Anyone who writes music has to figure out how to balance structure and emotion. Logic and unpredictability. But experimental and avant-garde composers have a distinct set of problems not faced by most musicians. By definition, they’re operating outside normal musical parameters; that’s kind of the point of making strange music. (From here on out, I’m going to just use “outsider music” to mean all the experimental/avant-garde/atonal/free-improv/etc kind of stuff that operates outside of popular music…the kind of stuff you probably enjoy if you’re reading this blog). With this kind of music, it’s usually assumed that the composer has, consciously or unconsciously, woven some abstract concepts into their work, stuff you have to dig around and think about to find…and it’s also assumed that the audience knows that going in. After all, isn’t that the promise composers make to the listener in outsider music? “Come listen to my unusual, extended-technique bari-sax octet and, if you get in there and really listen, you’ll be rewarded with thoughts/feelings/reactions/emotions you’d never get from more traditional music”?
Despite all that, however, most composers don’t want to over-think or over-intellectualize things. Even if it’s big and complicated and capital-A Art, there’s still, in some respects, such a thing as going too far out. Getting too concept-heavy can often render a work so abstract as to seem cold and distant. Not to say that someone can’t write music for that purpose. Of course this music is abstract, odd, and even kind of alienating. Weird as this may sound, a big part of the appeal of outsider is related to how alienating it is. If it’s an effective piece, you’re drawn in by its strangeness, or its ugliness, or its calmness or chaos…maybe you like the the audacity, or the unsettling creepiness, or the way it sounds to you like robots or numbers or clouds. You’re drawn to the things that alienate most other listeners from it. You like Cage or Crumb or Cecil Taylor or Evan Parker for many of the same reasons you wouldn’t put them on at a baby shower, or Thanksgiving. However, other works of outsider music are alienating for all the bad reasons. They’re clinical, over-wrought… maybe appealing to hardcore academics, or other people who make similar music, but out of reach for even dedicated fans. It’s a difficult balance that I can’t really define, but it’s also important to most fans of outsider music: how far out can it go before it becomes a purely intellectual exercise? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing if a piece of music/sound art is a purely intellectual exercise; I’m just saying that there’s something particularly effective about music that also works on a primal, emotional level.
Turkish-born multi-instrumentalist Erdem Helvacioglu seems to understand this problem. Either that, or it’s simply not a problem for him. Helvacioglu’s music is unusual in that it’s both high-concept and naturalistic. He blends sounds, genres and concepts with supernatural ease and uncanny flair. Sometimes his music is gloriously accessible (relatively speaking), and sometimes it sounds like it’s from the other side of a black hole. Freedom to the Black, a sound-installation piece inspired by Fluxus composer George Macianaus’ Piano Piece (1970), is a fantastic example of the latter. And I love it especially for how it tackles this whole chaos/structure, primal/intellectual, horrifying/beautiful paradox in a clever, powerful way.
To record Freedom, Helvacioglu assembled a plethora of mics around an opened, stripped-down upright piano. He then set about surgically extracting every sound he could from it, wielding an arsenal of found objects including, but not limited to: saran-wrapped sporks, finger cymbals, stuffed animals, guitar picks, mint tins, hair clips, hammers and a boomerang. And, most importantly, in an homage to Macianus, he (literally) nailed down every white key, muting them. The piece, roughly ten minutes in length, builds as Helvacioglu spreads layers of multi-tracked sound upon each other, starting with soft scrapes and needling clanks and ending in a tidal wave of menacing hyper-density.
The soul of the work lies in the silenced keys. The contrast between the tense crescendo of prepared-piano noises and the gentle pentatonic clouds of the black keys is the gravitational core of Freedom. The warm, familiar tones create enough of a vague almost-melody that you almost feel stable. Of course, you aren’t stable. The work feels like stacked snapshots of emotional states, crowding your mind with disjointed visions, whipping up conflicted signals in your brain. The imagery is surreal, dreamlike; I kept imagining a small house with a warm hearth floating in space, slowly crowded by and finally consumed with creeping flames. This pentatonic heart also acts as a sort of accretion disc for the hyper-density of the piece; as Helvacioglu subtly adds to the ever-expanding soundmass, the folk-like melancholia of the black keys keeps you grounded.
Music is basically always in a state of genre-blurring and cross-pollination. That’s basically what the progress of music is. But what is so striking about composers like Helvacioglu is how they’ve internalized so many different approaches to music. Freedom is rigorously structured and heavily improvised. It’s a fright-inducing sound collage and it’s a simple folk song. It’s conceptual and meticulously layered but unfolds naturally and sounds effortlessly executed. Helvacioglu often mentions in interviews how much definitions of music, sound, sound-art and sound installation have run together in recent years, and Freedom is a testament to that. Listening to his music, it sounds like he wants you to think and delve deep for meaning, but he also wants to shake you and knock you off your feet. He wants to get into your heart as well as your mind, and he has the talent to do it. Ultimately, Helvacioglu is a subversive artist: he knows he can plant some crazy ideas in your brain if he gives you just enough to hang on to.
Erdem Helvaciogly, Freedom to the Black (PRM, 2012) | Buy it on Amazon.com, US $0.99
Freedom to the Black comes also as a book documenting Helvacioglu’s work on this piece | Buy the book on AbeBooks.com
Learn more about Freedom to the Black on ARTER’s website
Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.
Cecil Taylor, Erdem Helvacioğlu, Evan Parker, George Crumb, George Macianaus, John Cage, Turkey