Innova 766



track  String Quartet # 2 (2002)


Borromeo String Quartet


Nicholas Kitchen, William Fedkenhauer, violins

Mai Motobuchi-Rosenthal, viola; Yee Sun Kim, cello




1.         I. Moderato-Allegro                                                               4:53

2.         II Andante Mistico                                                      5:20

3.         III. Marcato                                                                     0:44

4.         IV. Presto                                                                        5:20

5.         V.  TrŹs espresif                                                          1:05

6.         VI. Tranquillo-Adagio                                              9:42

7.         VII.Allegro con fuoco                                                             8:20


Invocation-Meditation-Allegro (1996)


Helen Bledsoe, flute


8.         I. Invocation                                                                                1:54

9.         II. Meditation                                                                             6:14

10.      III. Allegro                                                                       4:09



11.      Elif (2003) for hafiz and chamber ensemble                       10:58


Kani Karaca, voice


Ahmet Toz and Onur Türkmen, neys, Hasan Tura,

violin, Emil Vilenescu, bass clarinet, Jeff McAuley, cello,  


Michael Ellison, conductor




Total duration                                                                                         58:50






learning to be human?


If a contemporary composer aims at rightfully expressing the social or psychological background of his time, his real struggle does not start with the formal or technical aspects of the artwork alone. His artistic and personal challenge matches what John Blacking, as early as 1973, addressed in his epochal publication “How Musical Is Man?” when stating: “…it is a problem of attitude to contemporary society and culture in relation to the basic human problem of learning to be human.”


At the beginning of the new millennium, it has become evident that most crucial aspects of musical creation, as much as a general life-attitude, can equally be acquired from the cultural ethnoscapes outside the boundaries of the Western world. As a result of the 20th century’s westernization, composers from various extra-European countries have obtained a command in Western classical counterpoint and harmony as well as in the most recent trends of contemporary Western music. But in a globalized cultural climate such as contemporary Western art-music, various individual composers in the West have equally received inspiration from the East and its formerly “exotic” traditions. These operate as a major factor of contemporary aesthetics and, thus, have extended our understanding of human music-making to new and unknown dimensions.


In fact, the same perspective applies to the North-American composer Michael Ellison whose career and life-path are profoundly connected with Turkey and its musics. As a young student at the New England Conservatory of Music, and later at the University of California, he received the main stimulus for this approach from the study of Sufi-music, in particular the religious practice of the Turkish Mevlevi-Order.  Field research in the Black Sea region first brought him to Turkey. When, in 2002, he finally settled in Istanbul, working as a teacher for music theory at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Music of Istanbul Technical University, he had already obtained a remarkable insight into Turkish music through performance and theoretic inquiry.


In addition to a primary awareness for the social and private surroundings he accessed and belonged to, Ellison has always felt major concern for his interaction with the people performing and interpreting his music. As much as from his own social, aesthetic or philosophical objectives, Ellison’s compositions evolve through the mutual appreciation and collaboration with performers.


Ellison’s deep love for the open reed-flute Ney, the main instrument of Turkish Sufi-music, resonates at the center of his solo piece for flute, Invocation-Meditation-Allegro,  which he composed in 1996 at the age of 27. The work was commissioned by the American flautist Helen Bledsoe and premiered in September 2002 at Gaudeamus Week for contemporary music in Amsterdam. The sound of the ney with its spiritual connotation is, of course, not simply translated into a Western idiom from a mere acoustic or technical perspective: Rather, the composer develops it from within its own musical language, confronting genuine Middle-Eastern maqČm-principles with inflections from his original background as an American composer. Within the progression of the piece’s three movements, various extended techniques, uncommonly widened registers and sounds from other cultural spheres (such as Japanese Shakuhachi-flute) unsettle this ambiance and, finally, manage to re-create the Western flute as a sort of cross-cultural super-instrument.


