Perhaps it’s because we envy them their ability to soar effortlessly on air currents invisible to our eyes that humans have long equated birds with freedom. With gravity’s grip relentlessly keeping us rooted to the earth we can only watch in helpless awe as even the humblest pigeon easily passes over walls that confine even the mightiest of men. Poetry and songs from all over the world confirm our fascination with birds in the way they are constantly used to evoke thoughts of freedom and escape from peril. Even now when we have developed our own clumsy means of taking to the air, who hasn’t stopped to watch a bird’s passage and marvel at its effortless crossing of the sky?
Of course nothing we have accomplished to date can match the natural aerodynamics and control exercised by the hunting and diving birds who stalk their prey from thousands of feet above until suddenly plummeting from the sky like a bolt of lighting to swoop away with a fish from beneath the waters or break the spine of a rabbit. Raptors of all kinds can instil fear in the best of us, which could be why the eagle has been a symbol of power and intimidation for empires and royalty since the time of the Romans. Others, with more respect for the natural world, have interpreted their power as a sign of being touched by the divine, and eagles are considered the messengers of the Creator, with the smaller raptors taking secondary roles.
While the eagles, condors and hawks of the world are recognized for their power, when it comes to speed falcons are known to outstrip their larger relatives by a good margin. Unfortunately these small birds also seem to have come into conflict the most with humans. While some falcons have been able to make homes for themselves among the skyscrapers of major cities – some cities have encouraged this nesting in the hopes the falcons will help with pest control by feasting on rat and other vermin – the populations in the wild have dwindled. The peregrine falcon of Northern Canada flirted with extinction until it was declared a protected species. The black falcons of Europe and Australia are not quite as fortunate, and both are considered endangered. Nomadic animals, the very freedom we envy is what’s being denied them by the continual erosion of habitat as we devour more and more of the wild.
It’s both the steady decline in the falcon’s numbers and the conflict between man and the wild which provided the impetus for the collaboration between Turkey’s Erdem Hevacioglu and Australia’s Ros Bandt and their new release on Double Moon Records, Black Falcon. The seven compositions on the CD combine modern and traditional musical technology as both a lament for the falcon and an expression of the conflict between the wild and humanity’s insatiable desire to subdue the untamed. With the disc being recorded in only one day, and five of the seven pieces improvised, the project in of itself isn’t what you’d call tame, as the two artists are having to rely on their artistic instincts in order to pull it off.
Even the instruments used in the creation of the pieces reflects something of the tension between the natural world and the technology we use to shape and control what’s around us. While Helvacioglu creates layers of textured sound utilizing electric guitar and electronics, Bandt is playing a simple four-stringed instrument modelled on an ancient design called a long-necked tarhu. Inspired by instruments as diverse as the double bass, traditional Eastern and middle Eastern spike fiddles and the Indian Vina, Australian luthier Peter Biffin created an acoustic system for the tarhu which transfers its strings vibrations to a featherweight wooden cone suspended from its body. Whether bowed or plucked, the design means the instrument is exceptionally sensitive and offers a musician a huge range of tones to work with.
I suppose we could continue to carry the analogy further by stressing how much the tarhu is like nature in when you pluck one string the whole resounds in ways you can’t predict. However it would create the misleading impression of the two musical styles being in conflict, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Technology in of itself is not evil, nor are all modern advances. What is dangerous is how we have let them both deaden our senses to the world around us. In the hands of as gifted a musician as Helvacioglu a piece of electronics can create music as sensitive as any acoustic instrument no matter what its pedigree. Needless to say, Bandt proves herself just as capable of producing sounds and tones that are as unsettling as anything you’ll hear created on any electric instrument. Maybe the irony here is that both the modern and the traditional employ freedom and wildness to deny our expectations of what they should do.
The music itself is a series of abstract creations built around various themes. The opening track, “Black Falcon”, does more than just try and define the bird, but also brings us into its world. By that I don’t mean the two have gone the obvious route and tried to recreate the sounds of flight. What they have done is created something that might give us the idea of what it could feel like to be as unfettered and free as a falcon. While there is beauty, there is also sadness as the bird and the freedom it represents are slowly vanishing, so in the midst of this celebration of its prowess we are made aware of the awful hole that would be left if it were to vanish forever.
While the various pieces on the disc celebrate the wildness of the natural world, never once do you have the impression they are guilty of sentimentalizing it either. There’s nothing idyllic or pastoral about this animal’s life; it is a predator after all and relies on killing other creatures to survive. As the music progresses over the course of the disc the two delve deeper into the meanings of untamed and why it strikes such fear into the hearts of humans. Wild just isn’t being born free, its the unchecked rage of a hurricane, the explosive power of a volcano and the uncaring nature of the towering mountain. The falcon goes about its life and business in much the same way as it would if we weren’t around to intrude upon its existence the same as any other elemental force.
It’s fascinating to hear how this image is created over the course of the recording. At times I was hard pressed to remember there were seven individual pieces on the disc and found that I was listening to it as a single entity. Perhaps your experience with it will be different. For like any abstract work, perceptions on what is being presented will change from individual to individual. However, no matter what you “get” from the music, you can’t fail to be impressed by the talents of the two musicians and the scope of their achievement. At times I was unable to distinguish who was creating which sounds so adept were each with their instruments. Bandt’s control of tone and texture is so good at times it was hard to believe she was creating her sounds acoustically, while Helvacioglu electronic washes of sound were so delicate they could be mistaken for something occurring naturally.
Humans are split between our envy of the freedom represented by a bird in flight and our desire to control the wild nature behind the ability. Unfortunately the one can’t exist without the other and if we continue on the way we are going we will destroy that which we desire so much. Perhaps that’s why we are so bent on the destruction of nature – our selfishness won’t let us simply enjoy something that splendid. If we’re not to be allowed those gifts we aren’t willing to let anyone else have them either. The music of Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt on Black Falcon might not say such things explicitly, and it may suggest some other idea altogether to you, but you won’t be able to listen to it without being affected in some way.
This is a wonderful piece of work created and performed by two very unique talents. With this creation they have given us a perfect example of how acoustic and electronic instruments can work together to create something that combines the best elements of each without either overpowering the other. I wonder if there’s a lesson in there somewhere; what do you think?