When we hear the word composer I'm sure most of us still call to mind an image of an intense looking, white haired man wearing a frock coat bent over a desk scrawling away with a feather quill. For some reason the word just doesn't seem to quite fit into our world of computers and digitally created sound. Yet since the 1960's men and women have been creating pieces of music using electronic equipment, and I don't just mean the occasional pop song either. No, we're talking about pieces of the same complexity and length as anything any of those white haired dudes might have come up with a few hundred years ago.
While many of us have some familiarity with the more famous of the classics from those earlier days, I'm sure most people can still hum the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and are able to recognize his Ode To Joy, the reality is very few of us have the opportunity to experience any of those great works in their entirety. However inaccessible their music might seem though, it's nothing compared to the miniscule amount of exposure we have to those composing electronic music today. Can any of you name even one twenty-first century electronic composer who doesn't work in popular music? Don't get me wrong, I'm not much better than most, it's just an unfortunate fact of life that unless you happen to be working in the field the chances of you even having the opportunity to listen to any of their work is slim.
Ironically you'd think with our widespread acceptance of the use of electronic equipment in popular music these days we'd be much more open to electronic compositions. You go to any dance club now and I'd guess a good ninety per cent of the music is going to have been produced digitally utilizing electronic instruments and processors. When was the last time you went into a club and could actually discern a guitar in the mix? Even what little vocals there might be have been fed through a variety of enhancers. Yet there still persists the idea modern electronic compositions are for a few people only, and most of us wouldn't enjoy them.
Well I defy anyone to listen to Sub City 2064, the results of a long distance collaboration between the Turkish composer Erdem Helvacioglu and Sweden's Per Boysen, and come away not only impressed by what they have accomplished, but still thinking electronic music can't be enjoyed by more than a few. Like any other musical genre you're not familiar with there might be a period of adjustment that you'll have to go through before you can fully appreciate what it is they are doing. but the learning curve isn't steep at all. Anyone used to hearing electronic music of any sort will be able to find enough familiar elements in their compositions to have no problem getting into the swing of things.
The intent behind Sub City 2064 was to create music along the lines of the soundtrack to a science-fiction horror movie. As both men specialize in creating through improvisation instead, of sitting down and composing (see the white haired guy with the feather earlier), they used a series of synopsis describing scenes, or atmospheres, from the "movie" for inspiration. For example, the first piece is called "Radiation Patrol", and they used the sentence, "Every night a team swoops the city to check for new radiation leaks.", as the impetus for the music. While that's a pretty direct instruction as to both action and atmosphere, some of the other phrases are far more vague. Yet each of them are like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle so that when they are all fit together we end up with a very clear view of life in this futuristic world.
Now obviously music, no matter what kind, is unable to spell things out as clearly as words. What it can do though is bring the atmosphere and environment suggested by the words to life. Taking the line mentioned above as an example it's obviously next to impossible to get across the exact meaning of that phrase through music alone. However what Boysen and Helvacioglu have managed to do is create a rather ominous sounding soundscape, like one might hear during the opening of a movie. I'm sure most of us have seen a movie where during the opening the camera moves through some sort of alien landscape establishing we are somewhere filled with unknown threats and the potential for disaster.
Listening to "Radiation Patrol" one feels the same sensations as you would if you were seeing the opening of that movie. There's an ominous feel to the music that makes it clear we're not in our normal environment anymore, yet there's also the sense that we're not in any specific danger, merely somewhere different and strange. Even better is how the two were able to convey those messages without using any of the stereotypical movie soundtrack conventions for expressing those sentiments. Helvacioglu's guitar and Boysen's flute pick out notes and phrases that express the emotions, while their combined use of electronics creates the sensation of travel you would normally associate with moving through an environment.
In each of the ten pieces that make up the "soundtrack" they repeat the same process creating another dimension to the world of the movie. While they may not convey the literal meaning of a specific phrase they bring the atmosphere to life so convincingly you have no trouble believing in the environment they have created. While it may be true that a picture is worth a thousand words, Boysen and Helvacioglu show just how effective music is at creating imagery.
The process of composing may have changed quite a bit since the days of a feather quill scratching out notes on a sheet of paper, but the intent remains the same. Today's composers of electronic music are just as concerned with creating pieces which stimulate our emotions and excite our imaginations as their predecessors were, and Boysen and Helvacioglu show they are every bit of capable of succeeding in that objective. Anybody still under the impression that electronic music is without soul or heart hasn't been paying enough attention.
Article first published as Music Review: Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglue & Per Boyesn - Sub City 2064 at Blogcrtiics.org
(Originally posted May 2010)
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.