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Interview: Erdem Helvacıoğlu

img  Tobias Fischer

In your work, the „experimental“ and the „emotional“ are not just different languages, but repeatedly intersect.
Right from the day that I started listening to music, I have always been interested in both contemporary popular music and experimental contemporary music. I could listen to the albums by Def Leppard for hours but also get great joy and excitement listening and analysing the works of Webern. Both of these musical and aesthetic worlds really excite me, albeit in different ways. As a professional producer and sound engineer, I have always been fascinated by the sound quality of pop- and rock-albums. Studying these works as an engineer have helped me become a better composer, too.

So it was the production quality that excited you about Def Lepard?
Mainly, yes. To me, the Hysteria album is one of the best sounding rock albums of all time. I think I was around eleven years old and had just started to play the guitar. I remember exactly the moment that I heard the single “Animal” from that record. I just could not understand how a band could sound so HUGE! Although I did not know anything about music production then, I instantly realized that this was something that İ would like to do in my life. During those years, Turkish pop- and rock-albums sounded pretty lame compared to the productions done in Europe and the USA. Side by side, there was a big difference in sonic quality and as a teenager, I became really curious about how and why this difference occurs. To this day, I have always been interested in great sounding albums, be it in the realms of pop or contemporary music.

In which way did you also feel at the time – and still today – that this exploration and sculpting of sound represented not just a "production issue", but in fact part of the emotional expression?

Since the day I started playing the electric guitar in my teens, I performed recordings on my own. My very first experiments were conducted on various, cheap four channel cassette recorders. I think all those struggling times of trying to get a decent sound on my own have been really influential for me. The sound or whatever we may call what is captured on tape has always been more important for me than the actual notes written on the page. In that sense, I think of myself more as a sound composer, not a note composer even though I write note based music not just electronic, electroacoustic tape music. Sculpting sound is never just a production issue.

I think a good example for this would be beat creation in electronica, r'n'b and other beat-oriented genres. Without proper equalization, compression and fx settings, your ideas will never deliver to listeners with the right emotional content. Even just a slight eq boost around 300 hertz can make the sound of the piece “muddy”, a boost around 500 hertz could make it “boxy” and so forth. All these and other terms like nasal, thin, warm, bright, aggressive, which engineers will use are like colors that an artist uses on his paintings. Just like the good use of colors would make the art work shine and deliver its message, a good recording with the right sound ingredients will deliver the emotional expression much better to the listener.

How did Webern enter the picture?
I must have listened to a lot of Turkish folk music on the radio and TV when I was a child, but do not recall any specific moments about it right now. I think I first started listening to the popular musics of the late 80s and that was the time that I started playing the guitar. Within a year or so, my musical interest turned to the bebop era, classical music and film soundtracks. I was already listening to 20th century classical music during my teens. Although I did not have the intellectual background to fully grasp the quality of the pieces, I enjoyed the works of Varèse, Bartók, Debussy and others. During my education on sound engineering and electroacoustic composition at ITU MIAM, I had a course on post tonal theory. All of a sudden, all the pieces from the post tonal era seemed to make much more sense and I became even more interested in the works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. I started analyzing the pieces of Webern and I was shocked by the quality of them. The use of sets was so cleverly done and the emotional content of the music was just amazing. It was as if every single note had a story to tell. So subtle, yet so powerful music. It literally changed my life.

It certainly seems to have opened up your own work to a wide range of influences ...
The main concern in contemporary experimental music during the 20th century has been the idea of innovation, reconstruction and destruction. The harmonic and tonal language had to be destroyed in order to achieve a new way of thinking about tonality. Likewise, new timbres had to be thought out and created to open up the way for the exploration of timbres on orchestral instruments.

Today, however, we are in a new world with new ideas about how to define music, exploration and emotion. I think it is a time for combining different ideas in a very free and spirited way rather than sticking to formulas. A very aggressive hiphop beat can easily blend with a 12 tone melody and radically distorted guitar timbres. Anything is possible now and there is no limit to what can be done. This is why I have never been interested in the big theoretical wars. Although I like to create concepts for my pieces and albums, they have never become systems that I force myself to follow all the time. To me, that would be against the spirit of the music. Composition should be all about freedom, not about following certain theories. I think my aesthetic of combining the two different sound worlds of “experimental” and “emotional” is a result of our times.

