When you are as used to the structure imposed on music by the demands of style and the market place as we are it leaves us woefully unprepared for listening to and appreciating the work of contemporary composers in the field of electronic music. Even those of us familiar with orchestral music or avant-garde jazz are ill prepared for the demands of the genre. For even within the apparent anarchy of the wildest jazz there are still sounds which we can identify. No matter how far afield the music might drift from any rhythmic pattern we recognize, the fact that we can still distinguish the sound of a drum, or other instrument we know, gives us a comfort level that we can build from in order to obtain a level of comprehension when listening to the music.
So when faced with the electronically produced sounds of the modern composition we become close to illiterate as our brains have no understanding of the language being used by the composer. For most of us, the harder we try and understand what a piece might be, the more we frustrate ourselves as we continue to try and impose what we know onto something alien. Like somebody learning to appreciate abstract art after years of only looking at realism and portraiture, we have to forget what we know and try and appreciate the experience on an emotional instead of a intellectual level.
Take for example Turkish composer Erdem Helvacioglu's latest release, Wounded Breath, on Aucourant Records. At first listen the five compositions on the disc might sound to you like little more than a collection of electronic noises that have no meaning. Squeaks, squawks, and Gods know what other sounds issue forth from your speakers following no pattern that you can understand and not forming anything that you would even dream of calling a melody.
The key to listening to this music is to try and get past your preconceived notions of what music is and then to go forward from there. Anyway, you'll soon find that there are recognizable patterns and rhythms in the music, it's just a matter of learning what to listen for. Now I don't mean to make it sound like it's work to listen to Helvacioglu, because although it does require more of a commitment than listening to your average pop tune, that doesn't mean it's hard work. Unfortunately for many of us the act of listening has become a passive activity and we have forgotten how it can also make us active participants in the music being played.
Each of the five pieces on Wounded Breath creates an environment for us to explore through Helvacioglu's manipulation of sounds that he generates by playing an acoustic guitar through a series of processors and programs. The first piece, "Below The Cold Ocean" is an attempt to describe the experiences of a diving crew beneath the ice of the Arctic Ocean. Think about all the different sounds that you could hear; the groan of the ice, the sound of your boat's propellor, the sound of you own breath in your ears, and the sounds of the wind on top of the water. Now think about the conditions; the freezing cold air, the wind that bites, the ice cold water - a cold that no wet or dry suit can really keep out for long. Of course there's also what it's like being beneath sea; the weight of the water bearing down on you the deeper you go beneath the surf, the way the light changes and grows dimmer, and how with each layer beneath the surface you're one layer closer to not being able to return if something should go wrong.
Try and imagine all those impressions being expressed at first individually by the music that Helvacioglu has created, and then they gradually accumulate until all are being played at once. So, if lets say the first sound we hear is the sound of the boat's propellors, that is soon joined by the boat's prow cutting through the waves, then by the sounds of ice and so on until a complete aural sculpture has been formed of what it is like to be beneath the surface of the Arctic Ocean. Listening to this piece we can not help but feel what it is like to be diving beneath the surface of the ocean.
Lest you think there's only seriousness among new music composers, track three of Wounded Breath is a homage to the joys of playing with marbles. "Lead Crystal Marbles" is for any of us who ever spent any time hunched over a dusty sidewalk trying to read the uneven surface in front of us and guide our shooter to click up against an opponent's prized cat's eye. Listen to the clink of the marbles as they bounce off various surfaces; the glass of another marble, the cement of the aforementioned sidewalk, or the tarmac of the school yard where quick games were assembled over fifteen minute recesses in the morning and afternoon.
What other piece of music could evoke all those sense memories? None that I've listened to or heard before, but that's exactly what Erdem Helvacioglu is able to do with his music. Somehow these strange collections of sounds are able to summon up from the depths of our memories sensations that we have long forgotten, or maybe never even knew we felt. Sure there are familiar sounds for us among the marble players, but what about track two "Dance Of Fire"? What does it touch in us so that we experience, or are able to understand the experience of dancing flames?
It would almost seem like Helvacioglu's composition is able to reach into race memories that date back to man's earliest beginnings when fire meant the difference between life and death. Somehow he captures how emotionally important fire, and the light and heat it represents, has been to humans since whenever. The repeller of the dark, the revealer of the unseen, the dispeller of shadows, and the bringer of life saving warmth; fire has always been our first symbol of safety and security. Of course it can also burn the hand that feeds it, so care must be taken not to provoke it so that it dances beyond the confines of its nest lest it consume us. Our first lessons in power came from fire, how a careful stoking that accumulated energy was of far more use than a rapid expansion of power that burnt brightly but only for a short time and then was gone.
Listening to "Dance Of Fire" you can hear any of what I described above or none of it, and the same goes for any of the five pieces on Wounded Breath. It's all there waiting to be heard but you have to want to listen. This is not music for people who want to be spoon fed and told what they should feel and how they should respond; you have to be prepared to react to what you hear. However the rewards for that little effort are incredible as you'll be introduced music that will open you up to new experiences and allow you to explore worlds previously closed to you.
(Originally posted February 2009)
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.