March 30, 2014

Music Review: Hafez Nazeri Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project

Ever since the first of their three West Meets East collaborations was released in 1966 many other musicians from both East and West have attempted to follow in the footsteps of violinist Yehudi Menuhin and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar's attempt to find common ground between the two musical traditions. While there's no question the results have always been intriguing none of them have found a way to merge the two with any real success. Usually the results have been the superimposing of one over the other with either switching to conform to the harmonics and rhythmic patterns of the other.

If one were to think of it in terms of linguistics, it would be the equivalent of trying to merge Farsi or Hindi with English or German and creating a language with enough elements in common speakers of the original languages would be able to understand the new tongue. This is what classical Persian composer, Iranian Hafez Nazeri has attempted to accomplish with his latest composition, Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project. Released on the Sony Masterworks label, and touring concert halls in North America throughout March and April 2014, Nazeri has used the poetry of the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Jalal as-Din Muhammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi in the West, as his inspiration for the music and the themes it expresses.

While the choice of a medieval Persian mystic's poetry might seem an odd one to serve as a bridge between Western and Eastern classical traditions it's important to remember some of the most awe inspiring classical music in European history have been spiritual works. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach and many others all wrote pieces glorifying spiritual love in much the same vein as Rumi's poetry. If you think, well one is Muslim while the others are Christian, the following Rumi quote included in the liner notes show you the poet didn't make that distinction, so maybe we shouldn't: "We dance behind veils/Muslim, Christian, Jew are the masks we wear/in truth, we are not here/This is our shadow dance."
Cover Hafez Nazeri - Rumi Symphony Project Untold.jpg
However, even with the establishment of thematic common ground Nazeri still had to find a way of blending the musics of two cultures with vastly different histories and means of expression. Aside from undertaking an extensive study of European classical music, he also took the extraordinary step of modifying a traditional Persian stringed instrument, the setar, to work as the bridge between the two forms. Working with Iranian luthiers, and 40 prototypes later, he added two strings to the lute like instrument to increase its range and allow it to play both polyphonic sounds and harmonies, two integral elements of Western classical music lacking in its Persian counterpart. He named the new instrument after another great 13th century poet, the man he was named for, Hafez.

The setar has always been a key element in Persian music with its distinctive sound being central to most classical pieces. The modifications Nazeri introduced to the instrument have done nothing to change the way it sounds, but has expanded its abilities. Instead of being a solo instrument, it can now played in concert with others and be part of a larger ensemble. In the case of this piece that consists of cello, violin, viola, tabla, udu drum, frame drums (hand held drums), choir and solo voice.

Untold is divided up into four chapters with each of the chapters, "Creation", "Existence", "Untold" and "Eternal Return" representing a different aspect of the spiritual history of life on both a cosmic and human level. According to Nazeri's liner notes the first and second chapter deal with first the creation of the universe and life respectively. The third chapter deals with the steps humans take on the road to spiritual enlightenment while the fourth is about the possibility of exploring new horizons and finding the means to combine traditions in order to create a "new consciousness, a new experience of self-identity, a new whole that is larger than the sum of the parts." (Hafez Nazeri)

As to the music itself, I don't have sufficient knowledge of Persian classical music to comment on how successful Nazeri has been in bringing about its union with its European counterpart except in the broadest of generalities. What I did notice and appreciate was how he has managed to keep both their unique voices alive instead of allowing one to drown out the other. Take for example the use of the string section, (cello, violin and viola) when accompanying the work of both Nazeri and his father, the world renowned Iranian tenor Sharam Nazeri, as solo vocalists. Instead of their voices being alone in carrying the melody with the instruments providing a rhythmic counterpoint, they, and the hafez, play either harmony or melodic support.
Hafez & Shahram Nazeri.jpg
Improvisation around specific themes has always played a major role in the music of South East Asia. We are probably most familiar with this as it is practiced in the classical music of India where the sitar plays ragas which are improvisations based on a set of previously determined notes in a specific scale. (That's a very simplistic way of describing what is an incredibly complicated process that can take years to master) Allowing the Western stringed instruments to improvise in the midpoint of Chapter Two, "Existence", is a daring move which preserves the form of its Asian heritage while utilizing the sounds of instruments familiar to Western ears.

