Hailing from Turkey, classical pianist AyseDeniz is nothing less than a musical genius. Her talent undeniable, her originality admirable. Following the major success of her Pink Floyd Classical Concept album, AyseDeniz has returned with a project that has, and no doubt will continue to blow the minds of music appreciators across the globe.
‘The Nirvana Project’ is a stunning interpretation of a number of grunge-band Nirvana’s most famous tracks, cleverly incorporating her own traditional, classical technique in the most authentic and nostalgic way. Grabbing inspiration from Kurt Cobain’s personal journals and musical motifs, AyseDeniz’s project reflects the last five years of Kurt Cobain’s life, symbolising his spirit, through to his wife, child and characters in the music he wrote. At the age of 27, which just so happens to be the same age as Cobain’s when he ended his life, AyseDeniz has dedicated this entire project to celebrate Cobain’s legacy through the connection of classical music, rock and grunge. When listening to ‘The Nirvana Project’, the clarity in what AyseDeniz is trying to achieve is easy to hear. Her passion for the project, for her music and what inspires her is portrayed so strongly in this album, you feel so connected to it. The album is not just a tribute to Nirvana, but also a project that conveys human interest, a dedicated concentration on the human mind and demonstrates the power of music.
AyseDeniz’s use of classical techniques is beautifully infiltrated throughout the album, from the polyphonic baroque style in ‘Come As You Are’, to a style reminiscent of Prokofiev in ‘In Bloom’ and even similarities with Chopin’s Funeral March in ‘Something In The Way’, this album is a stroke of genius and once you finish the album, you feel like you’ve taken a huge journey spanning across Cobain’s final years that were dark and full of mystery. This record is mesmerizing and I couldn’t think of anyone better to interpret Cobain’s last five years as thoroughly, creatively and beautifully as AyseDeniz.
I had a chat with the beautiful AyseDeniz below, see what she had to say!
Hello AyseDeniz! Welcome to Meander, thanks so much for coming on the blog.
It’s a pleasure for me to be on your blog.
For the readers that may not be so familiar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How old were you when you started playing the piano and compose music?
I started playing with my piano as a baby, and I would spend a lot of time singing and banging notes on it. Since I was 4 my mother would take me to a piano duo in Ankara, a Turkish couple educated at Eastman & Juilliard. The wife was the main teacher for all the kids and if you were good enough you would get the chance to study with the husband.
They were both very disciplined, however, they refused to take me on until I was 5 and a half, saying my hands were too small to start professional training. I was very keen on the piano and with my mother’s help in between her medical career (during lunch times she would call to have me play for her over the phone and then fix my mistakes), I started an accelerated programme and quickly upgraded to the same class as students double my age. When I performed JS Bach’s 5th Keyboard Concerto with an orchestra at 9, it was clear that I would be taking the path to become a concert pianist.
Regarding composing: it was actually a way for me to take a break from the pressure and perfection of classical music. I would seek mental escape from all the structure and discipline, by improvising whatever I wanted.
In middle school I took some jazz lessons and played with a band occasionally, learning about different scales and styles. When I chose GCSE Music Composition, this made me familiar with writing scores on Sibelius and later in university, when I got an Apple computer, it came with Garage Band, on which I wrote many 80’s-sounding pop songs, fuelled by failed romantic endeavours. In fact the lyrics to this day are in secret folders never to be opened!!
Generally until now, I treated composing as my diary – it was not something I wanted the public to hear. It was a way to channel my thoughts, express my craziness, my faults, my wishes and guilty pleasures. I could break all the rules of my education secretly and no one could tell me what to do.
Yet, as I grew up, the part of me that wanted to bring more personal ways to my performance style began dominating my thoughts so I started doing rock arrangements for piano, in order to merge the music I listened to growing up, with music I admired as a performer. I realised these had the potential to bring audiences together, and to attract younger people – especially those who are my age, for a change!! So I took my chance and released three Pink Floyd arrangements that I arranged in the style of Franz Liszt – who was the rock star of his time. This attracted surprising amount to interest from both Prog Rock and classical audiences that people wanted more. Thus came the Pink Floyd Classical Concept Album, followed by Nirvana Classical Album.
When did you begin to explore the idea of taking your classical techniques and applying them to alternative music?
After graduating from university, I was very excited to finally have the skills and technique to experiment with the non-classical music that I listened to growing up. Mostly in my teenage years I had difficulty communicating with my friends of the same age, as they did not have any interest in classical music. I would be hanging out with their grandparents after my concerts… I had to find a way to bridge the gap between old and young people. I also thought classical performers were very strict, formal and unapproachable. I did not find most going to classical performances fun as a kid, although I absolutely loved performing. I preferred listening to CDs at home, where I could be myself without the formalities. I could dance to it, accompany it or turn it on so loud that the neighbours would complain.
I wanted to bring back the traditions of making music that people can relate to, and enjoy while they can actively hear what is going on. If you think about it, all famous composers were also great performers: Mozart, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Paganini… They drew so many inspirations from visual arts to folk songs, from street music to ballroom dances in their compositions that their audiences could follow what they were trying to explain with notes.
