Album review: Deniz Cuylan – ‘No Such Thing As Free Will’: a pastoral instrumental guitar gem

THAT’S where it all started: in Beethoven’s Fifth.

That’s LA-based, Istanbul-born composer and exponent of modern guitar composition Deniz Cuylan’s first and wholly abiding memory of music; it’s the 1980s, he’s a five-year-old child at home in the Turkish capital, and that’s what’s revolving on his parents’ turntable. Duh-duh duh-duh … the grandiosity, the majesty of that ever-stirring passage rings out, transports him, reinvents him. He’s going places in his head he never even knew existed.

He plays it over and over and over. It’s speaking to him. His world will never be the same.   

More than 30 years on from that crystallising epiphany, and it still acts as the wellspring of everything Deniz aims for, hopes for in music; that seed hit fertile and exceedingly talented soil. Music, he propounds, is the most lucid articulation of the human condition.

Deniz attracted attention for the first time in the world of music with his post-jazz project, Maya, which released the album Telecine in 2003. Rare as hen’s teeth and only available on CD, it took a leftfield approach to electronica and jazz.

His outfit Portecho had alonger lifespan, and released a trio of albums and one remixes set between 2006 and 2012; last year, working with Brian Bender as Bright & Guilty, he set out on a course splicing psychedelic hip-hop, cinematic soundscapes and woozy synth-pop.

On top of all that, by day, as it were, he’s busy composing music for television, movies, adverts, fashion shows in Düsseldorf and Moscow, he’s also served as editor for the Turkish culture vulture periodical Bant.

But for his first album under his own name, otherwise unadorned, he articulates his current personal sonic response to being alive and conscious in the chiming, gorgeous palette of the solo instrumental guitar.

Actually, the guitar was his very first instrument, the one he picked up at the prestigious French high school he attended in Istanbul.

The album is a real conversation between artist and instrument, spurred into being when Deniz spotted a real artisan’s instrument: the Santos model classical guitar, built by Parisian luthier Thomas Norwood.

His first studio forays with the Santos were frustrating, as if the guitar wouldn’t accept his songwriting. Rather than forcing himself on it, Deniz opened himself to the instrument, letting the Santos reveal its secrets to him. The result is a collaboration of the kind Deniz seeks in all his projects. 

Deniz Cuylan, photographed by Sevgi Yuksei

We begin in a “Clearing”, the guitar in bright accord with a piano, striking, pausing. Deniz allows his guitar – and that responding piano – to pick up a verdant, slow trot, the two weaving in a display, circling and pirouetting and answering the other, the sound warming as new harmonic tones are invited to the play. More distant sound washes lay out a complete landscape, two guitars now at the dance, the piano detaching to a quicker figure. Wholly lovely.

“Purple Plains Of Utopia” picks up the baton, the guitar intricate, more staccato, insistent, gliding high above the warm tones that surge and retreat, surge and retreat. It spins a web with more guitar joining, has a Philip Glass cyclical patterning that you just have to flow with. Let it take you downstream.

Of “She Was Always Here”, Deniz says partially cryptically, but also speaking of a universal truth to us all: “We all experience a profound heartbreak in our lives. This song is there to remind me that no matter what happens, she’s always been here with me.” The presence of a true love, the burn of a lost one, he doesn’t specify further; instead, he invites us into music, a pastoral essay, gentle with fingerpicking, string harmonics, veils of drone wrapping a lovely tune. It drops away, comes back with a new energy, underpinned with a string section, reiterates itself with spiralling strength.

“Flaneurs In Hakone” was a first single drop; bathe in the beauty of it below. It’s a chiming, glimmering essay in guitar intricacy which recalls the verdancy of James Blackshaw circa O True Believers. Stunning. It comes armed with a video directed by Deniz’s fellow countryman, Idil Ergün, who takes you on a surreally morphing journey through almost human tableaux.

The song captures an impression of watching humans wandering at repose in the Japanese town of Hakone, famous for its hot springs and views over Mount Fuji, and Deniz says: “Wandering and daydreaming around the cascades in Hakone, the core idea of this song came to me: multi-layered guitar arpeggios creating a chaotic yet harmonious hot spring.”

“Object Of Desire”, the fifth track, says Deniz, “is like a focus breathing exercise for me. You can almost hear my deep breaths going in and out accompanying the pulsating solo guitar.” Which you pretty much can; it’s a tremulous thing, a quivering cycle of folksy melody with a single note ringing clear as a punctuating hook. The electronica counterpoint has ring and resonance and compliments the whole, lifts it higher.

“No Such Thing As Free Will”, the ending track, is maybe the most introverted on what’s a remarkably sunny, bright set, full of deliciousness; it seems to sigh where other tracks grin. Not that this change of mood is in any way a criticism. It’s a dreamy end to a blissful record, and a little shadow rolling across the hills helps to pick out the shape in the light.

It’s a much prettier and more enveloping record than words can convey; it has a really nice poise between the disciplines of the leftfield, the guitar soli and that of bright folk melody. In this regard if you’re a fan of early to mid-period James Blackshaw, but also very much the quartet of ‘free folk’ albums Stockholm’s Andreas Söderström released as ASS in the decade from 2006, you’ll find an awful lot to love.

A bright, studious, harmonic, pastoral gem.

Deniz Cuylan’s No Such Thing As Free Will will be released by Seattle’s Hush Hush Records digitally, on CD and on vinyl on March 19th; pre-orders are now open for business at Bandcamp. Get yourself over there.

Connect with Deniz online at his website and on Instagram; and Hush Hush Records at its website, on Bandcamp, and on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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