CD Review: Erdem Helvacıoğlu: Altered Realities (New Albion)

Altered Realities

A limpid, August evening of a record that should appeal to fans of Seefeel’s Quique and Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. Helvacıoğlu builds rich electronic environments from melodic, even campfireside acoustic guitar work. At times you wish that the acoustic and electronic sides would enter into more of a dialogue with one another, even have a bit of a fight – certain passages sound as though one was composed and the other simply laid on top – but when it works best – as when a crackling house pulse emerges underneath the gentle arpeggios of ‘Frozen Resophonic’ – it is a rather lovely addition to your summer soundtrack.

The seven pieeces on this album rarely stay still for long, and it is in the electronics where all the action is – for a live, one man performance there’s a heck of a lot going on in there. The guitar work is generally straightforward and is often the only thing holding all the sounds to any kind of unity with simple, repeating melodic figures and harmonic sequences.

Listening to this album I started to think of another virtuoso show for solo instrument and electronics, Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study II. I think too much, I know. It’s several time zones away from this album and not an entirely fair comparison, but Ferneyhough’s piece is still a pioneering work in a genre that is now commonplace (it seems every live musician in London got a Loop Station for Christmas last year). But still, it probed issues about the relationship of a performer to their instrument, to the performer and their score, the instrument and the sound produced; all questions that arise whenever I hear that space between a resonant body and a pulse of electrons, between the physical and the virtual. Other than the obvious, I suppose the difference is that the technology Helvacıoğlu is using is so much more powerful than was available to Ferneyhough in 1976. You don’t need a shed full of ring modulators to make an interesting bleep any more. And there is a temptation in that to shift focus away from the instrument, the performed, physical sound source, and towards the less predictable effects of chips and electronic processes.

I’m not yet so old-fashioned as to have a problem with this, but when the sound source remains at the centre of the sound, then you do beg questions: why that instrument, why those notes, why that playing technique? And I’m not sure Helvacıoğlu’s music really has answers. Sure, an acoustic guitar, with its crisp attacks, rich harmonic spectrum and nice, fat resonance, is a great source, but since you’re here, playing it, is there anything particularly guitary about this music, or would a good keyboard patch have done just as well? Maybe, maybe not – but the truth is that as I listen while writing these words the sheer disarming beauty of this record requires that I stop worrying and learn to love a little more. So relax and enjoy.

Update (30/12/07): Altered Realities has been included in the ‘Best of 2007’ lists of All About Jazz and Textura.

Update (19/02/08): Read a short review of  Helvacıoğlu played by the BOAC All-Stars here.

“Frozen Resophonic” (mp3)
from “Altered Realities”
by Erdem Helvacioğlu
(New Albion Records)
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More On This Album

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