In the classical music we're most familiar with percussion hardly ever plays more than a supporting role. Except in very specific instances we hardly ever notice kettle drums and similar instruments amidst the massed strings, brass and woodwind instruments of an orchestral or chamber piece. The same can not be said for Eastern music where instruments like the tabla play a prominent role. Normally a tabla player works within certain pre-existing parameters to provide the rhythmic accompaniment for either voice or instrument. However, in this piece the tabla plays a mixture of melody and rhythm with added textures being supplied by both the cello and the hafez resulting in a collage of sounds both beautiful and astounding.

However, technical details like those described above fade into the background as one listens to the results created by Nazeri and his fellow musicians. The true mark of his success is how quickly you forget about the different styles and instruments and how easily you're captivated by the music. From Sharam Nazeri's stirring voice in the second and fourth chapters, the intricate and beautiful instrumental magic provided by all the musicians, to the choral accompaniment at various points throughout, Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project is a constant source of awe and wonder.

There's no way of knowing how it will resonate with specific individuals on a spiritual level, but emotionally is a different matter. You'd have to have ice in your veins and a heart of stone not to be moved while listening to this music. Without a doubt this is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've heard in a long time. Hopefully this marks the beginning of a brand new musical tradition, one with the ability to move audiences no matter what their religion, cultural or ethnic background.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Hafez Nazeri - Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project)

July 18, 2013

Music Review: Various Performers - The Rough Guide To Flamenco

There's a story which says flamenco music has its origins in the 1500s when the Iberian peninsula was being reclaimed by the armies of Spain from the Ottoman Empire. Muslims weren't the only ones fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition who followed the armies hunting down heretics and infidels. Jews and gypsies who had lived relatively peaceful lives under Islamic rule were also being forced to either convert to the one true faith or die. It's said a group of Sephardic Jews and gypsies managed to elude the Inquisition for some time by hiding in caves surrounding the city of Catalonia. During this time they shared much with each other, including their music, and out of this exchange of musical ideas was born flamenco.

While the majority of those hidden in the caves were eventually caught, some escaped and took with them the ideas and sounds they had learned. Stories like these, while romantic, are hard to verify. However, a new release from the Rough Guide Label, part of the World Music Network, The Rough Guide To Flamenco offers at least the suggestion theres some truth to this story. One of the artists included on the disc is a Sephardic Jew singing a flamenco tune in the Ladino language of her people from the time of the Ottoman Empire in Spain.

Israeli born Yasmin Levy is only one of 13 different flamenco performers included on the disc. While each of them come from the same tradition of music, their songs are as distinctly individual as they are. From the family groups who continue the traditions of their Andalusian fore bearers to the modern groups who combine elements of pop, hip hop, Balkan, Latin and even the music of India with the familiar staccato rhythms of the genre, listening to this disc will show you flamenco is much more than you thought it was.
Cover Rough Guide To Falmenco.jpg
The first four tracks on the disc, "Buleria Menor" by Son De La Frontera, "Por La Mar Chica Del Puerto" by Mayte Martin, "Cielo Azul" by Lenacay and "El Faro by Jorge Pardo and Agustin Carbonell (El Bola), take the listener from a Cuban flamenco mix, through traditional Andalusian to modern club beats and finally an exploration of jazz and flamenco. However, no matter if it's the club stylings of Lenacay or the soulful voice of Martin, at the heart of each song resides a passion and intensity you'd be hard pressed to find in any other music. Each of them seem to be built like a coiled spring which could explode at any moment, yet never does. The secret power of flamenco is the emotion it hints at roiling just beneath the surface. Like a hidden undertow beneath the seemingly calm surface of an ocean which could suck you under in a matter of seconds.