The first movement, Invocation, opens the piece in the gesture of a dramatic incantation. Following the initial, static motif, disruptive, gradually accelerating motions open the acoustic space and, each time, suddenly stop, as if awaiting a response in the subsequent silence. In a similar manner, the central movement, Meditation, starts with a simple musical idea in a Western-style, regularly rhythmic meter. According to Ellison’s own words, the sound-world “travels through Japan...on its way to a climactic arrival in Turkey”. The mystical ‘quasi-Ney cadenza’, in fact, the heart and most original part of the whole piece, opposes Occidental and Oriental perception within a gesticulation profoundly inspired by Middle-Eastern musical practice. The final movement (Allegro), again, breaks through this perspective by use of torn, bebop-style textures that alternate with a multiphonic-based contrasting idea, consisting of dramatic trills and techniques of overblowing that lead to a final climax.


Ellison’s String Quartet #2, generally considered one of his most important works, was composed in 2001, commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts for the Borromeo String Quartet. The first performance took place in 2002 at the Montecito Country Club in Santa Barbara, California. The form and structural underpinnings of String Quartet #2 are, in fact, profoundly inspired by the performers themselves, and in particular by a performance of Beethoven’s late string quartet Opus 131 that the Borromeo Quartet presented in 1991 at Boston’s Gardner Museum, an experience that left an indelible impression on the composer’s musical sensibilities. 


The present seven-movement form of the quartet, as Ellison recounts himself, “is very much inspired by this work, although its musical language is totally different.”  As much as in Beethoven’s work, the cyclic structure of the whole composition reveals strong connections between its seven distinct movements. Thus, the broken texture of the initial part recurs, in a completely different attitude, in the final movement, somewhat transforming “dreaminess and airiness to a crashing-back-to-earth finish.”


Each movement serves its own, distinct purpose within the piece’s integral formal conception, and the composer has dedicated much of his attention to the exquisite articulation of the emotional effect that his music shall exert on the listener.


The first movement evolves from a gesture comparable to the previous work’s Invocation: An extremely chromatic gesture, immediately jumping into the higher register, moves down in oscillating motion and bursts off dramatically. Even later, when devolving in more subtle and fluent textures, the movement does not progress without frequent stops and silences. Volatile and fragmentary, in various ways it introduces the motivic and gestural material for the following six movements.


The second movement begins with a delicate 7/16 figuration that recurs over whole section, inflecting different additional ideas over a constant pedal in the bass. Also when developing into more concrete material and frequent changes of meter, it never departs from the “dreamy” character with which it  finally trails away.  The third movement, a short fragment of a few seconds, based on two lapidary ideas, leads directly to the fourth movement’s Scherzo where Ellison’s main inspirational sources (Turkish-style  rapid-fire“limping” rhythms and “American-”, or even Jazz-style syncopated regular meter) alternate rapidly. Within the Second String Quartet, the Scherzo constitutes at once the most virtuosic and characteristic movement.  According to Ellison, “its central function within the piece is to transport the listener to a state perhaps best described as pure joy”. On the other hand, the tune that repeatedly meanders through the piece is reminiscent of certain pentatonic figurations associated with Indian Raga-music. The fifth movement, a brief interlude like the third one, recalls the emotionally heavier disposition of the first movement and reestablishes its basic key on A. It prepares the sixth, the “real” slow movement (Ellison), written in E-flat Lydian, the tonal key opposite the initial A. The last movement uses its inverse, Phrygian structure to a great degree. Here, the heavy chromaticism of the earlier movements is released into a fluid, mainly diatonic texture. The initial phrase of this movement recalls the chromatic idea that introduced the first movement. However, it is gradually transformed by its new, more light-hearted surroundings. At this moment, the listener will finally understand how thoroughly Ellison’s cross-cultural “journey” with its gradual emotional change was planned from the beginning.

