Eleven Short Stories, music inspired by film, composed by experimental Turkish composer Erdem Helvacioglu

By Daniel Garrett

Erdem Helvacioglu, Eleven Short Stories
Recorded by Murat Ersan; mastered by Pieter Snapper
Produced by Erdem Helvacioglu
American Composers Forum
Innova Recordings, 2012

There are artists who can be counted on to do only one thing, and to deliver only one idea, but there are other artists who do more, feel more, think more, imagine more, and want more—for us, they embody human potential, past, present, and future. In a world in which mystery and surprise of significance are rare, Erdem Helvacioglu, while answering the desire of his own imagination, is exploring something that may prove elusive. On his album Eleven Short Stories, he has transformed his piano into the most flexible of instruments, augmenting it with odd implements and making it sing with new tones, telling vivid tales. The pianist, guitarist, and composer Erdem Helvacioglu, informed by classical, folk, and popular music, has wanted to bring together emotion and experiment. He is interested not only in skill, technique, and innovation, but in effect. “I could listen to the albums of Def Leppard for hours but also get great joy and excitement listening and analyzing the works of Webern,” said Helvacioglu, whose first instrument was a cheap classical guitar, to Tobias Fischer of the music site Tokafi (January 11, 2012). Erdem Helvacioglu went on to say, “I have always been fascinated by the sound quality of pop and rock albums.” Helvacioglu has admitted that recorded sound is more important to him than written notes, and that he thinks of himself as a composer of sound rather than of notes. Technology facilitates communication. Erdem Helvacioglu’s works include a Turkish field recording, A Walk Through the Bazaar (Locust Music, 2003), and his own compositions Altered Realities (New Albion, 2006), featuring acoustic guitar and electronics, and Wounded Breath (Aucourant, 2008), featuring what he calls an “electro-acoustic tape piece,” which would require running a hundred MacBook Pro machines in order to produce its sounds in public concert (he told the online site of equipment provider Audio Mulch; interview accessed April 23, 2012). Erdem Helvacioglu worked on Sub City 2064 with Per Boysen (BMMI, 2010), and with Ros Bandt on Black Falcon (Pozitif, 2010), and Sirin Pancaroglu, a harpist, for Resonating Universes (Sargasso, 2011), with Helvacioglu’s Timeless Waves following (Sub Rosa, 2012).

Erdem Helvacioglu, a Turkish composer who lives in Istanbul, has been inspired by the cinema, but it is not Turkish film that is his muse for Eleven Short Stories, but the work of film artists such as Kim Ki-Duk, David Lynch, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Jane Campion, Anthony Minghella, Ang Lee, Atom Egoyan, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and Steven Soderbergh. Helvacioglu prepared his piano strings with strange implements for unique sounds, including clapsticks, drumsticks, e-bows, earplugs, erasers, forks, knives, paper, paper clips, pencils, plates, and plastic and metal spoons. The sounds were created for the kind of scene the composer wanted to suggest; and microphones were placed close to the prepared piano strings to capture them: and the listener notices the thinness or thickness of tones, their seeming nearness or distance, and one consequence is that the music sounds as if it were made by more than one instrument. Erdem Helvacioglu’s “The Billowing Curtain” is dense, echoing, percussive, followed by “Bench at the Park,” on his Eleven Short Stories. The pacing and different weight of the notes in “Jittery Chase” create something dramatic, at once formal, mysterious, and strange, with a strumming sound followed by something lighter, a kind of brushing ring—something both pianistic and percussive. Solitary, with heavy piano notes, “Shattered Snow Globe” is ruminative; and, at first, it is not easy to hear the larger structure within which the notes move, and the notes are loud and quiet, round and flat, but then one perceives a mournful trepidation in what is not quite a march. “Six Clocks in the Dim Room” has a lot of space between its notes, yet discernible momentum; and as a pulse sounds it is as if one is hearing—or even seeing—something bubbling upward, like in a pool of water, over time. There are shifts in structure in “Mist on the Windowpane,” with its light and heavy notes. Thrashy, almost jazz-like is “Blood Drops by the Pool,” featuring a sound like a gong, and then a sawing tone easily suggests danger, though a listener might think that while all sounds occurring in nature and in the course of human life can be considered music, the imitation of those sounds—such as the imitation of a saw—is not necessarily music. “Have Not Been Here in Forty Years” is somber and pleasant. There is almost a dance rhythm in the dramatic, intense “Trapped in the Labyrinth,” and “Will I Ever See You Again” is pretty but, with contrasting notes and intensity, increasingly dramatic. “Shrine in Ruins” has a plucking, rattling sound, followed by quiet, and what might seem an abrupt end; and one has the sense of an oriental ritual. Erdem Helvacioglu has succeeded in creating aural spaces that correspond in the imagination to geographic, social, and spiritual spaces.

Erdem Helvacioglu told interviewer Jonathan Wilson, in year 2011, that unique timbre is as important as good melody. Erdem Helvacioglu, whose musical loves have included the rock of Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, U2, Van Halen, and bebop, and Varese, Bartok, and Debussy, has observed that “The harmonic and tonal language had to be destroyed in order to achieve a new way of thinking about tonality” in the twentieth century (Tokafi, 2012). Helvacioglu thinks that the current cultural moment is an opportunity for creativity, that anything is possible, but that he, interested more in narration than abstraction, does not want to lose the human factor in his own work.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.