FENESTRA: Oğuz Büyükberber

As a multi disciplinary artist and a 95% blind individual, Oğuz Büyükberber aims to create safe space to explore personal trauma in an expressive way, while raising awareness to the wide spectrum of disabilities and their affect in people’s perception of reality, and therefor how much they influence communication. Reflecting on his own distorted and very limited sight, Büyükberber layers gestures, textures and ideas over one another in this ever evolving eclectic story, full of juxtaposed references. Eliza Aboltina and Girts Ozolins meet with Oğuz just hours before his show PROCESSING in Berlin's Spreehalle to speak about the evolution of his creative path, accessibility of tools to express himself as a visually impaired artist and how he made it in an industry that isn't always easy to navigate without the weight of disability.

Oğuz Büyükberber - PROCESSING at Pantopia Festival, Spreehalle, Berlin, July 2023

PROCESSING explores our complex and multi layered emotional responses that are often in dissonance with one or more messages we have ingrained in our minds. Because these messages are often conflicting with each other, the inevitable paradoxical nature of our reaction tends to leave us with unrest, and what needs to be processed becomes more than just what triggers us when we react to our response.

While this is true for everyone, people with disabilities experience it at a peculiar intensity as their perception is often greatly different from people without disabilities. In PROCESSING, as a multi disciplinary artist and a 95% blind individual, Oğuz Büyükberber aims to create safe space to explore personal trauma in an expressive way while raising awareness to the wide spectrum of disabilities and their affect in people’s perception of reality and therefor how much it influences communication.

Reflecting on his own distorted and very limited sight, Büyükberber layers gesture over gesture, texture over texture and idea over idea in this ever-evolving piece, full of juxtaposed references. Works by Max Ernst, Cy Twobly, Pierre Boulez, Kraftwerk, Bootsy Collins, Wendy Carlos, Alfred Hitchcock, Mauricio Kagel and, of course, John Cage, as well as Oğuz’s own personal history, dreams and nightmares form the basis of this work. Between the lines, or sometimes in your face, are elements linked to pop culture, comic books, science fiction, psychoanalysis, architecture and family drama.

Composed and performed by Oğuz Büyükberber

EA: How did your creative path start? I'm curious about the evolution from visual arts to music and everything in between.

OB: I've been a performing artist for the most of my life I'm in my 50s now, I started in the primary school. It was first visual arts, then poetry. I was one of those kids who annoyed everyone. I was on the TV reciting poetry, winning international painting competitions and things like that. My dream was music, but because I was already over-achieving in all those other areas, no one took my passion for music seriously. I had to really beg my parents to buy me a small Casio keyboard in the early 80s. I am a visually impaired person from birth. I currently have about 5% remaining sight left. It's actually more impressive if I say the other way around - I'm 95% blind, usually people understand that better. When I was a child, I had a little over 10% sight. So, pretty much more than double of what I have now. And I could see from up close in very good detail. That's how I could do visual arts really well. Nonetheless it was super tiresome. After I convinced my parents to give me that Casio keyboard, I was immediately in rock bands, doing progressive rock. Pink Floyd, Uriah Heep and Yes were the big influences. And then I discovered jazz… And that was it! Because when I discovered jazz, I also immediately discovered the avant-garde jazz, like Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. (Both African American composer-improvisor who were instrumental in pushing the limits of jazz) The really heavy weight stuff! And at the same time, I also discovered Ligeti (György Sándor Ligeti - a Hungarian-Austrian composer of contemporary classical music - ed.) and Stockhausen (Karlheinz Stockhausen - a German composer, pioneer of electronic music. - ed.) and the early electronic music. Basically, that's my basis as as an electronic musician. Of course, I love all the techno stuff, dance music and drones, but what I feel most at home is the gestural abstract expression.

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Oğuz Büyükberber

EA:  How did the clarinet come in the picture?  

OB: When I discovered jazz I was a keyboard player and I immediately switched to the piano, I was practicing and studying harmony. I was 19-20 years old around that time, and I realised, man, I cannot take my instrument to the beach. It sounds weird, but it's true. And everyone was playing guitar - I didn't want to play guitar (laughing -ed.). Joking aside, I also really love the sound of the clarinet. I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, listening to a lot of gypsy music, a lot of music from the Balkans, and a lot of classical music. For whatever reason listening to the orchestra, I would just latch on to the clarinet part. At the time I was playing a recorders (block flute) and I was trying to transcribe the clarinet part of orchestral pieces for the block flute. I guess it's just a sound thing, you know? And when I look back now, also having having grown in synthesis, clarinet has such a pure sound, yet, it has all the possibilities to make it really dirty. You can use extended techniques, multiphonics and it has a huge range compared to flute or other woodwinds. And I'm especially specialised in bass clarinet, which probably has the widest range of the family. 

