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Burhan Öçal

Burhan Öçal

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach receives an innovative eastern spin in the hands of musicians Burhan Öçal, a Turkish percussionist, and Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, in their interpretation of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). Since debuting the work in 2010, “Bach Reloaded” has been performed across Europe and recently received its Middle East debut in Abu Dhabi at the Emirates Palace.

interviewed Burhan Öçal to learn more about the project:

Saeed Saeed (SS) How did you and Botvinov come up with the concept of Bach Reloaded?

Burhan Öçal (BÖ) I’ve been dreaming about this project for fifteen to twenty years. However, as you know, Bach is such a prominent composer in the western classical-music world that it is very risky to even play his non-religious compositions, and not a lot of people have the courage to do this. So, it was not easy for us to revise his compositions with Turkish percussion and play it live.

We feel that we need to show the audience that these compositions are not for  religious purposes and that they are fully [musically] successful in their very nature. We’ve played these shows in Kiev, Zürich, Paris, Istanbul and at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and each time the audience was mesmerized, so we are trying to connect with the audience in Abu Dhabi in the same way.

SS What is it about Bach’s compositions that lends them to a fusion of percussion and piano?

Bach’s music is so strictly mathematical that you cannot change the structure whatsoever. So this leads Bach’s compositions to be very rhythmic. Of course, these are very hard variations. I’ve maybe listened to the variations hundreds of times to be able to adapt to the piano and percussion. The ten-finger technique used both by the pianist and the percussionist also plays a big role in being able to create a fusion between these two instruments.

SS You and Botvinov focus on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. What is it about that piece that inspires you both to perform it?

The first reason in choosing the Goldberg Variations is that the composition itself was not written with religious purposes. The second reason is that the piece was composed beautifully with its mathematics and rhythmic structure.

SS How would you describe your musical chemistry with Botvinov?

First of all we both are very disciplined musicians. His is a ten-finger technique and mine also, because I do not use drum sticks. This leads us to use our twenty fingers in perfect harmony.

SS What makes it so appealing to international audiences?

I think that the reason behind the performances being appreciated is that it is that, for the first time, such a courageous project is actually being accomplished and is a success.

SS In Abu Dhabi, do you feel people identify with your percussion. Does this feel familiar to Middle East audiences?

I think that they find the music to be familiar, and, as a result, their reaction is definitely positive. Because of this, I am also playing some Middle Eastern Arabic rhythms and solos for this audience.

The National