Interview with Erdem Helvacioglu
by Ewan Burke
You are in a snow-covered hilly landscape. All is still. The snow muffles all sound. The sun is obscured behind dense grey clouds. Thick fog cuts visibility to around thirty yards. You have been walking for some time. The landscape has been bleached until everything is a shade of white or grey. Then, something looms in the distance: a monstrous shape. As you approach, the shape takes form – it appears to be the beginning of a huge, steel bridge. You can’ see the other end of the bridge – it disappears into the fog.
Erdem Helvacioglu is one of the most renowned electronic composers of his generation in Turkey. Altered Realities, his first CD to receive a wide release, was released on the prestigious American label New Albion – which has also released work by Stockhausen, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Feldman amongst others. Altered Realities is an album of seven instrumental pieces – Erdem playing electro-acoustic guitar with live electronics, with no overdubbing or post-production, save for some compression and equalisation at the mastering stage.
Yet this disc does not sound like what you might think, given the previous description. Erdem plays the guitar in an almost pianistic way and the guitar is processed in such a way that it rarely sounds like a guitar – the sounds are more akin to keyboard or synth sounds. The closest reference point for this record would be Harold Budd and Brian Eno, as heard on such albums as The Pearl or The Plateaux of Mirror.
â€œI started playing the electric guitar and classical guitar when I was 11, so the first thing I was listening to was mostly ’80s hard rock and all that stuff. Then at the same time I was studying classical guitar with a little bit of flamenco and jazz, so I had all these different influences until my university years, and I played in many, many different bands and venues around Istanbul. During my university years I got interested in mostly electronic music, because I was spending 10 hours a day studying the guitars and scales, so kind of like a freak, you know – wanting to be a virtuoso,” he laughs. “I got very tired of that, and that was the time in the mid-’90s, with the trip-hop stuff, drum ‘n’ bass, jungle – all those genres were exploding. I was listening to a lot of Bjork and popular electronica.
I built my own small home studio, and after university I got into a masters degree in sound engineering and electronic music composition. So that’s how I discovered the music of Stockhausen and Davidovsky – the pioneers of electronic/electro-acoustic music. I also got the education of the academic stuff – so that was blending. I started with music with very popular stuff, and then during those times went completely to the opposite side – to the very academic side. So maybe this record is subconsciously a combination of all these different ideas. I really wanted it to be melodic, and I wanted it to be very minimalist at the same time. I could go and create patches with lots of distortion and overdrive, but I didn’ want to do that.â€
One of the things that struck me about the record was that it is so melodic, and there are a lot of very pretty melodies on it. Erdem has done quite a bit of work on film soundtracks and theatre music, so I asked him what kind of films he had worked on.
â€œI did a few feature films. The last one I did was for a short film and it was screened at a festival in 2006. I also do music for dance productions and theatre – that’s also going on at the same time. So I think that’s important for me also to do music to the visuals – music to the story. I think that in a way is represented in the record also. It’s not a record for a specific film, but subconsciously it has that quality also.â€
“My first solo record was released with Locust Music in Chicago and he was gonna release this record Altered Realities, but something happened and we decided not to work together for this album,” he says. “As I was checking out labels and talking with musician friends, I got in contact with the clarinet player from Bang On A Can, the new music ensemble from the States. He had a new solo album released with New Albion, and he said that they would work very well with this record. He gave it to the label owner, and the owner got in contact with me directly. So he loved it, and said “What do you want to do with this record?’ Of course I wanted them to release it, because New Albion is such an incredible label – with releases from Harold Budd, Stockhausen and Pauline Oliveros. They have a great catalogue – they have a name kind of like ECM in a way.â€
Erdem’ previous album was divided into two parts – the first part being a field recording, which is presented straight, and then the second part being the field recording manipulated and remixed with added beats. â€œIt was different,â€ explains Erdem â€œbecause it was part of a series. Locust Music has a series called Met Life, and released six albums. The idea was that every artist would record sounds from the city they live in, and present the un-edited field recordings and a processed composition based on that field recording. So all of the six albums have two long tracks. My idea was to record the bazaar in Istanbul – and that was 16 to 17 minutes of field recordings. Then I did a composition based on that – like a long 40-minute composition – so that was the basis of that.â€
I asked Erdem about an appearance on a compilation – a Scottish record called Resonant Cities.
