Early music is defined as everything that preceded classical music, which in the West was founded by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
In modern times, early music was largely ignored until the 1950s, when musicians started dusting off early instruments like recorders and harpsichords and pulling old scores off library shelves.
“Early music performing groups has been a growth industry in the last couple of generations,” said James Nicolson, director of the Cambridge Society of Early Music, which was founded in 1952.
But after half a century of looking through history for music, the society is now also looking east, to Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire.
In two concerts on the North Shore, Saturday in Salem and Sunday in Ipswich, the society will sponsor the Dunya Ensemble in a program called “Crossroads: East Meets West, Dunya Evokes Istanbul in the 16th to 18th Centuries.”
“We’ve never before reached out to the East,” Nicolson said. “We want to bring the public another sound, that was going on at the same time as the music the society has devoted itself to.”
What may surprise contemporary audiences is the degree to which Ottomans and Europeans in this period were already familiar with each other.
“The research we have done on our end, on the Turkish end, reveals how much Ottoman music was aware of European music,” said Bob Labaree, who is vice president of Dunya and plays “an Ottoman sort of harp” called a ceng. “There’s a kind of connectivity there that we’re not used to thinking about. There is a long tradition of curiosity, borrowing, dialogue, polemic and interaction.”
Dunya — the name means “world” in Turkish, Greek, Arabic and Persian — will play songs with similar sacred texts, from both Christianity and Islam. They will also play songs with similar structures, known as pavane in Europe and pesrev in Turkish.
“We arrange them so we have something to talk about,” he said. “A common subject, a different take on the same thing. These pieces talk to each other.”
A central figure in Dunya’s research and perhaps the real star of this concert is a man named Ali Ufki, a musician in the sultan’s court who lived from 1610 to 1675.
Ufki was Polish and a Protestant who was abducted as a young man by Crimean Tatars, who then sold him to Ottomans.
He had been trained in European music, but rose in the ranks of the Ottoman bureaucracy and eventually became director of the sultan’s palace ensemble.
Ufki notated 1,000 pieces of music, many of which contain both Eastern and Western elements, and eight of which will be played in Dunya’s concert this weekend.
“In the 1990s, there was a dissertation by a Turkish scholar that transcribed all of them,” Labaree said. “This started to attract a great deal of attention.”
The songs include Ufki’s setting for psalms, in a Turkish text, to music he took from the Genevan Psalter, which was compiled by John Calvin, a key theologian in the Protestant reformation.
There are songs from other sources in the concert, but Ufki’s work is unique in its depth of sensitivity to both traditions.
“He embodied something fascinating and mysterious,” Labaree said. “People look at him as being very 21st-century. People find it hopeful. All the rhetoric of the clash of civilizations — I think we all find ourselves drawn to examples which contradict that black and white notion.”
One clash that the concert seeks to mediate is that between musical tastes, with a section of the program designed to help listeners appreciate the two different types of music.
“We take two pieces and put them together, to explain what each side has found irritating in each other’s musical style,” Labaree said.
This is uniquely possible when Dunya plays with specialists in Western early music, because Western music of this period was closer in style to Eastern music.
“It was closer than today,” said Mehmet Sanlikol, one of the co-founders of Dunya, who plays an oud, which is similar to the European lute. “When you go so far back in history, to the 16th and 17th century, European and Turkish music wasn’t as different, in explorations of scales and notes, and execution, as well.
“It was different enough that Western travelers had trouble understanding and relating, but the differences are now much more highlighted.”
Developing connections to Western early music is consistent with Dunya’s mission as a collective. They also partner with musicians working in several other musical traditions — Jewish, Armenian and Greek — that have been connected with Ottoman culture.
Sanlikol, who grew up in Turkey and teaches the history of Western music at Holy Cross, came to Berklee to study jazz, and his mother was a pianist trained in Western classical music.
He feels Istanbul today is still a very cosmopolitan city, “the New York of the Near and Middle East,” but that at its height the Ottoman empire was like America today.
“It’s like that to me,” Sanlikol said. “What a wonderful parallel. People should know that there’s so much to learn from that history, and music is one way to do that.”
If you go What: "Crossroads: East Meets West, Dunya evokes Istanbul in the 16th to 18th Centuries," sponsored by Cambridge Society for Early Music. When and where: Saturday, Jan. 26, 7:30 p.m., at Salem Athenaeum, 337 Essex St., Salem, and Sunday, Jan. 27 4 p.m., Ascension Memorial Church, 31 County St., Ipswich. More information: Tickets at the door (cash or check): $30; seniors $25; children under 18 and students with ID, free. Tickets by credit card, for an added fee of $3, at www.csem.org. Visit www.csem.org or call 617-489-2062.