Yet at the same time, in spite of the passion and rawness inherent to the form, the music is also incredibly elegant. It suggests a certain amount of poise and formality no matter how it's presented. Perhaps it's the tightly woven rhythms of the music and the importance they play in each song which creates this impression. As we listen to the steady tattoo maintained by the strumming of guitars, accented by hand claps (and in some cases boot heels) and percussion accompanying the majority of the songs, one can't help but imagine the rigid pride and dignity of those performing. It's the kind of pride in who you are which creates an air of formality seemingly out of nothing. It's easy to picture individual performers in your mind's eye holding themselves straight and proud as they create this incredible sound. They might not be wearing fancy or elegant clothes, but there's nothing classier than hearing music which speaks of a people's history.

However, the elegance also comes through in how the music is performed. One of the best examples of this is the solo guitar of Carlos Pinana playing "Tarantilla". A third generation flamenco musician Pinana is a classically trained guitarist. His work combines the raw passion of flamenco with the smoothness and agility of his classical training. For just over four minutes his fingers strum, pluck and fly over his guitar's fretboard. One moment he's carefully picking out notes as if they were delicate flowers plucked from a vine and the next he's exploding into the fantastic flourishes which are the signature of flamenco. It's a remarkable display of virtuosity and artistry.
Flamenco Group.jpg
Of course for sheer passion and pride you can't beat the contribution of Carmelilla Montoya. Performing since the age of seven she is both a singer and a dancer. Her contribution to the disc, "Carmelilla", is probably the epitome of what most of us think of when we hear the word flamenco. Her voice is raw emotion and she sings like her every word comes directly from her soul. Accompanied by guitars and hand claps, and what appears to be the sound of dancers stamping their feet as they move to the music, one moment her voice sinks into the earth's depths and the next its soaring among the clouds alongside the birds.

Just in case you fail to appreciate how diverse modern flamenco has become, the people at Rough Guide have also included a bonus CD by the Argentinian band Al Toque Flamenco, Buena Estrella. They combine flamenco music with their own country's tango to bring an extra bit of spice to what is already quite a flamboyant genre. Somehow or other they manage to bring this mixture off without it seeming like its too much or they're trying too hard to be different. In fact the combination of the two brings out the best in both genres and makes for lively listening.

The Rough Guide To Flamenco provides a great introduction to the genre for those unfamiliar with the music. It will also be interesting for those who have any preconceived notions of what flamenco sounds like as it shows the variety of ways in which the music is being performed today. While the traditional music continues to thrive, there are also those who are keeping the genre from stagnating by experimenting with form and style. Not every track might be to everyone's taste, but you'll be surprised at just how many different ways there are to play flamenco music. However, no matter how you play it, there's still something wild and untamed about flamenco which will get your heart beating and your pulse racing.

(Article first published at as Music Review: Various Performers - The Rough Guide To Flamenco)

January 14, 2013

Music Site Review: Concert Vault

There was once a time when the only way you could get hold of the pop music you liked was by visiting a record store. If you didn't own either a record player or a tape deck of some kind the only way to listen to your favourite music was the radio. Which meant you were at the mercy of whatever your local station played. So if you didn't like the top 40 of the day you were usually out of luck. As for seeing your favourite band perform, that was only possible if they happened to go on tour and show up in your home town. If they were really popular they might show up on a television variety show and lip sync to one or two of their songs.

Prior to the 1980s, MTV and Much Music there was precious little live music on television in North America. The one or two shows, The Midnight Special and Rock Concert, to feature bands in concert were on late at night and the sound was usually crap as it was coming through your television's single tinny speaker. While advances in video and digital technology gave us more access to music through an increased variety of sources, we were still limited by the technology available for playing and transmitting. If you were lucky enough your television might have been able to hook up to your stereo, but the signal being broadcast was still only mono so you weren't much further ahead in terms of quality.

