Expressing Vulnerability Through Music

March 24, 2021

Yvonne Gay

A wide photo of downtown Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo credit: Kerem Albuyur

A few months ago, Özüm Pamukçu ’23 explored her ability to become fully vulnerable. Her journey led to the production of two original songs and a thirst for more.

Like most Oberlin students, Pamukçu returned home in January for winter term. The annual program allows students to pursue interests outside of Oberlin’s regular course offerings. For four weeks Pamukçu, who returned to Istanbul, Turkey, was immersed in music.

Studying in a different country, although rewarding, can be extremely challenging, admits Pamukçu. In her first year at Oberlin, she says she felt like a big part of her identity was defined by being an international student, which made it harder to explore herself beyond borders and labels. Pamukçu found support in the college’s international student community, and learned that many of her peers, who would become close friends, had similar experiences. 

She nurtured her ability to accept and talk about vulnerability as a participant in Oberlin’s Barefoot Dialogue program, where Pamukçu also serves as a facilitator. The program brings small groups of students together to meet and choose vulnerability as a more beneficial way to draw out differences and encourage deeper listening. It is a technique Pamukçu uses in her music.

“I love losing the notion of time when making music—my brain temporarily turns into a blank page. I feel beyond daily worldly concerns and just feel in that exact moment,” says Pamukçu, a musical studies major.

By the end of winter term, Pamukçu composed, sang, recorded, and produced two original songs—one in Turkish and one in English. The project also afforded her the time to learn to record using MIDI keyboards, improve her vocal mix and mastering skills, and use of Logic Pro X, a high-quality digital audio workstation. 

In her first song, Little Istanbul, Pamukçu sings about carrying the concept of home as a burden. Her voice rhythmically echoes over a soft succession of chords. “It’s cold in Ohio, colder than it ever gets at home,” she sings from her room in Istanbul. “It’s lonely here. I’m craving for what is left of home. Staring at the road won't get me too far from the cornfields.

An anguished melody lingers over her second composition, Kız Başına, as Pamukçu expresses in Turkish the hardship of growing up as a woman in a patriarchal society.

“Expressing vulnerability is quite natural for me because I’ve been involved with many different forms of art from such a young age,” she says. “What’s challenging is making your vulnerability public. With social media and artists being so focused on highlighting their strongest, prettiest, and best selves, we, as the audience, are not used to witnessing vulnerability. 

“My creative process starts by me talking, humming, and playing to myself about topics that have significance in my life. I don’t imagine an audience hearing my voice while recording because I want my expression to be as real as possible.

“However, my perception has changed a bit,” she admits. “I don’t see home as a burden anymore. It rather feels like something that gives me a wider perspective. It makes me and my music special.”

Pamukçu has played piano since she was a child. Throughout the years she has added the ukulele, classical guitar, percussion, kemençe (an Eastern Mediterranean stringed bowed instrument), and a little bit of baglama (a Turkish plucked stringed instrument). She says a working knowledge of these instruments has helped her to understand composition and songwriting on a deeper level.

The music theory classes she took in Oberlin Conservatory as a non-conservatory major helped enrich the harmonic structure of her compositions, she says. Pamukçu also received valuable musical feedback in the Internalizing Rhythms class she took with Jamey Haddad, professor of advanced improvisation and percussion. Haddad, regarded as one of the foremost world music and jazz percussionists in the United States, also served as the advisor for Pamukçu’s winter term project.

“I have a fondness for Turkey as I have been there many times performing with Paul Simon and [working on] other musical projects, including designing cymbals and zills. So when I meet a Turkish musician, I am always curious,” says Haddad. “Özüm mentioned that she was a singer and she loved her Turkish roots. When I asked her if she could sing me a song, she jumped at the chance. 

‘‘For me that is always a game changer. It [makes me think] what, if anything, we as a school or I personally can do for that person. Özüm took both levels of my Internalizing Rhythms class and outperformed most of the conservatory students. There was still work to do, but her stock had gone up considerably,‘‘ he says. ‘‘Most importantly her ability to perform and write the music that she had a real contextual experience with was becoming stronger.”

If a professional producer had been on hand, Haddad says he is certain Pamukçu’s end results would have been at a higher level. “But that would have been the producer's job and not the same as the experience she had figuring it out on her own. Now after having done these things, it will be much easier for Özüm to put to use and understand the professional tools that a great producer would have done for her.” 

While she remains in Istanbul during spring semester, Pamukçu continues to work on many aspects of music: writing, singing, recording, arranging, and marketing, with interests in business and economics. She is studying music production with Ami Dang, visiting assistant professor of computer music and digital arts in the TIMARA Department.

As a first-year student, Pamukçu completed a research winter term project that explored the fundamentals of Turkish microtonal music and she practiced microtonal singing. And last semester, she and friend Ezra Rudel ’23 hosted Hijaz Forum, a WOBC radio show that focused on music from the Mediterranean and the Middle East, as well as its intersection with jazz and other genres. The pair hopes to lead a Balkan ensemble at Oberlin.

“We miss Özüm on campus,” says Haddad, who views Pamukçu’s project as “a total success,” explaining, “I think [her winter term] project has taught her much about her capacity to produce music in a digital recording environment and record and perform herself, which ultimately starts a process of discovery. She is super intelligent, disciplined, and has compassion when dealing with other musicians—that is a real criteria I observe about my students when we perform in class. 

‘‘Talent is a free gift but being a compassionate human is the ultimate goal, and hopefully your talent will lead you to that realization.”

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