 –Stefan Pohlit


the genius of KČni Karaca and the genesis of Elif


The third recording on the CD is one of the last testaments of a Master of Turkish vocal music.  Elif, for Turkish Hafiz and chamber ensemble, was composed for one of the greatest Turkish musicians of the 20th century, KČni Karaca.   Karaca, blind since childhood, had been a mainstay of Turkish classical and sufi music since the 50’s.  As a Hafiz, he had memorized the entire Koran and was able to recite it in the makam of his choice.  This collaboration marks a startlingly adventurous epilogue to his storied vocal career.  Startling, perhaps, because in a Turkish classical music scene dominated by conservatism, Karaca was willing to step onstage with musicians from a totally different musical culture than his own, and play the key role in realizing a radically new sonic vision, which the musicians would create together under experimental conditions.   The demands on him were, if not wholly unrelated to his experience in Turkish classical music, nevertheless unusual—to modulate through a series of five makams, related to one another sometimes in ways unconventional to Turkish music—and to improvise kaside amidst sounds he had likely never heard, let alone shared a sonic space with.  But Karaca’s is a truly profound space of its own.  In consequence, the piece attempts not so much a unificiation of east and west so much as the realization of an image of sand washing over a precious archeological artifact, now obscuring, now revealing.  The sands of time, of change, revealing ultimately the precarious reality of this deeply cherished musical culture’s position in our contemporary world.   One of the reasons the (live) performance captured on this recording is of such significance is that it represents Karaca’s second-to-last concert appearance. He passed away four months later.


To make the sounds fitting for the accompaniment of Karaca they themselves had to be decomposed, eroded, washed away, stripped to their beginnings, as in the arpeggios of breath in the ney which open the work, or the searing multidimensionality of the bass clarinet multiphonics.   The violin, so high at the beginning, itself is heard only as breath before it glissandos down into the realm of audible pitch.   This was no harmonization, but rather a marriage of sounds--sounds that would at times repel, at times melt into one another, demanding in performance a sure sense of Karaca’s direction and a very intense concentration and responsiveness in the moment by the musicians.  The key epiphany in the pre-compositional phase was actually the decision to use bass clarinet with the Hafiz.  It is this combination that, elaborated by the neys and violins above and the cello in similar registers, defined the sonic dialectic which was to give the piece a distinct life and character that, with the addition of Karaca’s voice, it would be able to inhabit as its own. 

–Michael Ellison





Flutist Helen Bledsoe is a native of South Carolina (USA). Since winning first-prize in the 1996 Gaudeamus International Interpreter's Competition for Contemporary Music, she has had an active career as a soloist, ensemble player, teacher and improviser.


 She is currently a member of the ensemble musikFabrik (Cologne) and an assistant instructor at the Conservatory of Bremen (Hochschule der Künste). She has given masterclasses and workshops world-wide and has had articles published by Fluit Magazine (official publication of the Netherlands Flute Association) and the Contemporary Music Review.


Her broad musical education, beginning age 9 with the harpsichord, is still in progress. Her teachers and sources of inspiration have been Bernard Goldberg, Peter Lloyd, Kate Lukas, Harrie Starreveld, Robert Dick and AurŹle Nicolet. Helen also has particular interest in Jazz and Carnatic music.




 Considered "Simply the best there is" by the Boston Globe, the critically acclaimed Borromeo String Quartet is one of the most sought after string quartets in the world, performing over 100 concerts of classical and contemporary literature across three continents each season. Audiences and critics alike champion its revealing explorations of Schoenberg, Brahms, Ligeti, Kurtag, and Janácek, and affinity for making challenging contemporary repertoire approachable. Lauded for its absolute mastery of the complete Beethoven and Bartók quartet cycles, the ensemble is currently focused on the work of Dmitri Shostakovich.

              The Borromeo Quartet's long-standing and celebrated residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has been called “one of the defining experiences of civilization in Boston” [Boston Globe]; and its ongoing concert series at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York has been hailed as “one of New York’s best kept secrets” [New York Sun].

They are faculty Quartet-in-Residence at the New England Conservatory of Music as well as Dai-Ichi Semei Hall in Tokyo, and will return this summer for a third season in residence at the famed Taos School of Music in New Mexico.

