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Concert Review: Erdem Helvacıoğlu – Plucked String Festival – Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, 11-17-2007

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It's a mixed blessing living in a small city that is home to world class University. Every fall a couple of thousand hormone addled, away from home, and without adult supervision for the first time, teenagers descend and wreck havoc from just after Labour Day until mid October when the reality of mid-term's hit. It's amazing how much they can do to offset all the positives in such a short time.

But not even a few self indulgent children of privilege can ruin having a teaching hospital with research facilities that are able to match up favourably with most American private universities, being home to one of the best Cancer Care facilities in Eastern Canada, and attracting world class events that other wise would have passed us by. Even better because they are a university and home to academics, they bring in obscure events with world-class participants.

For example, for three days in mid November, the 16th –18th, The Queens School Of Music presented the Plucked String Festival with an emphasis on the potential for incorporating stringed instruments into primary and secondary school curriculums as a means of creative expression. Over the course of the three days, seminars on music in education were intermingled with practical workshops and a concert series.
Erdhem Plucked Concert.jpg
I had happened to glance at a flyer for the event in a downtown window, and discovered a reason for something that would have normally been of passing interest to me, becoming very exciting. One of the guest performers in attendance was going to be Erdem Helvacıoğlu from Turkey, whose CD, Altered Realities I'd reviewed just this past spring. As soon as I saw his name on the poster, I remembered him saying in an email last spring that he would be attending a conference here in November.

I think I've talked to somebody from every continent in the world by email, and reviewed music by people from countries I hadn't heard of before listening to their music. I've made close friends with somebody in India and the chances of us ever meeting are slim. The opportunity to not only meet one of these far flung people, but to hear him perform in person was too good to be true. I emailed Erdem and arranged to meet up with him at the workshop he would be giving on the Saturday and we'd take it from there.

For Erdem's workshop and concert the following day, he had been given the use of a large, open studio with the ambient sound deadened by more acoustic tile in one place then I'd ever seen before. In other words, the ideal situation for the creation of unique sounds and music that needed to be heard as distinct entities.

Erdem works in the medium known as electro-acoustic music, where an unadulterated acoustic instrument, in his case an Ovation Custom Legend 1869 acoustic guitar with installed pickup, is played utilizing a variety of electronic equipment. Normally processors, foot pedals, and other guitar effects are used to generate sounds to augment a guitarist's performance and left at that. For Erdem they become part of a process that modifies not only the sound of a piece, but how the piece will be played as well.

I'm not the brightest light when it comes to electronics or sound engineering, but what I understood him to be saying, and what looked like was occurring during his demonstrations of the equipment and when others were invited to plug into his set up and try for themselves, was something far more exciting then simple sound modification. (For those interested the set up used on his disc Altered Realities, which if not what he used for the workshop would have been similar in form and function, was a TC Electronic Fireworx multi effects processor, Behringer FCB1010 midi foot controller, and Audiomulch software)

Erham wksp .jpg
As near as I could tell a series of sound palates that he had created were controlled by the software in a laptop computer. As he played, the software would react to the timbre or sound of what he was playing and begin to playback a response that would appear on his laptops monitor as well as a live audio signal. Erdem would then respond to what the computer did to his original sound, and his response would in turn generate another from the computer. This variation on the old-fashioned call and response type of performing continued until the piece reached its conclusion.

I apologize for being less specific and I feel like I've left something out of the process, but I hope you understand the general principle of what Erdem is doing. The computer doesn't create or independently generate anything – it has been programmed to respond to patterns of sounds in certain ways – and even those were composed by Erdem in accordance with the needs of individual pieces.

The result, and this is where the importance of the room's acoustic qualities came into play, was that layers and textures of sound were being produced in a continuous wave. As a listener, you were gradually immersed in a sea of sound that was as emotionally satisfying as anything you'd hear played acoustically.

Encircling the seating area with speakers enhanced the impression of being immersed in sound. At times, I would find myself turning away from watching Erdem perform to turn into the music. Although it didn't change what I heard, it heightened the sensation that I was being drawn into the world created by the music. Given the momentary disassociation that everybody else seemed to experience at a piece's conclusion, I wasn't unique in that reaction.

Before I had reviewed Erdem's Altered Realities I had heard very little electronic music and was unconvinced that anything could match acoustically generated music for emotional impact. I learned just how invalid that belief was after listening to his CD, and experiencing his music in person only served to reinforce that conviction.

In the hands of people like Erdem Helvacıoğlu, the second or third generation of composers to incorporate electronics, they have gone far beyond the novelty items they were in the days of Switched On Bach by Walter (Wendy) Carlos and Tomita's interpretations of Debussy in Snowflakes Are Dancing. Instead of electronics being the music, they are now another instrument to be utilized in creating and performing music.

I'd be remiss if I failed to note the people responsible for the events that Erdem's workshop was part of, and what they were attempting to accomplish with the Plucked String Festival. In today's culture results oriented education; what can I earn instead of what can I learn, Queens University in Kingston Ontario attempts to maintain a strong Liberal Arts presence and understands the importance the ancillary benefits that fine arts programming can play in education at the primary and secondary school level.

The purpose of the Plucked String Festival was to allow established teachers the opportunity to meet with music educators and performers to discuss the role that music, specifically of the plucked variety, can play in their classrooms, and the benefits their students would derive from this type of programming. It may not sound like much, but at least it proves there are still some people in the world who don't see education as simply a means to an end, but as a way of broadening a child's mind and helping them realize their potential.

The images used in this article were provided by Erdem and taken by his partner – whose name I've either completely forgotten or whom I was never introduced to, anyway I'd just like to say thank you to her for kindly giving me permission to use them.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.