Was one of the reasons why your first official release, A Walk Through the Bazaar, dealt with field recordings, because they dealth with daily life, recognisable sounds and the familiar - in short, with „human“ factors, rather than, as you said, theoretical concepts?
I did the recording and the whole production for that record during my years at ITU-MIAM. Although I was still listening to the electronic pop bands and artists of the day, I was starting to get more into academic electroacoustic music and had already conducted a few experiments in that genre. For those first experiments and pieces, I was able to work and record material at the university studios. I was also starting to get interested in soundscape composition, doing field recordings of various sorts. Even though I'd already realised field recordings prior to my studies at ITU-MIAM, they were not very good in audio quality because of the equipment that I had to use. During the recording and the whole production of the A Walk Through The Bazaar album, I was able to express the techniques and aesthetics that I learned during these first study years at the ITU-MIAM. In that sense, the whole album was a great learning experience both technically and composition-wise.

Getting back to your question, the human factor has always been a key point in my works. I could never feel one hundred percent at ease with completely abstract pieces. At the academic concerts at various universities, my pieces have always sounded more tonal, more expressive in emotion compared to other works. I think this is because I am very much interested in narration rather than abstraction. I would like to relate stories to the audience even though they may be without words. I think my use of language, recognisable sounds, daily life were key points to this storytelling idea which was very present on A Walk Through the Bazaar. These days I am also working on a new field recording based album which will include very different aesthetics and genres, ranging from noise to ambient, operatic singing in Latin and such.

How important is playing live – or at least the notion of playing live – to conveying emotion?
Working with risk and spontaneity is a very important part of the compositional process for me. Even though I think thoroughly about the concept of the album, project before I begin, during the actual compositional phase I try to work as intuitively as possible. On albums like Altered Realities, Resonating Universes or Black Falcon, where the music is based on performance mainly, the listeners can definitely realize this phenomenon. I think this is even obvious on my electroacoustic album Wounded Breath, which is based on sophisticated sonic design rather than musical performance. On works such as this one, happy accidents encountered during the sonic creation process whether done in Protools, Cubase, Soundforge, Audiomulch, Metasynth or Soundhack are a vital element. Spontaneity combined with happy accidents create a new dimension in composition and take the works to another level where intuition meets with detailed analysis.

I think that's also what made an album like Altered Realities so exciting. You were setting yourself an incredible challenge with it.
I wanted to create a unique and interesting guitar based electroacoustic album. I knew that I did not want the record to be loop-based, or quantized-mutitracked since there were already many examples of this aesthetic. At the electroacoustic computer music festivals and conferences that I attended, I could see that there was a distinct separation between the performer and the composer of electroacoustic music. I began to think about how I could combine these two roles into one. Besides, the acoustic guitar was nowhere to be seen or heard at these concerts. So all these ideas encouraged me to think about a record where I would be the performer and the composer, control all the sophisticated live electronics parts in realtime myself and perform all the pieces on an instrument that isn't typically associated with the electroacoustic music genre. In that sense, the fact that the whole album was recorded in the moment for the finished album was definitely a very important part of this process. Throughout the whole album, the listeners can hear and feel the suspense. To me it is like listening to a great, virtuoso classical pianist performing a very hard piece. Think about how you would feel a rush of blood through you at a concert like this.

For me, Altered Realities has a similar feel - of course the difference is that the virtuoso element on the album is not the performance itself, but the combination of sophisticated live electronics parts and the actual playing on the acoustic guitar.

Is this also why you enjoy working with other musicians already early on on the creative process, such as on Resonating Universes - because it opens up the compositional process precisely to this combination of the minutely planned and the intuitive, to the emotional and the explorative?
Yes, exactly. I could easily write a detailed score for Şirin to perform for the Resonating Universes album without any of the precompositional sampling stage and without her involvement in the creative process at all. The piece could still sound good but not as wild, diverse and exciting as it is now. Right from the moment that we started recording textures, improvising for the sampling stage of the album, we literally turned into a band. We started performing with a similar mindset, sometimes even knowing what the other would do. From that moment on, the line between the composer and the performer became blurry for both of us. This is one of the reasons that both our names are on the cover without a more typical phrase such as “Pancaroğlu performs the music of Helvacıoğlu”!

The intuitive stage later blended with the detailed mixing and the meticulously crafted sonic treatments. In the end, it became a combination of intuition and detailed analysis.

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Tunc Aras.

Erdem Helvacıoğlu Discography:
A Walk Through the Bazaar (Locust Music) 2003
Altered Realities (New Albion) 2006
Wounded Breath (Aucourant) 2008
Sub City 2064/ w. Per Boysen (BMMI) 2010
Black Falcon/ w. Ros Bandt (Pozitif) 2010
Resonating Universes/ w. Şirin Pancaroğlu (Sargasso) 2011
Timeless Waves (Sub Rosa) 2012

Recommended Erdem Helvacıoğlu interviews & articles on the web:
Early interview for Cyclic Defrost
Interview with Loop Magazine about the technical background to recording the Altered Realities album
Signal to Noise article on Erdem Helvacıoğlu, providing an excellent introduction to his work

Erdem Helvacıoğlu

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