â€œThe whole idea was the sound of different cities all round Europeâ€ explained Erdem. â€œI composed an eight minute piece called “Wandering around the City’ – again based on the sounds of Istanbul. Very intimate recordings – I did a lot of recording with binaural and other microphones. My piece was based on that, and of course the other pieces were all based around different cities in Europe. I also do a lot of stuff with field recordings, manipulating of timbres, ambient soundscape compositions. Doing field recordings is very important for me. You think about life and you think about art and social life very differently, when you record them.â€
I asked Erdem if he was planning to make a record in the future which would make greater use of field recordings. â€œI have nearly finished one – it’s called Farewell Istanbul and it’s again based on the sounds of Istanbul – but it’s more of a documentary record, with much more personal and intimate recordings. When you have binaural microphones, and you go into a cafÃ© or similar, people think that you’re listening to an iPod, because the microphones are in your ears – but you can record quite intimate things – and that’s the basis of the culture, in a sense, so that’s very important for me. The recordings on this future record will be very close recordings. It won’ be like the very typical sounds of Istanbul – traffic, for example – it will be a very personal sound recording or a sound portrait of a city.â€
Does Erdem think that there’ a political aspect to using such field recordings – do they present a view of a city that is unvarnished and untainted by commercial considerations?
â€œI think it can have a very political stance,â€ Erdem replies, â€œand one of the best examples would be the records of Christopher Delaurenti – he’ a great phonographer. He records all these things going on like against Bush, all these protests, and he does lots of things with those, and he’ got an incredible ear for that. I think it’s very important. I have a few ideas within that also. In the future, I really want to do more stuff with the political side of things – the protests, the war in Iraq and all the problems with the Middle East, and the problems the world is going through right now. Especially the Middle East – and Turkey is an incredible state right now. There are a lot of things that should be done and that can be done with the political side of field recordings.â€
If messages are coming out in the mass media in video and audio – and they’re pushing one particular point of view, the propaganda of those in power in whichever state – then sound artists and musicians can take those recordings and manipulate them, and get them to show a different side of what’s going on. â€œDefinitely,â€ agrees Erdem. â€œYou need different perspectives for sure. The media is owned by the companies – it’s everywhere, especially in the US. And when I go to the States, when I read the mainstream media – it’s very shocking, and the TV stations are like that also. They’re owned by the companies, and they represent the views of those companies.â€
Erdem came to the Antipodes earlier this year. â€œI went to New Zealand for the Asia Pacific Festival, and I gave two performances there. One was the Farewell Istanbul set, so it was like the ambient soundscape set – and that was very wild for me, because coming all the way from Istanbul to NZ, it took me two days to travel there. After the festival I travelled to Sydney, then to Melbourne, and did a recording session with Australian sound artist Ros Bandt at the ABC Studios – she’ a great sound artist. We did a three day recording session – so we have lots of material, and we’re thinking of editing and manipulating the material and maybe releasing something in Australia.â€
Speaking of collaborations, I noticed that Erdem had worked with Mick Karn (bassist with Japan in the ’70s and ’80s) on an album with Turkish band Rashit. How did that come about? â€œHe’ an incredible player,â€ enthuses Erdem. â€œLast year I worked as a producer for a post-punk/new wave band (released by Sony BMG in Turkey) and on one of the tracks, I was already involved, and got in contact with Mick Karn. So I sent him my CDs and he sent his solo albums to me. There was one special song which fitted his style so well. So I sent him the MP3 of the demo mix. He loved it! He laid down his part at his own studio, and sent his recording back to us – and it just worked incredibly well. So he’ playing on this record. That’s the first time that he’ played on a Turkish album, so that was very rewarding to be involved in that. It was collaboration over the Internet. It’s kind of the future. Even film composers – sometimes they don’ even see the director. The film is sent through as a QuickTime file with the instructions and the composer composes to the film script.â€
Did Erdem think there were any musicians who had been specific influences upon Altered Realities? â€œElectric guitar players such as David Torn and Adrian Belew; the acoustic style of Michael Hedges; Harold Budd; the minimalism of Morton Feldman – all very different peopleâ€ says Erdem. â€œBut since I also compose a lot of tape and electro-acoustic pieces – I noticed that there are a lot of compositions with let’s say piano and live electronics – within all these compositions you can notice that there are two different sound-worlds – the acoustic sound-world of the piano, and the processed version of the live electronics. Within this record I didn’ want to do that kind of thing – that’s why you can hear the electronic part 50 per cent and the acoustic part 50 per cent.”
