Let’s play a word association game. If I say, “prepared piano,” many of you might think “John Cage.” Yes, John Cage was a pioneer for prepared piano, and yes, Sonatas and Interludes becomes an almost inevitable comparison when discussing any prepared piano composition, but I only mention Cage because I don’t want you to think about him. (I realize, of course, that’s like saying, “Don’t think of a honey badger.”)
The problem with comparing Eleven Short Stories to Cage is that while the basic instrument is the same(ish), the end results are anything but. If you listen to this album with Cage as your expectation, you will be confused at best and incorrectly disappointed at worst. Cage’s prepared piano is exotic, percussive, and somewhat esoteric. It is high art in the best sense. Erdem Helvacioğlu’s prepared piano is electronic, quasi-minimalistic, and highly accessible. This is more a pop album, also in the best sense.
Eleven Short Stories is inspired by the works of film directors Kim Ki-Duk, David Lynch, Krzysztof Kieslowsi, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Jane Campion, Anthony Minghella, Ang Lee, Atom Egoyan, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Steven Soderbergh. As to which director is paired with each piece, that is deliberately left unstated. Each is given a title suggesting a scene, such as “Jittery Chase” and “Shrine in Ruins,” and since each track is more about its title than anything else, Helvacioğlu seems wise to avoid any specific associations.
As a whole, it is abundantly clear that Helvacıoğlu has a remarkable ear, and he makes it easy to forget that all these sounds are generated from a piano. Every sound, every nuance serves the music, and nothing ever feels forced or hollow; his background in electroacoustic music most likely contributed to these highly successful preparations. The means of recording are also an important part of this album. Helvacioğlu used five microphones, two extremely close to the strings with the other three serving to capture broader perspectives. He also isn’t afraid to use multi-track recording to get all the sounds he needs, which brings me back to this being a pop album.
The influence of popular music is evident in several tracks, even to the extent that there seems to be a backbeat and claps on occasion.1 More than that, though, is that this CD feels like a pop album. Most ‘classical’ CDs are about taking music that was originally meant to be heard live and attempting to archive it. They are recordings, if you will. In this case, the music seems to be written for the CD, and would be rather difficult to reproduce live—each piece has a unique preparation and the multi-track recording would require that some sounds be played over speakers in a live setting. The tracks are also relatively short (4:21 on average), adding to the pop feel. This isn’t a recording. It’s an album, and a very good album, at that.
Helvacioğlu does a wonderful job evoking each of these eleven scenes. Two standouts for me were Blood Drops by the Pool and Six Clocks in a Dim Room. The former is decidedly the most experimental on the CD, but also one of the most evocative. The scraping sounds would be perfectly at home in any thriller, and the gradual accretion of the “blood drops,” which crescendo into chaos in the middle of the track is just fantastic. Were I alone in a dark alley in a strange city, this is not the music I’d want to hear. Safe at home, I love it. Six Clocks on the other hand has an entirely different feel. There is a driving beat that fades in and out, which might be heard as either rhythm guitar or bass, and a simple melody produced by plucked strings hangs over this foundation as other ambient sounds fill out the track.
There is a fair amount of variety across the CD, both in sounds and styles, and I imagine that nearly everyone will have their own favorite tracks. Still, there remains a cohesiveness to this album that works extremely well, thanks in large part to the single underlying source of sound production. I was not familiar with Erdem Helvacioğlu before this CD, but I am now anxious to hear what else his discography has to offer. Eleven Short Stories is an excellent CD, and I would highly recommend it.
Just don’t think about Cage.