. Güngör Mimaroğlu’s political view became sharper and shifted towards the left and İlhan Mimaroğlu’s music followed the same line. His work with Tülay German and pieces he composed on Nazım Hikmet’s poetry are good examples to this. The political attitude in İlhan Mimaroğlu’s music became more poignant through the marks left on the musician by the execution of Deniz Gezmiş, the Vietnam War and the general political atmosphere of the 1960s. Director Kökçeoğlu portrays the harmony, love and companionship of the Mimaroğlu couple clearly in the documentary while also emphasizing Güngör Mimaroğlu’s strong character and intellectual depth. The couple spent their lives between New York and Istanbul. Güngör Mimaroğlu found herself in an unfillable gap following İlhan Mimaroğlu’s passing. She lived abroad for many years and found herself in an entirely new city upon her definite return to Istanbul. These moments are the most melancholic and sad minutes of the documentary.

Who really is İlhan Mimaroğlu?

It is not easy to fit the life of such a multi-faceted artist as İlhan Mimaroğlu in a full feature documentary. Serdar Kökçeoğlu mentions that he has experienced this dilemma during the production process of the film. The critique against the film mainly focuses on the lack of mentioning his relationship with books and literature as well as his friendship with Erdem Buri, Tülay German and Architect Kemalettin, who was one of the most prominent architects of the history of the republic. On the other hand, the director emphasizes that he aimed to follow the footsteps of such a radical and unconventional artist in making an innovative documentary.

Erdem Buri,, İlhan Mimaroğlu

So, who is Mimaroğlu? How can we describe him? I believe there are no short answers to these questions. However, we can create an image of the artist’s persona as portrayed within the limitations of the documentary. Mimaroğlu’s attitude towards the competition between contemporary and classical music provides a good starting point to understand his political views. As seen in the film, his “Measly Mozart” t-shirt that he wore as he wandered in New York and his semi-jokingly thinking that Beethoven and Mozart are overrated clearly show that is a modernist thorough and thorough. Keeping in mind that the idea of modernism comes from the image of dwarves rising above giants; Mimaroğlu can be seen as a musician who supported progress through following ideas of not so distant-past in order to find “new” and “contemporary” music. Translator and author Armağan Ekici claims that this attitude of Mimaroğlu was based on the idea that new and different music could not emerge in an environment that is constantly surrounded by the same names. It makes sense that the musician found himself in New York and not in Europe during his musical journey. New York became known as the capital of modernism after Paris lost this title after the 18th century. The former city represented a kind of invented modernism far away from traditions; a topography of different cultures and contemporary art. The documentary makes it more accessible to understand why Mimaroğlu continued his pursuit of electronic music in this city and how he established his musical identity. However, it is important to remember that the idea of modernism stumbled at the end of the 1960s and the Hiroshima disaster had happened. These events cause my belief in historical progressivism and that the idea of modernism will always bring good results to seriously disappear. They naturally shook Mimaroğlu’s utopia as well. His words during his video that shows protests against nuclear power explain this situation clearly: “We don’t live in a contemporary society. These are anachronistic times. We are living like the dust of the past. We think in such way, feel and move in such way”. As can be seen in the documentary, his life was also influenced by the dilemma between popular music, the culture industry and avant-garde art. Elvis Presley on one side and Mozart on the other; which is more progressive? Where is avant-garde music positioned in this environment? Mimaroğlu brings these issues upside down in the film with his ironical approach.

I am a composer this means suicide.

I am a contemporary composer; I don’t know what else I can be if not contemporary. This makes two suicides.

I am an electronic music composer; makes three.

And I compose political music; four.

Four suicides yet here I am, alive.”

Mimaroğlu was a musician who has experienced similar dilemmas. The facts that he worked with Ahmet Ertegün in Atlantic Records and that he produced Charles Mingus’s album are good examples to this. He founded the Finnadar Record Label and opened his doors to musicians who wanted to make electronic or avant-garde music, balancing this situation. Finally, we can add “Where was Mimaroğlu from?” to the question of who he was. He spent a considerable part of his life in New York and shaped his musical world there. So which continent can we position him on?  We know that identity is a never-ending building process. İlhan Mimaroğlu seems to have picked a collage of identities for him just like his music. He was a musician who took his own starting point as point zero as a modernist while also adding the richness of his own culture to his identity. In addition, he was an artist whose music was used in Fellini’s movie Satyricon, someone who produced the music of avant-garde jazz musicians while also completely stepping out of the sphere of political music movements in Turkey. However, he also fed upon the literature and poetry of his own country, never held his words back and never gave up on his oppositional identity. I don’t find it meaningful to categorize Mimaroğlu in a single box when we look at his fragmented identity. Mimaroğlu ultimately was an international person as well as a Turkish citizen. Mimaroğlu seized the period of his time, didn’t pursue traditions or categories, always searched for what was new; he pushed the boundaries of political music, philosophised on art as much as he produced it, making him hard to understand, his music didn’t resonate much with others, leaving the artist with an “elitist” loneliness. The fact that the title of the documentary is “Robinson of Manhattan” is very fitting. Finally, Serdar Kökçeoğlu’s documentary are scenes from the life of an avant-garde artist, reminding us of this genius who was sort of forgotten. This innovative documentary is a must-watch.

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