Everything changed with the Internet. First there was file sharing with sites like Napster allowing people to upload and download their favourite music. When the record companies panicked at the thought of losing control over their product they moved to quickly shut these sites down until they could figure out how to get their piece of the pie. Now the dust has settled on that front, there are a seemingly infinite number of sites out there allowing you to download and stream music (listen to online) or watch videos and concerts. However, like in the bad old days of top 40 radio, the majority of them seem to fixate on what is popular. If you have somewhat eclectic tastes finding one source to satisfy a craving for music of all genres and from all eras is as difficult as it ever has been.
Bill Sagan .jpg
Thankfully there are some sites out there which take into account not everybody can be fit into the same round peg. One of the newest to launch specializes in audio and video of live concerts of all genres of popular music. Concert Vault is the brain child of Bill Sagan, best known as the CEO and founder of the music site Wolfgang's Vault. As with Wolfgang's Vault the bulk of the material on Concert Vault is taken from the archives of arguably the man who was the greatest promoter of popular music in the 20th century, Bill Graham. Sagan purchased the archive a number of years ago and has been finding new ways of putting it in the public's hands ever since.

At first glance Concert Vault is a little overwhelming. There are literally so many options available to a user it's difficult to know where to begin. However, Sagan and company have gone to a lot of effort to try and give you a variety of ways to experience the site. There's no way to make this embarrassment of riches easy to navigate, but if you take a couple of deep breaths and a few moments to get over your excitement, you'll find they have done the best job possible under the circumstances. First of all they've divided content up into eight distinct channels: rock, blues, jazz, country, folk/bluegrass, indie and interviews. There is also a separate channel for video only, which is itself divided up into the seven channels mentioned above. Of course you can also browse the site by performers through their A - Z index or check out their variety of themed playlists which gathers together selections from the vault.

Of course you always have the option of creating your own playlist or even queuing up a variety of concerts to play one after another in the "Queue" section of the site. While I'm not thrilled with sites that force you to use their own download managers (with the recent warnings about the threat to Java Script they might want to find another format anyway) I can understand their desire to control access and why they've chosen to go this route. The manager was easy to install and use and I had no problems downloading the concert I wanted (The Talking Heads live at Heatwave 1980 - brilliant, first introduction of their extended funk line up)

The first thing you should do is probably purchase a membership. While not necessary to stream product, it does ensure you unlimited access. You can either buy a monthly membership for $2.99 or pay an annual fee of $29.99. For that price you are given full access to the entire archive - non-members are limited in what they can view and listen to, unlimited streaming on all web browsers and mobile devices, special curated features and playlists for each of the seven music channels, the most you'll ever pay to download anything will be $5.00 and an annual credit of $24.00 against all purchases made at the Wolfgang's Vault Store. An extra $20.00 annually buys you a VIP membership. Honestly the only reason you'd want this is if you're planning on purchasing memorabilia from the store as it buys you a 10% discount and free domestic ground shipping.

Still the annual fee is a bargain even when you factor in having to maybe pay $5.00 for downloading an entire concert. Consider the fact it will cost you a minimum of something like $9.99 to download an album of music from iTunes and you can see how inexpensive this is. On top of that you're going to be downloading concerts you're not going to find anywhere else in the world - literally. Where else can you download the last concert ever given by the Sex Pistols and then flip a page and listen to Bill Monroe or Miles Davis.

What's even better is this isn't just a site for Boomers looking to relive their youth by downloading a Grateful Dead concert. Concert Vault also has wide variety of independent bands and you can listen to everybody from The Cowboy Junkies, REM to The Old 97's. Or check out some of the newer bands you might not have heard of before like Allah -Las, Alabama Shakes or Winter Sounds.

However, what makes Concert Vault special is the depth and breadth of historical recordings it puts at your disposal. To make a full inventory of what's available on the site would take weeks, but judging by the couple of skims I've made of its content I doubt you'll find a more complete collection of popular music in all its myriad forms anywhere else on the Internet. While some of the rarer selections might not be as pristine as we're used to when it comes to audio or video quality, a great many of them pre-date the digital era. Some of them, like a video recording of The Mink DeVille Band from 1978 in San Francisco, make up for their drawbacks in quality simply because of the opportunity they represent to see favoured artists at the height of their abilities when no other records of them exist.

I'm not an aficionado of online music sites, but from what I've seen of what's out there Concert Vault is definitely one of the best. In terms of organization, ease of use and diversity of content it would be hard for any site to compete. If you love music and want the opportunity to hear your favourite artists in concert without having to leave the comfort of your living room, this site will be a dream come true.

(Article first published as Music Site Review: Concert Vault on Blogcritics.)

