When you think about modern electronic compositions, you normally expect the instruments to be something you'd plug in. Musicians play keyboards, guitars and anything else that's already electronically inclined. One of the last instruments you would probably associate with these types of works would be the harp. Whether one of the huge concert harps used with a symphony orchestra or one of the many different "folk" harps from cultures around the world, they seem to be the epitome of an acoustic instrument. Harpists delicately pluck strings, picking out a melody which makes one think of ancient folk songs, minstrels and bards. On the surface, harps appear to have little in common with music generated by computer processors.
Yet it's just such a juxtaposition of the old and the new that composer and performer Erdem Helvacioglu and harpist Sirin Pancaroglu have attempted on their CD Resonating Universes on the Sargasso label. A composition for concert harp, ceng (traditional Turkish harp), electric harp and electronics, Resonating Universes is not merely an attempt to redefine our expectations when it comes to the harp or to shock listeners. Rather it's an exploration of sound and the process of composition itself.
In composing the eight parts of the nearly hour-long piece, Helvacioglu first recorded Pancaroglu playing the concert harp, then assembled samples of the huge variety of sounds and textures the instrument is capable of creating. He then repeated the process with each of the other two instruments in order to create a vast audio library reflecting the sonic world of the harp. Pancaroglu's contribution was not limited to sitting in a studio plucking strings randomly in order to make sounds; she created and defined the boundaries of the universe through her abilities with the instruments in question. While the final result heard on the disc came from Helvacioglu's manipulation of the sounds, it was she who was responsible for the context within which Helvacioglu would work. She was the one who knew what her instruments could create and how to respond to what had been already been recorded with complimentary music and sounds.
For those not familiar with Helvacioglu's method of composition, you need to know he specializes in improvisational work. After laying down a core of music he will then proceed to build layer upon layer of sound, with each layer building upon the previous one until a piece reaches its conclusion. Like an abstract painter, somebody working in this manner has to know when to remove their brush from the canvas in order not to ruin the painting. What they leave out of the final composition is just as important as what they have included. Just as if you keep mixing colours together you end up with something that looks like mud, adding too many sounds to the original base can quickly cause a composition to cross the border from music to cacophony.