Electronic Music. Isn't it funny how two words can have so many different meaning to so many people? In my mind electronic music immediately brings to mind Switched On Bach by Walter Carlos (who later became Wendy Carlos but that has nothing to do with music except the beat that Walter happened to dance to was more Wendy's rhythm) and Tomita's wonderful versions of Debussy's music on I believe what was called Snowflakes Are Dancing.
In other words pieces developed from pre existing music and interpreted on Moog synthesisers. I can also skip forward to the next generation of electronic arts – where it first crossed over into the popular music arena with people like Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, and Laurie Anderson or bands like Cluster, Kraftwerk, and various projects that Brian Eno did with people like Jon Hassel.
Unlike their predecessors these people created original compositions which attempted, with the exception of Kraftwerk, to create atmospheric impressions. Music For Filmsand Music For Airports, two Fripp and Eno collaborations, are classic examples from that period of what they called aural wallpaper compositions. They were created with the purpose of being played in the background, to have as subtle an effect on a room's atmosphere as wallpaper. The aim was for it to be noticed in the same subliminal way that wallpaper affects a response.
Today electronic music seems to mean anything from compositions like the above, to people doing nothing more than compiling samples of other people music through digital processors, adding bass and drum machines, and playing it for mindless hoards of people to dance to. Other people make better use of the technology to allow them to share audio tracks across great distances so that a musician in India can collaborate with indigenous drummers in the rainforests of Brazil and a singer in Detroit to make a unique piece of music but I'd be hard pressed to find any contemporary music that had really impressed me, until now.
So it was with some trepidation that I placed Altered Realities by Erdem Helvacioglu into my player. He had said his music was electronic and I was dreading some horrible house style thing. Well my fears were offset immediately upon reading his C.V. that he had thoughtfully enclosed with the disc. (he mailed it at his own expense from Istanbul, Turkey where he lives).
Erdem is a serious musician and artist who has performed at some of the most prestigious Electronic music festivals throughout the world. He has scored movies, dance pieces, and live theatrical performances, as well as producing music at home in his native Turkey. In other words to even say his name in the same breath as mentioning samplers is probably insulting.
What makes Altered Realities so amazing right from the beginning is that there are no overdubs, re-recordings (or samples) used at all in the process of making the disc. He's used an Ovation guitar, a multi effects processor, a midi foot controller and software to record in real time to a DAT recorder. There was not even any editing or post processing done to the result – what we hear is what he recorded live in the moment.
And quite frankly it's amazing. I probably don't have the musical vocabulary to do the music justice as I'm only used to talking about acoustically generated sounds, but this is the first time I've ever heard electronic music be as emotionally effective as acoustic music, and in some ways even more effective.
His method is deceptively simple in that he plays notes and chords upon his guitar and then feeds them through the processor and the midi foot pedals via the software to the DAT recorder (I assume), but it's what he generates and to what effect that is astounding.
Altered Realities is a very apt name because at times it feels like that's exactly what he's done, is somehow capture moments in everyday living and recreate them with sound so that we can almost picture them in front of our eyes. What he creates though isn't the actual people, which isn't possible with music anyway, but the feelings that would be generated in an observer watching a throng course across a bridge or move tightly packed along a sidewalk.
Of course I have no idea if any of that was his intent or not with the music, that was just what my over active imagination came up with from listening to one moment in one piece. These are definitely active pieces of music, and not of the aural wallpaper mode. You can't just put this on and forget about it, or sit and meditate to it like some New Age zombie. There's no way you're going to be able to clear your mind of all emotions while listening to it.
There are time listening to the music that I can feel my own anxiety level rising in time with what the music is describing, and on other occasions feel a great welling up of sadness. It's probably only because I've been reading the books of Orhan Pamuk recently, all of which are set in Istanbul and deal with what Mr. Pamuk calls the great melancholy of Istanbul, that I start picturing in my minds eye, black and white images of people trudging through the streets of a great city that is crumbling around them while listening to some of Mr. Helvacioglu's music.
Although I'm sure that if he has been at all affected by his environment that element will creep into his music like damp into a basement and permeate upwards even without his noticing; some of the passages are so hauntingly beautiful as to be almost heartbreaking. While others are just good to hear in the sense they are life affirming through their existence, not for any particular feeling or emotion they generate.
The fact that someone went to the trouble to create a piece of music is often enough of a positive statement in of itself without the piece having to evoke anything specific. The very act of creation is life affirming, and these creations of Erdem's are never tinged with negativity, selfishness, or anything else that can be construed as taking away from him honouring that fact.
If you are like me and have hesitations about electronic music, or have been dismissive of it as cold and unemotional, then I recommend you get yourself a copy of Altered Realities by Erdem Helvacioglu. I don't know if he is typical of the direction in which modern electronic music is moving, but even if it isn't, his is a name to keep an eye out for in the future. We can only hope Erdem is a sign of things to come.
(Originally posted May 2007)
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.