“You can always hear the acoustic guitar playing – it’s not distorted by the processing – it’s always like moving at the same time – that was the main idea of playing in real time. Also I didn’ want to use any looping. The thing is that when you loop – even if its a long loop – the whole composition is fixed within that loop. You cannot escape it, even if you process it in real time – so I didn’ want to deal with that either. Real time, going at the same time, it’s like a conversation between the performer and the processing.â€ The album is about 90 per cent composed, and only 10 improvised – so all these sounds we hear are the result of very detailed programming and composition. There was a lot of work before pressing record. There is a lot of work within the live electronic stuff – it’s quite improvised – the composition doesn’ have fixed forms. Some of my friends say that it sounds like a symphony of guitar players, and it’s a very symphonic record in a sense.â€
Altered Realities sounds much fuller than just one guitar playing. Erdem elaborates; â€œThere’ a lot of work behind the album. The mastering of it was also very detailed. The only processing was in the mastering stage – we used very good analogue compressors and equalizers – and that’s why you hear all this bass on some of the pieces, but also the various high frequencies – it’s like a symphonic sound from just one acoustic guitar. One guy playing in real time gives you all these frequencies. I checked the sound on very different speaker systems and very good hi-fi systems, and it worked.â€
I asked Erdem about his plans for the remainder of the year. â€œDuring the summer I want to finish my new record. Also there are two projects in Turkey. I’m producing an album for a band. Then I have a commission for the Istanbul Biennale which takes place in September – a big sound installation that I’ve started working on. And the post-punk band I mentioned earlier – besides production, sometimes I also play with them, and we’re going to play at a few international rock festivals in Turkey. We played at a festival two years ago and we opened for The Cure – that was really wild! And we’re playing at a festival in July, and you won’ believe this, but we’re opening for Marilyn Manson. That’s gonna be fun! That’s very different from my compositional style. As I’ve said, I started playing within rock bands, and I still enjoy that part of it also – playing at clubs and so on.â€
In some ways, Erdem has the best of both worlds, in that he can move between these quite different environments. â€œYeah, I think that’s important. Some very good producers and composers are within very different worlds – one good example would be Brian Eno – he can go between the different mindsets, when he’ doing things with Harold Budd or with his solo records – but he can also bring those inspirations and ideas to U2 records. You can learn so many different things from both worlds. You shouldn’ close yourself off, saying “I’m a very important composer and I’m gonna do this and do that’s – that has ended, I think. We cannot say we are composers like Stravinsky – we are in a different era. We can only say we are sound artists – we are in a different world, so we have to think in those terms. If you do lots of different things, and also have your own style of course, that’s gonna be a lot of help for your own creations.”
This also means that he can reach different audiences and different people as well. â€œYeah, different audiences and different people – and you learn so many things communicating with different people also. That’s very important. I hear from a lot of teenagers also, because of the rock production I did – and when I tell them that I did a solo CD, they say “oh, is it a guitar record, let me hear it’s – and they listen to it with a completely different perspective. They like it – and that’s a very good sign. You shouldn’ say “I’m a serious composer and I will do only this for the rest of my lifeâ€¦’â€
Altered Realities is out now on New Albion Records.