When you think about modern electronic compositions you normally expect the instruments employed by the performers to be something you'd plug in. Keyboards, guitars and anything else that's already electronically inclined. One of the last instruments you would probably associate with these types of works would be the harp.
Whether one of the huge concert harps used with a symphony orchestra or one of the many different "folk" harps from cultures around the world, they seem to be the epitome of an acoustic instrument. Delicately plucked strings picking out a melody which makes one think of ancient folk songs, minstrels and bards would on the surface appear to have little in common with music generated by computer processors.
Yet its just such a juxtaposition of the old and the new that composer and performer Erdem Helvacioglu and harpist Sirin Pancaroglu have attempted on their CD Resonating Universes on the Sargasso label. A composition for concert harp, ceng (traditional Turkish harp), electric harp and electronics, Resonating Universes is not merely an attempt to redefine our expectations when it comes to the type of music a harp is capable of producing or to shock listeners. Rather its an exploration of sound and the process of composition itself.
In composing the eight parts of the nearly hour long piece, Helvacioglu first recorded Pancaroglu playing the concert harp and assembled samples of the huge variety of sounds and textures the instrument is capable of creating. The process was then repeated with each of the other two instruments in order to create a library of as many sounds as possible reflecting the sonic world of the harp. Pancaroglu's contribution was not limited to sitting in a studio plucking strings randomly in order to make sounds.
She created and defined the boundaries of the universe through her abilities with the instruments in question. While the final result heard on the disc came from Helvacioglu's manipulation of the sounds, it was she who was responsible for the context within which he would work. She was the one who knew what her instruments could create and how to respond to what had been already been recorded with complimentary music and sounds.
For those not familiar with Helvacioglu's method of composition you need to know he specializes in improvisational work. After laying down a core of music he will then proceed to build layer upon layer of sound with each layer building upon the previous one until a piece reaches its conclusion. Like an abstract painter somebody working in this manner has to know when to remove their brush from the canvass in order not to ruin the painting. What they leave out of the final composition is just as important as what they have included. Just as if you keep mixing colours together you end up with something that looks like mud, adding too many sounds to the original base can quickly cause a composition to cross the border from music to cacophony.
Thankfully that's not the case here, for although Helvacioglu pushes the envelope as far as he can go, he never once steps over the edge into sludge. However, before sitting down to listen to this disc you are going to have to rid yourself of any expectations you have about harps and the music they create. This is not a collection of ethereal folk songs by any stretch of the imagination as Helvacioglu and Pancaroglu have taken the instrument to places it has never been before. I'm sure there are many out there who aren't going to be able to listen to this because of what they think a harp should sound like, but there were plenty of people who wouldn't look at a Jackson Pollack painting either because they didn't adhere to their definition of visual art. In fact, if you're not familiar with modern composition, prior to listening to this piece you're going to have to rid yourself of any preconceived notions concerning what makes something music.
As with any abstract form of expression each of us are going to react to these pieces in our own way. While we can admire the technical abilities that allow Helvacioglu and Pancaroglu to create the material objectively, the results are an entirely different matter. So, all I can give you is my impressions of what I listened to and hope they provide you with an idea of what the music is like and a guide to help you listen to it. However, I've no way of knowing if my interpretation has any bearing on what the two artists involved in its creation were intending. I looked to the composition's title, Resounding Universes as a guide and went from there.
Thinking of each phrase of harp music, even each note, as a possible universe based on their potential to inspire other sounds allows you to develop a kind of road map into each of the eight parts that make up the piece. Although we are presented with a finished product, the original harp buried beneath the layers upon layers of sounds and effects Helvacioglu has built up around it, keeping this in mind allows us to understand and appreciate the relationship that binds them together. It's like being able to experience all the possible ripples of dropping a pebble in water at once instead of watching it gradually develop. Instead of sitting and wondering what will happen when the butterfly flaps its wings in Japan, we hear cause and effect simultaneously.
That's not necessarily a pretty sound, but the creation of a new universe is a messy affair. Heck the ongoing evolution of a planet like earth isn't the neatest thing, what with volcanoes erupting, earthquakes moving continents around and oceans overflowing their boundaries periodically. Yet there's something about the raw power that is awe inspiring and beautiful. Looking past the surface discordance of the pieces on this recording offers one the opportunity to experience that totality of creation in all its raw power, disharmony and beauty. When even something as traditionally gentle and unassuming as the harp has the potential for this type of power, what does that say about the process of creation in the natural world?
Resonating Universes is not something you're going to put on the CD player for light listening or as some sort backdrop for meditation. It's far too grounded in the rough and tumble of reality for either purpose. This is music that reflects the clash of powers occurring during the process of creation and that's as far from a relaxing experience as you can get. So for those of you looking to listen to some nice gentle harp music that will keep your senses dulled and help keep you asleep to the world around you, look somewhere else. However if you want to experience in some small way how one spark, no matter what the spark is, can set off the amazing chaos of creation, then this disc is for you. It's an experience you'll not soon forget.
(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu and Sirin Pancaroglu - Resonating Universes on Blogcritics)
(Originally posted August 2011)
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.