As part of my Masters at Royal Academy of Music, I began searching for a new idea in which I could do the same. One day while practising I thought of how Liszt turned Dante’s Inferno into a musical work, which criticised society and talked about the wrongdoings of the people who then suffered in Hell. Victor Hugo’s interpretation of the book in his poem “After Reading Dante” emphasised how this was in fact all existent in the real world and that the whole concept was a metaphor by Dante. It clicked: the music of Pink Floyd had the same underlining messages especially in their philosophical film “The Wall” – criticising humanity, faulty education system, war and consumer culture. Liszt’s use of the chant: Dies Irae in Totentanz was so similar to Another Brick In The Wall’s theme that I started with this arrangement and continued with other songs.
Your previous album was a Pink Floyd Classical Concept record – a huge triumph. Have you always taken inspiration from this kind of progressive rock and grunge genre? Were these the kind of bands you listened to growing up?
I listened to a lot or Rock and Pop music in my teens because of my classmates who introduced me to Aerosmith, RHCP, Metallica, System of a Down, Offspring, Nirvana and Pink Floyd… I always thought of them as the post-romantic composers full of energy and contrast. I also listened to a lot of Cat Stevens, Freddie Mercury, Beatles, Supertramp, ABBA, and musicals like Grease, Hair and Cats because my parents loved them. MJ was my favourite artist of all time, and I also listened to some Turkish Rock and Pop artists: Tarkan, Duman, Mor ve Otesi and Teoman.
Just to add, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Destiny’s Child, Madonna, Cher, Celine Dion, Atomic Kitten, Mr. Big, Elton John and Britney Spears were pretty big in my playlist as well! I guess this is why I became a confused pianist!!
Haha, Atomic Kitten! Now that takes us back to the good old days! Now your latest record release is the Nirvana Project. As a listener, I felt strangely attached to a few of the tracks. Its quite an intimate experience, is that what you aimed to create?
I really wanted to create a new experience of listening to the same melodies of Nirvana but from a much more personal perspective – from Kurt Cobain’s own imagined mind during his last years. As I would be 27, this was a perfect time to try to relate to him and understand what difficulties he went through. I also wanted to include his feminist, anti-racist and anti-consumerist social messages in the album.
I also composed a suite for him, with many sounds symbolising his struggle with drug addiction.
The Nirvana Project was a live experience too, involving not only yourself on the piano, but also using electronic music, and choreography – was this something you envisioned from the start of creating your project?
Although the core of the project is the Nirvana Classical tracks which are only for piano, the Nirvana Project developed into a collaborative work. I was always dreaming of collaborating with a dancer and a DJ. This was the perfect excuse to start, so I asked Ekin Bernay if she wanted to make a music video. Meanwhile I got in touch with Ivan Shopov, who was very keen on the project, and we began working on the whole album together. I learned a lot from them during our sessions.
You must have had to do a lot of research into Kurt Cobain’s personal life, I bet that was fascinating?
I learned so much about him by reading his journals – he was so creative, unique and sensitive. The more I read, the more I was inspired by him. Too bad the media only focuses on his death – there are so many more important stories of his life that need to be emphasised – especially what he lived for and his social messages.
I imagine a few of the lyrics from Nirvana’s tracks were a personal inspiration for you when composing the music?
The lyrics of Kurt’s songs were actually not that direct and he also did not like explaining their meanings. Most are almost surrealist and there are many different takes on what people think they symbolise. I think he was a wonderful poet, and because of his talent of being vague, he makes one question and think for herself/himself.
What really captivated me personally whilst listening to the album (many times!) was that you really do stay true to your classical roots, and adapt all your technique into creating something that a true music fan would appreciate as a tribute to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. ‘Come As You Are’ for example, you can clearly distinguish the use of baroque style, then hugely washed over by the depth of romantic playing. The album is an incredible theatrical experience! How on earth did you do it?! Haha!
Thanks :)) My roots are classical, and it would be dishonest if I tried to destroy those. I did, after all, have Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev in the same playlist as Nirvana, and whenever I was frustrated with the world I would do headbands in my room as a teenager listening to them. After many years I loved reconnecting with my past, and the journey of trying to link classical to grunge music.
Another thing I really love is the fact that you’ve reiterated Cobain’s viewpoint through this album. Watching the live experience version of ‘Rape Me’ is incredibly powerful, especially with his quote at the beginning, only to then translate this through the use of choreography and, of course your musical interpretation. Did you feel emotionally connected to this album through the creation process?
Coming from the Middle East, I have witnessed oppression of women and the amount of sacrifice they make in order to sustain peace and love in this world. I arranged “Rape Me” which is an anti-rape song, to be deliberately aggressive. The clusters and the crying ethnic voice represent the cries of women, facing terrible crimes such as rape, honour killings and child brides. Kurt was a feminist, and I thought the best way was really going for it.
That is so incredibly powerful, and effective. Its unbelievable, and actually soul destroying to think that it is still such a major global issue. Thank you so much for talking to Meander, and for giving us an insight into your world when creating the Nirvana Project. What’s coming up next for you, AyseDeniz?
I have released the unplugged versions of the tracks as Nirvana Classical – they are available as well as my Pink Floyd Classical Concept on my website aysedeniz.org in signed edition!
I will spend most of May recording new albums, which include Classical Hits, as well as my own compositions that I have never released before. There are also a few Coldplay covers as well as jazzy surprises, so stay tuned! I will also be playing some of these pieces at Piano City Milano on May 22nd, which is really exciting! You are invited!
We’ll be there!! We wish you all the best and hope to see you on Meander again soon!
Thanks for the wonderful questions!