Resonating Universes, Erdem Helvacioğlu (composer), Şirin Pancaroğlu (harpist), Sargasso
by Alistair Zaldua
Sargasso’s latest publication is a set of eight pieces presented by composer Erdem Helvacioğlu and harpist Şirin Pancaroğlu. Helvacioğlu is a very successful young Turkish composer whose (now somewhat outdated) website reveals his having composed for film, theatre, dance, as well as for video and sound art, and that his work has been performed at many international festivals for computer and electronic music. The equally successful Şirin Pancaroğlu is described on her own website as “Turkey’s most renowned harpist”, and that for her “discovering a variety of musical identities for the harp is one of her constant endeavors.” On the evidence of this disk, these interests are clearly borne out. From the information given it appears that Pancaroğlu not only performs on the harp, but also on the çeng (an ancient Turkish open harp), and the electric harp, whilst Helvacioğlu commands the electronics.
Most of the music presented is reliant on reverberant sound reminiscent, whether conscious or not, of middle-period Cocteau Twins or even the instrumental tracks on David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth album. There are also echoes of the dark and percussive textures of James Dillon’s L’œuvre au Noir, and the ever-present drones even suggest Indian Classical music; the echo chambers here are as much cultural as they are stylistic. The CD consists of eight parts of unequal duration, each with their own distinctive character, all of which serve to describe the ever changing resonant universes referred to in the title. There are many things to listen to here that a single listening would do little justice to. Lasting merely an hour, the impressions are of expansive, lavish, and sensitively sculpted sound landscapes. The sonic environment is often inventive and idyllic, and the gentle layering and combination of the sounds are at times playfully non-directional.
Pancaroğlu displays a tour de force of listening and of the delicate choice and uses of playing techniques at her disposal. It is not always clear if the sounds are all derived from the harp itself, amongst the harp sounds can be found what sounds like distant distorted guitars (although this could be Pancaroğlu’s electric harp), and percussively metallic and wooden pulses—especially what sounds like a percussive beater being stroked against the tuning pegs. In amongst the rather chaotic-sounding soundscapes appear sudden moments of clarity, which often come as a relief to the ear. Regarding Pancaroğlu’s extended playing techniques, the resonant universes displayed here attest to a considerable amount of experiment and excavation in the possibilities offered by the harp and in how both performers interact. The sounds Pancaroğlu produces go well beyond those found in Helmut Lachenmann’s scores. The close micing of much of Pancaroğlu’s sound intensifies the experience and it often feels like the listener’s ear is adjacent to her harp. Acoustically, the notes at the lower end of the harp tend to take a short while to project, but the performers demonstrate that they are aware of this and the danger of creating dull and aimlessly muddy textures is keenly avoided; the reverberant techniques used create distance and add dimension to the whole.
The pieces range from three to eight minutes in length. The shortest piece, part 4, in its use of crashing metallic sounds serves to creatively break the main flow of the music until then. The work achieved in these shorter forms is to my ears more successful, especially the extended acoustic harp solo, the stopped harmonics in part 3, and the concrete sections of part 5. The pair do seem to have a little difficulty while working on the longer form. The seven pieces accumulate in energy to provide a well sculpted pedestal for the final work, running over 15 minutes. This final essay, part 8, provides a somewhat drawn out cadence to the whole, and seems a little labored. Despite my misgivings about this final track, it is as if here the origin of the enormous palette of sounds are finally revealed. There seems to be a scale running between the extended sounds of the distorted guitar through the plucked harp resonances towards the noisy, granular, and metallic tuning-peg sounds. The final aspect of the recording to address is the role played by the electronics. These tend to occupy several different functions at once: to provide a drone-filled backdrop, to provide constantly shifting reverberant clouds of sound, to provide sympathetic resonances at times deliberately understated, and then suddenly to take centre stage as the main ‘instrument’. A source of the seduction of this CD is that the roles both harp and electronics have are never static.
In view of these achievements, Sargasso chose to print their own label name on the front of the CD inviting us to ‘take a plunge in the Sea of Sound’, unfortunately without mentioning the musicians themselves. It’s only on the back and sides of the CD where both title of the disc and names of musicians are revealed. Neither do the sleeve notes disclose anything: all that is presented is the total catalogue of other CDs one could order from Sargasso. [Update: Sargasso have since contacted us and provided the correct CD booklet, the review will be updated shortly to reflect this - ed.] On the plus side, this choice of minimal information might be sending the healthy message of ‘think for yourself’ rather than allowing the overload of biographical and extra-musical information commonly seen on many recordings to influence a listeners opinion. Despite this I feel it does these musicians a little disservice as the music offered on this CD is both as rich in content and craftsmanship as the listening experience to be gained from it. For example, I was curious to learn about how these musicians may have worked together; the music recorded sounds more improvised than composed, and how much of this was the result of some outstanding collaborative work? The musicians were obviously concerned to allow the electronics to reveal the deeply sensuous nature of the different harps played. Whether the result of a collaboration or of a worked through composition both Helvacioğlu and Pancaroğlu have produced a recording that contains many hidden subtleties to discover and admire. For the discerning listener not put off by the ever present reverb but curious to hear an introductory portrait of two outstanding Turkish musicians, this compact suite of eight pieces is highly recommended.