Since most of us don't have access to grand pianos and the opportunity to see the instrument's inner workings they provide, it's easy to forget a piano is actually a stringed instrument. It wasn't a coincidence early keyboards, harpsichords, included the word harp in their name. For what were they if not the means to play chords on a harp?
Like any stringed instrument when you depress or adjust the strings on a piano you change the tonal quality it will produce. While the idea of the prepared piano, a piano whose sound has been deliberately modified by attaching or placing objects on its strings, has been around since the time of Mozart, it was contemporary composer John Cage who, in the second half of the twentieth century, used the technique for more than just effect and created entire compositions for prepared piano.
Turkish composer of new music Erdem Helvacioglu has created music for a variety of modern and traditional stringed instruments that have been unique in their balancing of electronic recording techniques and acoustic sounds. Whether using computers to generate loops that allow him to build layers of sound through improvisation or manipulating the sound of a concert harp through processors he has always managed to both preserve the integral sound of the original instrument while managing to fully explore its potential for experimentation. So it seems only logical his latest release, Eleven Short Stories on the Innova Recordings label, would see him utilizing the largest stringed instrument around - a prepared grand piano.
Each of the eleven pieces on this recording have been inspired by one of eleven film directors. Ranging from the relatively well known, David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh, to those who North American audiences won't be familiar with at all, Alejandro Goales Inarritu and Kimm Ki-Duk, the directors in question represent a broad cross section of styles and cultures. Each of them will have their own unique vision of the world they articulate in film. Yet film itself is an amalgamation of more than one art form as visual arts, music and literature are all utilized by the directors in the process of telling a story. So Helvacioglu is not simply creating soundtracks for each of the directors, but rather endeavouring to capture the essence of their overall creation.
Now, the only trouble is, what happens, if like me, you're not overly familiar with the works of the directors in question? Will you still be able to appreciate the pieces on the disc? While you may not be able to tell which was inspired by each director, and there is no mention in the liner notes as to who inspired what, these are still works of music and should be able to stand or fall on their own merits regardless of who or what inspired them. However, since we know they were inspired by films, we can use that as an avenue of approach when listening to them.
The average film soundtrack usually serves to accent what the viewer is seeing on the screen. Unfortunately this invariably leads to such cliches as swelling strings during moments of heightened emotion or other tricks designed to underline the obvious. Don't be looking for anything as trite as that from Helvacioglu, he's not scoring a movie for one thing, he's trying to capture moments that help sum up what a particular director's work means to him.
If you look at the titles of each piece you'll see they all refer to either a rather striking visual image: "The Billowing Curtain", "Shattered Snow Glove" and "Blood Drops By The Pool"; a specific location "Shrine In Ruin" and "Bench At The Park" or an evocative phrase of dialogue; "Will I Ever See You Again" and "Not Been Here In Forty Years". The titles themselves are evocative and in some cases are enough to have us creating mental pictures in their own right. The music continues that process and fleshes out the initial image with an emotional context and spurs our imaginations to develop scenes built around the location, phrase or description.
"The Billowing Curtain", which opens the recording, is a good example of this and how Helvacioglu uses music to create layers of meaning and imagery. For not only did the music cause me to visualize a curtain blowing in a breeze as the title suggests, it went even further. Like a camera panning and pulling out into a wide angle shot simultaneously the music carries us from seeing a curtain in a window into the room behind it. The opening chords are the sound of a gentle breeze as he's altered the piano's sound to give it the slight buzz associated with a harpsichord.
However this gradually segues from gentle to discordant so we begin to wonder what's in the room. The peaceful atmosphere suggested by the opening notes, say of a spring breeze causing the billowing of the title, is all of a sudden lost and the sound takes on a desolate tone as if the room is empty, devoid of life. The curtain all of a sudden becomes a dividing line between the pleasant feelings initially evoked by the music and the hidden world of the room.
As one would suspect from its title "Blood Drops By The Pool" is an unsettling piece of music. While Helvacioglu picks out careful notes on the keyboard that create an eerie quiet he intersperses them with a series of sounds that can only be described as scrapes and scratches. Perhaps made by taking a bow to the strings of the piano prepared with objects that caused the strange vibrations, some of them sound for all the world like the noise of a saw while others the metal legs of a piece of furniture being dragged over the concrete beside the pool. It's a disturbing collection of sounds which jar and disturb while creating the feeling of unease you would have coming across drops of blood anywhere.
Prepared piano pieces are not music as most people are accustomed to hearing it played. In some ways they are more collages of different sounds designed to create an emotional reaction in the listener than a collection of notes within the framework of a song. However, the composer of any piece of music, no mater what genre, hopes to elicit an emotional reaction from his or her listener. The difference with these pieces lies only in the fact the sounds aren't ones we're used to hearing from a musical instrument. What I found most intriguing was how while the music on this disc created a sense of detachment because of its unusual nature, somehow this separation increased its ability to communicate.
Most of the time when we listen to a piece of music there are arrangements of notes which will automatically generate certain emotional reactions. That's not the case with these pieces. Not being able to rely on the usual comfortable clues you've come to expect from musical compositions you find yourself paying close attention to each note and its relationship to the ones around it. As a result, without realizing it, you become much more invested in the piece and your reactions are based on what you're actually hearing not what you've been conditioned to hear.
Helvacioglu's use of the various treatments and styles of playing prepared piano create moments through out the recording that have more emotional depth than most conventional compositions of the same length. On top of this, each one also manages to evoke images associated with its title. Instead of the music giving emphasis to images flickering on a screen, here each song creates a short movie in our head made up of a series of images and accompanying emotions. While it may not be what your used to hearing, this is some of the most stimulating and provocative music you'll hear. Its well worth making what ever extra effort might be required.
(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu - Eleven Short Stories on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted August 2012)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.