September 18, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929

At one point the Turkish Ottoman Empire stretched from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and on into Northern Africa. While it had long ago lost its toe hold in Western Europe in Spain, the rest of the Empire lasted until the end of WW l. Allied with the Germans during that conflict they not only found themselves on the losing side in the war, great swathes of the territory they had previously occupied were lost during the war. By 1918 it had shrunk back to pretty much present day Turkey's boarders. Needless to say these defeats were the cause of fairly intense internal strife and political upheaval in the time following the war. As a result large numbers of Turks of all backgrounds; Christians, Muslims and Jews, sought refuge in other countries and a great many settled in the United States, specifically New York City.

There they joined the already sizeable group of ethnic Armenians who had fled persecution in the Empire. The rounding up and arresting of Armenians in Turkey has never been officially recognized by even present day Turkish governments, but it is thought close to a million ethnic Armenians died between 1915 and 1923 during mass forced marches from their homes in Turkey to Syria. However, a number managed to escape the roundups and immigrated to the United States. No matter what their ethnic background one thing all of these refugees had in common was their love for the culture and music of their homeland.
Cover To What Strange Place.jpg
In the liner notes to the triple CD set To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, now available as a digital download from the Tompkins Square Label, it's explained how during the period covered by the disc there was a great outpouring recording and performing of this music. While the onset of the depression brought an end to this, and countless other activities, the recordings made during these 13 years were by musicians of all stripes. From those whose careers had included being members of the court of the last Sultan to performers of Jewish, Greek and Armenian folk music.

Instead of dividing the three discs up by ethnicity the compilers of this collection have found a much more interesting and novel approach. Each of the discs contains music fitting a specific theme that the producers have identified as the three major reasons for the music's creation in the first place. So disc one is subtitled "Naughty Girl - Dances & Joys", the spirited music played by the refugee musicians in order to forget their troubles; disc two, "I Wish I Never Came: Nostalgia, Yearning & Pride" for the songs they played when they were missing what they left behind; and three "Notes From Home: US Releases For Ottoman Emigres", are songs taken from recordings made in the Ottoman Empire and imported to the United States.

As a result this compilation is able to give listeners an incredibly accurate view of the diversity of sound that was being made by the refugees in New York City during this period. For on each disc you'll find Islamic, Armenian, Greek and Jewish music rubbing shoulders with each other as they offer up their interpretations of the theme in question. Since many of the recordings were originally recorded at 78rpm, and some even are from wax cylinders made in the 19th century, their quality ranges all over the place. However there's something about being able to actually hear the needle moving over the surface of an LP that actually augments rather than detracts from the sound. For along with the slightly tinny quality, which isn't unique to these recordings but something I've noticed all songs remastered from this time period seem to have in common, the surface noises which come through help to set a mood of time and place.

Obviously most of us are going to know little or nothing about the types of music represented on these discs or the musicians playing the individual songs. Thankfully along with the three disc set you can also download a PDF of the original booklet that accompanied the hard copy. Not only does it provide the historical context necessary for the listener to understand its significance in the history of American music, almost every song is accompanied by a blurb giving the history of the performer and the song. Some of the many fascinating characters you'll be introduced to on this set include Abudul Hal Hilmi (born 1857 died April 1912) who is still considered one of the greats in Arab classical music. "Ya Binit, Ya Bidha" (pt.1) is half of a nine minute composition in which he improvised on a single line of text from an Arabic folk song.

As the recording was made in 1909 the quality is not very good. However, in spite of the muddy sound you can still tell there was something remarkable about this man and his vocal abilities. Contemporary descriptions of his performances have described him as transporting his audiences. Music historian Ahmad Al-Jundi is quoted in the booklet describing Hilmi's voice; "When he starts, with the first breath, he initiates in you a sense of a enchantment and ecstasy". Unfortunately he also made heavy use of drugs (hashish, opium and cocaine) and alcohol in order to access the feelings necessary to create that type of reaction among his audiences and died after an excessive night of partying. While he never recorded in America, this track was taken from a Lebanese recording imported into the US, there were others, equally fascinating characters, recording in the States.
Back Cover Booklet To What Strange Place.jpg
Garbis Bakirgian had been a court musician playing classical Turkish music for the Sultan in his native Constantinople (Istanbul). He travelled extensively throughout the empire and lived in Alexandria, Cairo and Jerusalem before moving to the States in the early 1920s at the urging of musician friends. When none of the major labels proved interested in recording Turkish music he founded his own label, Stamboul records, and released seven albums. While he may not have had the same sort of ecstatic impact on his listeners as Hilmi, his career lasted well into the the 1950s. He even recorded a session with Atlantic Records in 1948, founded by fellow Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun, but it was never released.

