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Through swollen eyes

img  Tobias Fischer
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"I don't see things getting better", Erdem Helvacıoğlu says, his gaze fixed intently on me. We're sitting in the lobby of the Ibis Hotel near Berlin's Ostbahnhof and we're both exhausted and tired – Erdem from a long flight and too little sleep, me from a Winter that simply won't come to an end. We've already been talking for an hour, zig-zagging from music to travelling and from our goals in life to life in Istanbul, Erdem's first hometown next to his second one in New York. Yet it's only now, that we've somehow touched on the subject of capitalism and the grip of international corporations that the conversation is really picking up pace. I'm mostly the listener here, not for a lack of opinion or things to say, but because his passionate delivery so perfectly matches my sentiments that it seems superfluous to add anything. I don't expect things to get better anytime soon, either. I expect them to get a lot worse.

It's interesting to see Helvacıoğlu's work as political. I hadn't done so before, although there were plenty of clues contained in his oeuvre – perhaps already on his 2003 debut A Walk Through The Bazaar, which first recorded, then remixed the sounds of a market in Istanbul, marking composition as a socially relevant, communally conscious activity. Already back in 2007, when we did an interview by email, he told me about the seeming paradox that the more he listened to abstract works, the more he was interested in political music. Today, he says: "I think as composers we live in a bizarre world which we can and should draw many inspirations from. We live in a world where scientists discover the Higgs boson, the single most important discovery in physics in the 21st century. But we are also in a world where we still can not find a sustainable solution for hunger in certain parts of Africa. Or where we have incredible wealth - mostly accumulated by fraud - owned by only a handful of people. But on the other hand, there are millions of Chinese who work in extremely bad conditions for the benefit of corporations. As composers I think we need to investigate these issues sonically." Considering the ambition, scope, implications and uncompromising nature of his pieces, he has come far – his performance as part of the prestigious Märzmusik tomorrow in the holy techno-cathedral of the Berghain is set to be one of the festival's highlights.

We're ordering another coffee, but it doesn't help. For a moment, my thoughts wander off, to the emphasis Erdem places not just on politics, but on "sonics" here. After all, he fiercely believes that the contemporary composer needs to master the technological aspects of the trade next to the technical ones, that the search for "interesting, unique and exciting timbres" should be an integral part of the process. From his point of view, the word 'music' will eventually be replaced by the term "sound art", which, in perhaps 100 years, will be shortened, simply, to "sound". It is a vision and philosophy shaped incisively by the anything-goes of the late old and early new Millennium, of first falling in love with the anthemic hard rock of Def Leppard only to succumb to the pointillist refinement of Webern later, of growing up amidst the dualism of hearing Turkish folk tradition in a metropolis fully immersed in the 21st century, of listening to classical music while studying sound engineering and electroacoustic composition at conservatory. There is a restlessness to his output, which mirrors my own interests as a listener and writer – little wonder, we're only half a year apart in age – and which has translated into one of the most wondrous and diverse discographies currently on the market: Only over the past year alone, he has recorded two inside-piano-CDs, an album of delicate guitar-ambient, a complex multi-channel-work as well as a pioneering hybrid of electric lapsteel and guitarviol with live electronics. Currently, he's busy finishing a pure-pop full-length with The Cardigans' vocalist Nina Persson. Is it too much? It's something he worries about a lot as well - neither prolificness nor eclecticism are relevant to him as such. What matters is that these releases never play safe by reverting to a formula, that they're always looking for a unique angle, as though he were defining a new world each time. Just as Pauline Oliveros told me: "There is no usual start."

After we've split, Erdem in search of something to eat and me in search of my way home through dense fogs of snow, I put on my headphones, listening to his breakthrough album Altered Realities again. A blissfull, organically shifting improvised symphony of guitar-electronica, it seems to escape from, rather than touch on the political topics we've just covered.

Then, a few months later, I see a picture of Erdem on the streets of Istanbul. He has joined the protesters against the Erdogan regime, a field recorder in his hands, his eyes swollen up from tear gas. Clearly, he has expanded the role of the composer once again. I take it back, I think to myself. I do see things getting better.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Erdem Helvacıoğlu