Friday, September 14, 2007

Altered Realities

In the early days, soundscape music rested primarily in the hands of keyboard players, until Robert Fripp and Brian Eno combined Fripp's guitar with Eno's tape delays and other effects in a couple of classic albums from the early 1970s. Eno went on to work with pianist and composer Harold Budd. Their albums are legendary, comprising Eno's live processing of Budd's piano improvisations, as well as Budd's improvisations with Eno's treatments. Meanwhile, Fripp has developed a healthy side career with his guitar-based soundscapes, and now, thirty years later, it is becoming almost commonplace for guitarists to produce peaceful and serene soundscapes. In almost all cases, it is the electric guitar that provides the source for this music. The electric guitar lends itself to extremes of subsequent processing, and in the hands of artists like Christian Fennesz, the results are barely recognizable as having originated from the guitar. The acoustic guitar's role has primarily been restricted to either new age melodies, of the type associated with the Windham Hill label, or more eclectic but still unprocessed sounds perhaps typical of John Fahey.

A recent release by Istanbul's Erdem Helvacioğlu entitled Altered Realities comfortably sits between these two extremes. Helvacioğlu's previous solo album, A Walk Through the Bazaar, appeared on Chicago's Locust label a few years ago as part of a series of field recordings. It contained two versions of field recordings in Istanbul, raw and treated into a dark dance remix. He is the guitarist for a Turkish post-punk band, Rashit, and he has also won prizes for his electroacoustic compositions. This album shows a completely different side of Helvacioğlu's music, consisting entirely of live, improvised, solo acoustic guitar with live processing (consisting of a TC Electronic FireworX effects box, a Behringer midi foot pedal, and the software AudioMulch. Its gentle and serene character recalls Budd and Eno's work, with perhaps a little more edge (and without Budd's occasionally cloying melodies).

Altered Realities contains seven tracks, all around seven-eight minutes long. The Budd comparison is most apt on the opening track, Bridge to Horizon, where the bucolic melodies set the peaceful drifting tone for the album. Some of his guitar pieces in their raw form, such as Frozen Resophonic, could easily sit alongside works of Michael Hedges, but the real-time processing completely transforms the piece, softening its edges. The treatments can take on a life of their own, as in Sliding on a Glacier where the single notes are sent off into the ether, or Dreaming on a Blind Saddle's distinct, complex gestures. There's an extended section of Shadow my Dovetail where the effects really take on a life of their own, accompanying the guitar whose counterpoint is now something completely different. The album closes with the ominous and theatrical Ebony Remains, which includes the only passage of nearly untreated guitar.

Helvacioğlu plays a lot of different slow arpeggiated patterns whose harmony lingers, recurs, and slowly decays while the music slowly transforms into the next development. His guitar playing throughout is generally delicate, using occasional sharper attacks to create more percussive textures. Altered Realities encourages a quiet drifting state, but listening in close detail is equally rewarding. The album's release on the New Albion label, generally associated with the fringes of contemporary classical music, emphasizes its unique musical vision, somewhere between standardized genres. After the field recordings, electroacoustica and rock, it will be interesting to see where Helvacioğlu goes next.

Altered Realities is available directly from New Albion, from fine record stores, as well as from iTunes and emusic.

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