“Citizens” focuses on people born and raised in Istanbul and who are masters of their domains. In this section, described as unsung heroes of Istanbul, we talk about citizens’ Istanbul, profession, yesterday and today.
Walking through the Ulus streets, amongst the people who seem to go back and forth in the bustle and pleasure of the day, we meet the accomplished pianist Cana Gürmen in her house to talk about classical music, a 60-year-old Istanbul and love...
Words: Mehlika Özge Esirgen
Images: Nazlı Erdemirel
Furnishing of a museum and chalk powder that defies 40 years

She welcomes us with laughter, and the freshness of a musician as if she is about to give her first interview for the press. You immediately feel the difference in the atmosphere as you step in the house. This is a house that hosts historical artifacts, gifts, friendships, honoring and certainly, music.

One of the walls is painted dark, with hundreds of signatures on it. Some had written a few lines of poetry, while others had left their ambiguous regards…

“Whoever comes to visit, signs the wall” Gürmen says.

“When there was a fire in the mansion in Erenköy, where my husband Nedim was born, his family sent some of the furnishing to an apartment in Taksim. There was a huge column in the center of the living room, which seemed ill-proportional. Then they had this brilliant idea of painting it black and leave it for their friends to write their little memoirs. As I listened to that story from my husband, I suggested: “Why don’t we do it too? We don’t have a column, but we have a wall!”

When I ask about the pots placed elaborately in glass showcases and the nostalgia-charged wooden dressers, she goes on to explain:
“Years ago, I began to give concerts with the opera singer Ayhan Baran, who had an extraordinary voice. He was the most acclaimed solo singer of the opera, world-famous. This historical pottery collection belonged to him. These oil-lamps and pots are all in the museum’s records, regarded as artefacts. Ayhan was cross with the museum one day and delivered this collection of 55 artefacts to me for 1 Lira.
And my father-in-law had passed on his collectorship to me as well. The furniture and the dining room set came from him. They had been brought from Italy at the time.”

A life spent with music, sitting at the piano

Gürmen left the State Conservatory last year, as a professor, which she had entered at the age of 6. She continues to give concerts, in Turkey and abroad, and give consultations in several Music Academies.

How was it like to be a “Conservatory child” at the time?

“I always went to two schools at the same time. An elementary school, later a high school, and the Conservatory. We used to go the Conservatory almost every day. We would have to wait for hours just to play for five minutes. My parents took me to extra solfege classes on Sundays because we usually made fun in the solfege classes at the conservatory, we didn’t learn much.”

When I ask about her family relations and social life, she says that she had a very disciplined family that had their three children study in the conservatory.

Filiz Restaurant and Florya Club

“We did not have many friends; we were practicing very hard. So, we didn’t have much time to have fun or make friends. But we had a ritual with the family; going to Filiz restaurant in Tarabya. On Sundays, they would pick me, my brother and sister from the solfege classes and take us to the Filiz Restaurant. Our favorite was the seabass pane, and the raspberry ice-cream. It was such a joy. Everyone was very respectful at the time. The waiters, their manners, the freshly ironed white tablecloths… Everything was so elegant. The atmosphere was beautiful, the way people saw things was beautiful too. There was respect in everything that was done.”

I ask her what has changed as she became a young girl and if there were any activities, they did every day or any favorite places they went as the teens of their time.

“I need to jump to the age of 17 to answer this question because it all started for me after I got to know my husband Nedim.”

“We used to go the Florya Club in the summer time, there was a fabulous seaside there. Most of the members of the club were doctors. I began to go there for swimming during the summer seasons when I was around 15. Of course, only when my parents would allow me to go and only after I practiced my piano.
It was summer again, that year, I was a successful student, just graduated from high school. So, I now deserved some time for sunbathing!
I was lying on the beach with my sister when I suddenly caught someone’s eye… Not knowing that this someone would turn out to be my future husband…”

“We would meet in a hidden corner, hug and hold hands for 5 minutes. And I would rush back to the house.”

So, the love stories used to begin with catching each other’s eyes…

“Yes, of course. It was Saturday. June 17, 1972.
He was playing backgammon with his friends. Our eyes met for a second and I felt very shy. You would feel shy on such occasions in those times…”

I am surprised to see that she remembers almost every detail of it…

“Oh, I can never forget…” she continues.
“Then they introduced him to me on the 26th. There was a “beer night”. My parents hardly allowed me to go out that night with two of my siblings and my uncle. The great love was kindled that night, a secret one of course.
Nedim would jump into his car and drive from Nişantaşı to Yeşilköy only to come to see me for a few minutes. We didn’t have cell phones then; he didn’t know if I could get out of the house to see him or not. So, he came for the possibility of seeing me. He would tour around the house. I would recognize the car and tell my mom a little lie to go out for a few minutes. We would meet in a hidden corner, hug and hold hands for five minutes. And I would rush back to the house. Then I would have to content myself only with the feeling of it until the next time…”

Nedim, followed his heart to Istanbul after knowing the young Cana. He left the college he had been going for 3 years in Lyon and came to Istanbul. He entered the university entrance exam in Turkey to start a new college and a new life here. Luckily, his father, who was a great admirer of classical music, softened when he heard that his intended bride was a graduate of Conservatory.

There is an anecdote her husband would tell on every occasion. When he was a teenager, he liked listening to jazz or pop music in his room, having no interest in the piano sonatas that played in the house every day. One day, the classical music lover father held Nedim and said: “I want you to listen to this sonata once, just for you to get familiar with the music. Who knows, you might have to listen to this music for some reason in the future.”

And Mr. Gürmen says; “Yes, my father was right, I would have to listen to this music, almost every day, later in my life. Yet for the most beautiful reason in my life.”

Fantastic Music Nights

They enjoyed the years very much after their marriage, spent with music and friends, as if compensating the years, they had to spend apart in their youth. I ask about their social life, the music community and Istanbul.

“We would not go out much, only occasionally for dinner. We sometimes would go to Sardunya or Şamdan, the classics of Istanbul nightlife then. We would have a drink and dance. But real dance, you know, we would rock’n roll. And sometimes we would go to some tap houses on the street behind the famous Flower’s Passage in Beyoğlu.

Out biggest entertainment was to gather in the houses to cook and play though. Our friends loved it here. Our friends were the famous jazz musicians of the time; Erol Pekcan, Selçuk Sun, Oğuz Durukan, Süheyl Denizci…
There used to be a window here behind this mirror you see now. They would carry the drums through that window into the house. The contrabass always stood here, ready to be played…” she says as she points the side of the piano.
“Such great music we played those nights… We had so much fun…It was like a dream… These music nights were fantastic…”

You should know how to really want something in life and go for it…

I feel that the secret behind her fulfilled life which embraced being a pianist performing in concerts and a conservatory professor, a marriage and motherhood at the same time, is her excitement for life and her love of music. She tells every memory with great enthusiasm, her eyes glowing with freshness.

“Your hands stop when you don’t practice a day.” She says. “Being a pianist requires a great effort. I always take my keyboard with me when I go on to a vacation. There were critics in the past years who would write any mistake you did in a performance. So, I had to spend all those years practicing very hard.”

Listening to her, I think of all the changes life has gone through in those past 30 or 40 years. So how can she preserve her joy and her love in all these rapidly changing circumstances?

“Love has always been essential in my life, in everything I did… I can still work with children because I love children. I teach with love because I love teaching. And I can practice the piano so hard because I love playing it. I love hosting guests because I love cooking! You should know how to really want something in life and go for it… When you really want and love something, it will definitely open its doors to you…And you will be amazed by the outcome…”

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