              In 2004 the Aaron Copland House honored the Borromeo's commitment to contemporary music by creating the Borromeo Quartet Award, an annual initiative that will premiere the work of important young composers to audiences internationally. It has enjoyed collaborations with John Cage, Gyorgy Ligeti, Osvaldo Golijov, Steve Mackey, John Harbison, Leon Kirchner, Gunther Schuller, Jennifer Higdon, and is currently performing “Hope Cycles” a new work by Lior Navok commissioned for them by the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation at the Library of Congress. In 2000 the Borromeo String Quartet completed two seasons as a member of  Lincoln Center's Chamber Music Society Two and served as Ensemble-in-Residence for the 1998-99 season of National Public Radio's Performance Today.  In April 2007 the Borromeo Quartet was a recipient the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant  Other awards include Lincoln Center's Martin E. Segal Award in 2001, Chamber Music America's Cleveland Quartet Award in 1998 and the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 1991, as well as top prizes at the International String Quartet Competition in Evian, France in 1990.          


“You could have watched as four perfectly ordinary human beings strode onto the stage and created magic.” Naples Daily News






KČni Karaca was born in Adana in 1930. He lost his vision when he was two months old. He had already committed the whole Qu’ran to memory before he completed his primary education. In 1950 he came to Istanbul, where he met various masters of religious and secular music. He began training with Sadettin Kaynak, a renowned performer and composer in the style and expression of religious music. Karaca later continued with Hafűz Ali Üsküdarlű, by whose singing style he was greatly impressed.  From Sadettin Heper he learnt how to play the kudüm (circular drums used in Mevlevi ceremonies) and a great number of compositions from liturgical and secular music repertoire. He toured the world as a performer of Ottoman religious music with Mevlevi groups and other religious music ensembles. He made a great number of 45 and 33 r.p.m records, cassettes and CDs.

KČni Karaca is one of the best performers Ottoman-Turkish music who flourished in the last fifty years. Although he performs both religious and secular music, he is commonly known as a hafűz, a reciter of the holy Qu’ran. In reciting the Qu’ran, mevlid (Nativity poem), kasides (eulogies), ezan (Muslim call to prayer) and in other forms of vocal improvisation he is considered a great master. The most remarkable aspect of his music is that he adheres to authentic traditions of religious performance.






Composition of String Quartet #2 was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)

Invocation-Meditation-Allegro was commissioned by Helen Bledsoe


Thanks to Pieter Snapper, MIAM Center for Advanced Studies in Music, Istanbul Technical University, University of California Santa Barbara, Reuben de Lautour, Kevin Kelly, Cevdet Erek, Can Karadoğan,  Emine Karaca, Dr. Muhammed Şahin, Dolores Hsu, William Kraft, Melih Fereli, Cihat Aşkűn, Kamran İnce, Serhan Bali, Hakan Şensoy, Robert Reigle, Mary Berkman, Ellison Family and Yasemin.


Elif: Recorded live at the Istanbul International Spectral Music Conference, Nov. 20, 2003
Mustafa Kemal Anfisi, Istanbul Technical University
Recording Engineers: Kerem Aksoy, Ozan Yurdakal
Mixing and Mastering: Pieter Snapper

String Quartet #2: Recorded UC Santa Barbara Studios, Feb. 18, 2002
Recording engineer: Kevin Kelly
Edited by Cevdet Erek, MIAM
Mixing and Mastering: Pieter Snapper

Invocation-Meditation-Allegro: Recorded MIAM Center for Advanced Studies in Music
   Istanbul, Aug. 4, 2007
Recording Engineer: Taylan Özdemir
Edited by Taylan Özdemir and Helen Bledsoe
Mastering: Reuben De Lautour, Pieter Snapper


Cover photos by Vieri Bottazzini © 2007

Borromeo Quartet photo by Susan Wilson


Innova Director: Philip Blackburn
Operations Manager: Chris Campbell
Innova is supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation.

All music on this CD published by Michael Ellison. 
[email protected]


©  Michael Ellison. 1996, 2001, 2003, 2009  All Rights Reserved.

Innova Recordings, 332 Minnesota Street E-145, St. Paul, MN 55101, USA