Erdem Helvacıoğlu

December 9, 2009

TURKISH GUITARIST and electro-acoustic composer Erdem Helvacioglu’s latest CD, Altered Realities [New Albion], presents the listener with a complex universe of beautifully layered and dynamically shifting sounds and textures that simultaneously embody the compositional sophistication of early electronic music from the ’50s and ’60s and the aesthetic spirit of contemporary electronic music. That’s not entirely surprising, given that Helvaciog×lu immersed himself in the works of 20th-Century composers such as Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer while earning advanced degrees in sound engineering and electro-acoustic composition from Istanbul Technical University. He has also been inspired by myriad contemporary artists such as Orbital and Björk.

Despite its complexity, however, the music on Altered Realities was not the result of programming a roomful of modular synthesizers, or sequencing banks of soft synths and samplers. It was performed in real time—with no loops or overdubs—using just an Ovation Custom Legend 1869 acoustic, a T.C. Electronic FireworX effects processor, a laptop running AudioMulch Interactive Music Studio software, and a Behringer FCB1010 MIDI Footcontroller.

“For me, the compositional process involves the guitar and the electronics equally,” Helvacioglu explains. “It’s not like I have a musical idea, and then try to find electronics to go with it. Or that I find a cool patch, and then try to play music using it. I start with both simultaneously—much like one might compose parts for a chamber orchestra.”

Usually, these “orchestrations” take full advantage of the equipment’s extensive programming capabilities. “Sounds can be routed and processed anywhere within a very complicated matrix,” says Helvacioglu. “For example, I usually start by creating an audio mixer within AudioMulch that allows me to split and route the input signal to various modules—such as resonant and comb filters, delay and filter granulators, and arpeggiators—before recombining them. Then, I create patches within FireworX that might involve multiple delays, filters, pitch-shifters, and other effects.

“I can create a patch comprising multiple processors, and insert an envelope follower that routes the signal to one processor when the amplitude is within certain levels, and to another when it exceeds those levels, so that the effects follow the dynamics of my playing. I can also completely automate things, so that changes happen over a set period of time, and I have to stay in sync while I’m playing. And, of course, I can also manipulate many of the effects parameters in real time using the FCB1010. So, the patch becomes the piece—or even the score, in a certain sense.”

While Helvacioglu places his work within the context of the digital minimalism movement that has emerged in New York, Europe, and Japan in recent years, he makes an important distinction: “Many of those works are entirely based on timbre, and are not created by guitarists or other instrumentalists. What I am doing is different in that I combine my knowledge of electronics with my knowledge of harmony and melody.”

Helvacioglu’s heritage is also a factor, leading him to rediscover and explore traditional Turkish music, instruments, and more.

“Some of the pieces on Altered Realities are based on altered tunings, but the next step will be working with fretless guitar, or tuning the guitar to various Turkish makams [Very roughly translated, makams are scales or modes based on a 24-tone “octave,” that also designate melodic concepts],” he says. “I’ve also gotten into listening to and sampling old Turkish recordings, as well as making lots of field recordings in Istanbul and other places in Turkey. I want to combine all these ideas—not just scales, but the entire culture—to create something that will be a kind of symphony.” (September 2007)

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