Eddy Westveer

GO:  Can you read scores? 

OB:  I can't. It's as simple as that - my disability limits that. People say I have a tremendous capability of learning by ear and memorizing. The thing is, I know the music theory really well. And I do compose. Writing, and reading are completely different processes. When I compose, I know what I'm writing. And with computer aids, making things really large, I can compose for other people to perform. But when a new piece is written for me by another composer, I cannot learn it through my sight. Similarly, I cannot see a conductor. So that's why, from the beginning of my career as a classical musician, it was clear that I was not going to be an orchestral player. That's why I think I became a soloist. Lots of composers have written pieces for me incorporating improvisation and instruction based sections. 

From Oğuz Büyükberber’s Book “Spiral", published on Donemus

EA: Being a classically trained clarinet player, but also an electronic musician, can you talk about the different aspects of accessibility in classical music versus electronic music and tools being used in these disciplines accordingly?

OB:  I think if we divide classical music world into classical repertoire and contemporary music, there's a fair amount of great performers out there, who are specialized in period music, who are blind, or are people with all kinds of other disabilities. It is so because “that music” existed for centuries, and there's a really clear performance practice. There's a ton of different versions of old repertoire already recorded. I think, for someone who's blind to learn and master that repertoire is difficult, but not as difficult as learning new compositions that were not previously recorded. Unless the composer is willing to bend their own way of working. Some composers are so attached to what's on the page. That makes it extremely inaccessible for visually impaired classically trained musicians. And it's a very competitive environment. As a result, unfortunately it rules out a lot of visually impaired people like myself. If you have a more entrepreneurial drive you just make the process your own, you find your own people to work and create with.

Photo by Yonga Sun "Creating Repeatable melodic improvisation on modular synthesisers” Masterclasses at ArtEZ Conservatory, Enschede NL

EA:  Would you say that the environment of electronic music, contemporary music, outside of the classical realm is more accessible to people with visual impairment?

OB:  When I say contemporary classical music, I don't think it's accessible. However if we talk about…, I have a hard time calling it “experimental music” Though it's often used, I don't feel like I'm doing an experiment on stage because I'm really prepared & I know what I'm doing. And there was a time in the 60s where people were actually experimenting in front of the audience. But I don't think that's what most experimental artists are doing these days. That’s a tangent, anyways, I think the more unconventional electronic music scene is a lot more accessible. And people like Erica Synths are pushing a really interesting example. If and when more makers would be willing to at least listening to what people need, a big leap could be achieved where the creative culture is more inclusive. Mega-corporations seem to not really care, and that makes it really, really hard. With my very limited sight, I was an early adapter of using Ableton Live in the early 2000s. I started with version one, and I used it daily for 15 years. When my sight started getting a lot worse and I started losing my near focus, I was no longer able to work on the computer and I had to stop using Ableton Live. That’s when I discovered modular synthesisers. Thanks to makers like Erica Synths and the knowledge I already had, I made my way. But just recently, the Ableton Push 3 came out as a standalone unit and I don't need the computer anymore to use Ableton Live. I was so happy to get my hands on one, and am happily using it, however it’s quite obvious that they didn't consult any visually impaired musicians in the community during the development. I know if there was willingness, it could be made more accessible.

EA:  That is the bottom line - we have the technology now, so at the end of the day, it's just about having a conversation with visually impaired people and giving accessibility a thought when developing new interfaces.

OB:  Yeah, in the Ableton example, it took themselves this long, and there's still ways to go, but there's hope.

EA:  I think it's really interesting that you work with visual art - can you explain what differs how you express your ideas via these very different mediums? How do you compartmentalise visual arts and music? 

OB:  What fascinates me in music compared to visual arts, is that in visual arts every gesture drawn remains present even if other gestures are added. Oil paintings are a different story, because you can erase gestures, but when you're drawing, you're accumulating information. Even the very first information remains observable when the drawing is completed. Whereas in music, if you play a piece of music for 10 minutes, what you played at any given moment, is not there after you played it. Physically...

EA:  It exists in real time.

OB:  It's super momentary. It is the same with speech. We understand each other when we construct long sentences, but what we're able to perceive physically is what our brain puts together over a span of time in which that information occurred. But that information is not hanging there in its entirety at the moment we perceive it. That fascinates me - the concept of time. In visual arts, you can also go back in time. You and can change your mind and erase anything. But you cannot do that in music. Obviously I am talking about live performance and not about a record production. That's much more like painting. The production stage of a record or a piece of electronic music that is a “fixed medium piece” is more like painting since you can edit, extract, subtrac etc,… Whereas in live music performance, you don't have that ability. I find that really fascinating!.