While I've mentioned two male vocalists the material covered on this three disc set is by no means limited to men or vocals. Unfortunately the instrumental pieces are the ones which are the least well preserved and the hardest to listen to. One of the reasons is the pitch the instruments were played in originally was very high and the distortion caused by the disintegration of quality over the years has not been kind. The result is a sound which might have been delicate when first recorded is now so high pitched as to be uncomfortable on the ears. However, there are enough pieces where the sound has survived relatively intact to give you a good indication of the talent of those involved in these recordings.

Aside from the music the last three tracks on disc three are recordings by Ian Nagoski the person primarily responsible for its existence. Not only did he compile the collection, he also did the research and the sound restoration. On these tracks he provides you with more details about the history of Ottoman music in America in general and elaborates on the background set out in the booklet. Think of them as being like the bonus features on a DVD - a sort of making of and behind the scenes look at the CD.

It's amazing to think there was this an entire subculture of music being recorded and played in New York City in the early part of the 20th century. While most of us were aware of the diversity of immigration to North America, I don't think I had any idea there was such a thriving community of Turkish immigrants. Depending on the timing of their arrival in the US a good many of them had left the country under duress because of the roundup, deportation and murder of Armenians that occurred during and after WW l. However it wasn't just Armenians who left the Ottoman Empire, and many were renowned musicians. So here in the new world it was as if they had turned back the clock to a time when Christians, Muslims and Jews were able to find common ground through music in the Ottoman Empire. These recordings provide listeners with a sampling of the music they all played and loved no matter what their background. While they may not be of the finest quality they still make for fascinating listening.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916 -1929 on Blogcritics)

August 26, 2012

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu - Eleven Short Stories

Since most of us don't have access to grand pianos and the opportunity to see the instrument's inner workings they provide, it's easy to forget a piano is actually a stringed instrument. It wasn't a coincidence early keyboards, harpsichords, included the word harp in their name. For what were they if not the means to play chords on a harp? Like any stringed instrument when you depress or adjust the strings on a piano you change the tonal quality it will produce. While the idea of the prepared piano, a piano whose sound has been deliberately modified by attaching or placing objects on its strings, has been around since the time of Mozart, it was contemporary composer John Cage who, in the second half of the twentieth century, used the technique for more than just effect and created entire compositions for prepared piano.

Turkish composer of new music Erdem Helvacioglu has created music for a variety of modern and traditional stringed instruments that have been unique in their balancing of electronic recording techniques and acoustic sounds. Whether using computers to generate loops that allow him to build layers of sound through improvisation or manipulating the sound of a concert harp through processors he has always managed to both preserve the integral sound of the original instrument while managing to fully explore its potential for experimentation. So it seems only logical his latest release, Eleven Short Stories on the Innova Recordings label, would see him utilizing the largest stringed instrument around - a prepared grand piano.
Cover Eleven Short Stories Erdem Helvacioglu.jpg
Each of the eleven pieces on this recording have been inspired by one of eleven film directors. Ranging from the relatively well known, David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh, to those who North American audiences won't be familiar with at all, Alejandro Goales Inarritu and Kimm Ki-Duk, the directors in question represent a broad cross section of styles and cultures. Each of them will have their own unique vision of the world they articulate in film. Yet film itself is an amalgamation of more than one art form as visual arts, music and literature are all utilized by the directors in the process of telling a story. So Helvacioglu is not simply creating soundtracks for each of the directors, but rather endeavouring to capture the essence of their overall creation.

