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Today's Zaman Newspaper 11 February 2012
Review: ARTER’s first sound art project opens

Erdem Helvacıoğlu, one of Turkey’s most renowned new music and electronic music composers of his generation, was commissioned by the Beyoğlu art gallery ARTER to create a special piece using a specific piano from the Vehbi Koç Foundation’s Contemporary Art Collection.
His 10-minute recorded composition, “Freedom to the Black,” is the first in a series of sound art projects to be mounted at ARTER every year. The installation opened on Feb. 9 and continues through Feb. 26.

The piano is an old upright that was used for a gallery concert in 1970 by the New York avant-garde group Fluxus. It was used in a series of scandalous performances in Europe, in which French performance artist Ben Vautier performed “Piano Piece (1970)” by Fluxus’ founder, George Maciunas. He nailed down all the white keys, one by one, thus leaving only the black keys to function. Helvacıoğlu took his inspiration from the results of those events where, not only were the keys nailed down, but people were invited to scratch and strike the instrument inside and out, effectively destroying the piano from all sides.

The title “Freedom to the Black,” emerged from the obvious elimination of all the white keys but also as “an attempt to liberate the ‘the black’ from all biases and prejudices,” according to Melih Fereli, the foundation’s culture and arts advisor, and curator for this project. “To many, black represents the primordial void,” states Fereli in his introduction to the special book for this ARTER exhibit. “Other examples of negative attributes are ‘Black sheep,’ ‘Blackmail,’ ‘Blackball,’ and so on. I have simply assumed that Maciunas was intent on leaving more room for imagining deeper meanings beneath nailing down the ‘white’ keys and the freedom of movement granted to the ‘black’ keys of the piano.”

For Helvacıoğlu, it’s “a search for different timbres” within the piano, he reveals, especially the highlighting of the pentatonic scale that is the result of being limited to only the black keys. “The piano has 35 black keys [seven duplications of five],” he said, “and when you have only those basic five notes to work with, well, that was very interesting for me. The first challenge was to totally mute the other strings that surround them. For that purpose, and to extract a wide range of sounds from within the piano, I used pieces of silk and wool, earplugs, stuffed toys, scissors, drum sticks, hammers, screwdrivers, even a California license plate. We set up 17 microphones inside, outside, under, over, everywhere, to record.”

Recording those effects took some extraordinary labor. His systematic layering of the kind of sound tracks he wanted required an intimate relationship with the piano. “To tell you the truth,” reveals Helvacıoğlu, “this was the most physically difficult project I’ve ever done. For four days, I lived inside this instrument, even under it. Because I was so close to the mics, of course I couldn’t breathe. The engineers only saw my legs. I might have been dead, for all they knew.”

The composition on the black keys

Within ARTER’s display window on İstiklal Caddesi, the piano is perched on an angled floor, making it seem as though the heavy instrument might tip over. This allows us to see, with either amusement or alarm, the bizarrely impaled ivories. The listener sits or stands in the middle of the five-meter square room and is surrounded by 16 speakers and one sub-bass booster. The spatial sound designer for this project is Tony Myatt from the Music Research Center at the University of York, England. He’s using the new “Ambisonic B-format,” which, in his words, “is the most precise sound playback system that’s been developed. It gives the listener a spherical sound field. For Erdem’s composition, it places the listener inside the piano. You can hear the mechanical action, the notes and effects with absolute visceral reality.”

“Freedom to the Black” begins with a few tiny squeaks, almost like ambient room noises, so the piece arises from the sense of being part of everyday life. Then metallic sounds emanate from something gently scraping the strings, followed by the deep resonance of a single bass note played from the keyboard. A general rustling develops, as though the wind had just blown a pile of leaves into the mix. More oddball pings and scratches, random tapping, fully sounded single notes, bumping and plucking, all generate a slow but steady crescendo towards what feels like a ready-to-implode sonic beehive. After the furious activity has suddenly stopped, the final sounds are ghostly waves of dying resonance from the strings.

ARTER’s front window mystery

Fereli recounted responses to what is placed in ARTER’s front window, which faces the busy İstiklal foot traffic. Passersby, at first glance, might think it’s an unusual store. “For the first exhibit, there was an inflatable plastic military tank, then it was a hat collection,” he says. “Now, when they see an old piano in the window, they ask: ‘What is this -- a hi-fi shop?’”

Or perhaps it’s a surreal display of a disturbingly crucified 19th century instrument for shock value? Maciunas and his Fluxus group flexed their mandate to “promote non-art reality” through mistreating a piano and creating “noise music,” explains Fereli. He quotes musicologist Klaus Ebbeke: “That many music lovers still equate the image of a piano being demolished … with the visual artists’ coming to terms with music, indicates just how important the piano figures as the nerve center of the bourgeois cultural soul -- and right on target the artists were in exposing exactly this point.” And the title “Freedom to the Black” has a palpable reference to this American who lived through the civil rights era in the United States, when racial discrimination was declared illegal.

Well, unlike Fluxus’ iconoclastic destruction of such a symbolic instrument, Helvacıoğlu manages to capture the still-beating heart and soul of an old piano’s infrastructure, regardless of bourgeois, political or avant garde conceits. That’s what’s on sale at ARTER.

“Freedom to the Black” runs Feb. 9-29 at ARTER -- Space for Art, located on İstiklal Caddesi No: 211 in Beyoğlu.

Visiting hours:

Tues-Thurs 11-19:00; Fri-Sun 12-20:00

Free admission; keepsake book with CD and photos available throughout exhibition www.arter.org.tr


Today's Zaman Newspaper 11 February 2012