Oğuz Büyükberber

EA:  Absolutely. How similar are two of your performances if they are, let's say a week apart from each other? 

OB:  Throughout my musical career, I have made music in a wide variety of different genres. I have even played in folk music bands as a clarinet player. If we talk about that, of course, every night, I’d be playing exactly the same part. Right? But when I'm improvising? It would be interesting for you to answer this as a listener. There are people who have written about my work, commenting on  how difficult they find it at times to tell when am I  improvising vs when am I playing my own composed material, and how my playing is very recognisable almost as a language. But of course, analytically, it's not going to be same. I published a book about my own approach to improvisation where I give examples on how I construct my phrases and lines, and explain the method I developed to generate melodies. So it's not just “oh, that’s what I feel.” My mood, of course, plays a huge role in every performance, but the content is quite coherent. Hopefully.

PTSS by Oğuz Büyükberber, Zurich University of Fine Arts 2020

EA:  In the accompanying text of your visual work exhibited you mention that the work 'Processing' deals with the peculiar intensity of the sensory perception in the context of the experience people with disabilities have. 

OB:  I made those colorful paintings in the exhibition to communicate a particular sensory experience I have. In my medical condition, when I close my eyes, instead of a dark space, I see all those shapes, colors and lights, flashing and moving. Constantly. That's a fact. And that's not because I'm on LSD - I wish it was that simple (laughing - ed.) When I'm looking at you guys here, my brain is doing so much processing, in order to de-noise all those flashing things and just see you guys as much as I can. “Hence the title of my show”, I know that those shapes and flashing things are there but I just let my brain do the filtering. However, when I try to sleep at night, I notice how much of my bandwidth this processing takes when I'm super exhausted and tired and but I can’t sleep easily. That is the kind of sensory overload I'm talking about. I have really close friends who are top level classical musicians and have this experience with sound, They have the training and mindfulness to extract those distortions, and are able to execute their parts perfectly well. No one notices that, but what their brain is going through to be able to achieve this is an immense amount of work. I have to deal with this intensity everyday because of my sight. This concept can also be applied to any other disability with motor skills as well. People with disabilities have to work really hard even for the everyday mundane tasks, or else they would have to end up staying at home, and be isolated from the society. 

GO:  On a practical level, how do you connect with the industry to get work opportunities? Do you work with an agent? 

OB:  I don't have an agent at the moment. I have tried it many times over the last 30 years and I find it very difficult. At the moment things mostly happen through connections for me. And hopefully the work I've put out there all these years attracts people. But I wish there was a better network and the whole agent system worked better. I also can't help thinking how bad the shift in the record industry towards streaming has actually been. For example, in the 90s, you would make a record, get reviews, people would see you in the store, reviews would lead to a tour where you would sell more CDs. None of that is there anymore. And I know that a lot of journalists do also review digital-only releases nowadays, it is starting to change, but... I can't help bu thinking that as a whole system, it's not the best model right now.

Find Oğuz Büyükberber's discography here

GO:  As a well established artist and musician, what would be your advice to other disabled artists and musicians?

OB:  Trusting that you are worthy is a really big one. Because a lot of disabled people struggle a lot with self worth. I still struggle with that daily, and I try not to listen to that voice. Try not to take what that voice says as a fact, and keep going. And trying to find your people. In a way, current times make this easier than ever with internet. There are tons of support groups and networks about disabilities all over the world. So people can find the right people to connect to, create together and share ideas with. And asking for help to get out of the house. I think that is number one! You need to get out of the house.

GO:  Was there any specific moment when you felt that your career as an audio-visual artist is really taking off? 

OB:  There have been several moments. One of the more recent ones, was getting featured with a 4,5 stars review in the Downbeat Magazine. Much earlier, it was my dream to be at the finals of the young talent competition which I couldn’t for years. And finally, in 1993 I not only made it to the finals, but I got the Best Instrumentalist award!. It's funny… On one hand, these achievements don't mean anything, but on the other hand, they motivate and give you validation and orientation. It's a double edged sword since people can get too dependent on external validation. You can end up not really listening to your inner voice and you might end up going to places that are not true to yourself. So, I think it's an interesting balance to strike.

GO:  What makes you happy? 

What makes me happy? Creating, expressing, communicating and getting feedback. Being around fellow artists and art lovers is what I really thrive on. And what makes me unhappy the most, is when I feel what I just described seems to not be possible because of my disability. That does happen. Sometimes there would be a festival I would really want to go, but it would be just too hard for me when things are inaccessible.

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