Now, the only trouble is, what happens, if like me, you're not overly familiar with the works of the directors in question? Will you still be able to appreciate the pieces on the disc? While you may not be able to tell which was inspired by each director, and there is no mention in the liner notes as to who inspired what, these are still works of music and should be able to stand or fall on their own merits regardless of who or what inspired them. However, since we know they were inspired by films, we can use that as an avenue of approach when listening to them.

The average film soundtrack usually serves to accent what the viewer is seeing on the screen. Unfortunately this invariably leads to such cliches as swelling strings during moments of heightened emotion or other tricks designed to underline the obvious. Don't be looking for anything as trite as that from Helvacioglu, he's not scoring a movie for one thing, he's trying to capture moments that help sum up what a particular director's work means to him. If you look at the titles of each piece you'll see they all refer to either a rather striking visual image: "The Billowing Curtain", "Shattered Snow Glove" and "Blood Drops By The Pool"; a specific location "Shrine In Ruin" and "Bench At The Park" or an evocative phrase of dialogue; "Will I Ever See You Again" and "Not Been Here In Forty Years". The titles themselves are evocative and in some cases are enough to have us creating mental pictures in their own right. The music continues that process and fleshes out the initial image with an emotional context and spurs our imaginations to develop scenes built around the location, phrase or description.

"The Billowing Curtain", which opens the recording, is a good example of this and how Helvacioglu uses music to create layers of meaning and imagery. For not only did the music cause me to visualize a curtain blowing in a breeze as the title suggests, it went even further. Like a camera panning and pulling out into a wide angle shot simultaneously the music carries us from seeing a curtain in a window into the room behind it. The opening chords are the sound of a gentle breeze as he's altered the piano's sound to give it the slight buzz associated with a harpsichord. However this gradually segues from gentle to discordant so we begin to wonder what's in the room. The peaceful atmosphere suggested by the opening notes, say of a spring breeze causing the billowing of the title, is all of a sudden lost and the sound takes on a desolate tone as if the room is empty, devoid of life. The curtain all of a sudden becomes a dividing line between the pleasant feelings initially evoked by the music and the hidden world of the room.
Erdem Helvacioglu & Prepared Piano.jpg
As one would suspect from its title "Blood Drops By The Pool" is an unsettling piece of music. While Helvacioglu picks out careful notes on the keyboard that create an eerie quiet he intersperses them with a series of sounds that can only be described as scrapes and scratches. Perhaps made by taking a bow to the strings of the piano prepared with objects that caused the strange vibrations, some of them sound for all the world like the noise of a saw while others the metal legs of a piece of furniture being dragged over the concrete beside the pool. It's a disturbing collection of sounds which jar and disturb while creating the feeling of unease you would have coming across drops of blood anywhere.

Prepared piano pieces are not music as most people are accustomed to hearing it played. In some ways they are more collages of different sounds designed to create an emotional reaction in the listener than a collection of notes within the framework of a song. However, the composer of any piece of music, no mater what genre, hopes to elicit an emotional reaction from his or her listener. The difference with these pieces lies only in the fact the sounds aren't ones we're used to hearing from a musical instrument. What I found most intriguing was how while the music on this disc created a sense of detachment because of its unusual nature, somehow this separation increased its ability to communicate.

Most of the time when we listen to a piece of music there are arrangements of notes which will automatically generate certain emotional reactions. That's not the case with these pieces. Not being able to rely on the usual comfortable clues you've come to expect from musical compositions you find yourself paying close attention to each note and its relationship to the ones around it. As a result, without realizing it, you become much more invested in the piece and your reactions are based on what you're actually hearing not what you've been conditioned to hear.

Helvacioglu's use of the various treatments and styles of playing prepared piano create moments through out the recording that have more emotional depth than most conventional compositions of the same length. On top of this, each one also manages to evoke images associated with its title. Instead of the music giving emphasis to images flickering on a screen, here each song creates a short movie in our head made up of a series of images and accompanying emotions. While it may not be what your used to hearing, this is some of the most stimulating and provocative music you'll hear. Its well worth making what ever extra effort might be required.

(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu - Eleven Short Stories on Blogcritics.)