Name: Sven Helbig
Occupation: Composer, director, producer
Current release: Sven Helbig's singles "Repetition" and "Vision" are out now. These are the first cuts taken from Sven's new full-length album Skills, to be released via Modern Recordings on February 4th 2022.
Recommendations: I want to recommend the movie The Color of Pomegranates – an Armenian film by Sergej Parajanow. Everything I achieved artistically is rooted in my experience of this mystical work with its poetic aura.
The piece of music I want to recommend is “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” by Johann Sebastian Bach, played four handed by Márta Kurtág and György Kurtág. I don’t know of anything more moving in my life.
If you enjoyed this interview with Sven Helbig and would like to stay up to date on new releases and tour dates, visit his official homepage. For even more personal insights, head over to his profiles on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started to compose when I was around 14. Little melodies on the guitar and clarinet. I can’t say now which exact sound drew me into it. I was always attracted to music in general. I loved the sound of the drums as much as the sound of guitars, the brass band of my home town or an orchestra on the radio. Basically, all harmonically vibrating air called for my attention.
The strongest desire to spend my life just making music appeared, when I was sitting behind a drum set for the first time. When I studied music, I played mostly Jazz, where you are constantly composing and creating textures. I am sure this gave me most of the skills for what I do today.
Beside music making, I started building electronic devices at the age of 12. I had my own self-built radios and could switch off the light by clapping my hands. This is where my love for electronics is rooted.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
This is not easy to answer. I never really made it a goal for myself to find my own voice. It happens by exercising taste and skills and by exercising the spirit to give the purest reflection. This reflection will mirror our inner individuality and can be seen as our voice.
I am a musician and make music, that is it. I love to touch many different instruments and play them in many different styles. When I met the Free Jazz drummer Günther ‘Baby’ Sommer in Dresden, he made originality the most important thing to look for. I never understood this. To me, this develops independently from musical consciousness. A musician, who plays my song the way I wrote it, doesn’t count less, than a creative with a unique voice. I would leave it to higher forces than myself to decide.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I am not completely sure about the right idea of identity. For example, I am resonating with musical languages, that I never experienced as a child, nor had them around my family.
I have a very deep-rooted connection with Brazilian music and with Black music. When I was young, nothing hit me harder than a well-played drum groove at around 100 bpm. When I studied in New York, I never hung out with white people. Very often, I have been the only white person in the whole club. This motivates me much more than Robert Schumann. When I hear Duduka da Fonseca playing the drums, I am melting.
I am also strongly influenced by the Armenian philosopher Georges I. Gurdjieff, who says, one shouldn’t identify oneself in order to be free.
To answer your question: I have a messed-up sense for identity. My strongest identity is being a part of nature. When I am in a forest, I am home, no matter where this may be.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When I started composing, I was heavily influenced by the Vienna school narrative of the composer, who wants to change the traditional tonal system. I wanted to find something beyond everything that has been composed. I listened to Webern, Berg, Boulez and avoided any minor and major chords.
My experiences in New York changed this. Every Sunday, I went to a Brazilian Coffee Shop at Union Square, where the Brazilian community met. Brazilian musicians played Brazilian music for their Brazilian friends. I have no example of an experience like this in Germany. The same happened on Thursday nights at “Café Wha?”, where the Black community met. It became crystal clear to me that I want this – to make music for my friends and family which resonates with them, today, during my life, not after.
I changed the direction of my composing 180 degrees. I still like to listen to experimental music, but I don’t see it as my role to create it anymore.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
Time is essential in my works and also for the way I feel music. I started out playing the drums and practised a lot, keeping the time steady. I have developed a very precise sense of time that way.
Very often, I hear classical repertoire and feel that it isn’t the right tempo for me. A different tempo lets the overtones interact differently and produces different music. It also interacts differently with the pulse of the heart and gives more or less tension by the different ratio to the pulse. In my own pieces, I am also very picky with the tempo and I don’t like unnecessary rubato.
But it is a traditional game between composers and players that the performers read the music in their own way. I have to step back and give room for creativity to conductors and ensembles.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I never saw composition and sound as being two parts of music. First of all, the drums have a pure sound with no precise pitch. As a Jazz drummer, I worked a lot with all kinds of sounds that I could get out of the cymbals and drums.
In orchestra music, I always think who could play the melody, because the sound of a French horn or an Oboe produce a completely different emotion. Also, the combination of different orchestra instruments works like a modular synthesizer. The possibilities are endless and all of them offer a different emotional colour.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Collaborations widen the horizon a lot. One form of collaboration, that I have every day, is the interaction with the ensembles, who play or sing my music. You have to give them space for their own interpretation, otherwise it isn’t a satisfying artistic process for them.
But also working on a composition with somebody else is a strong experience. It is always a task to accept that there are many different ways of how things can be seen and done. It is an exercise in humanity to step back and create together, filter each other, get rid of unnecessary things.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Every day is different for me. I use to-do lists just in times of high pressure to reduce the stress of forgetting things. But I prefer to start the day as much as an animal as possible.
I look for something to eat and wait for the thoughts which appear in my mind. I follow them. Sometimes they lead me to take a book, listen to something, take a walk or even meet somebody. That looseness collides sometimes with the military organized life around me.
I also have to deliver things in time, which is a significant stress. But luckily I have made it up to this point with these kind of more or less unorganized days.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I would say my choir work “I eat the sun and drink the rain” was something like a break through. Maybe it was because nobody was asking for it and I didn’t have to deliver something.
I was sitting in a café in Buenos Aires and it started raining in the most extreme way I have ever seen. I couldn`t leave for many hours so I was sitting alone with just two old men in that room. Then this line appeared in my mind: “I eat the sun and drink the rain, quiet as the moon.” I made a note in my Moleskine and one hour later I wrote down “Works for choir”. It was just an intuition and it kept me busy for three whole years to write the lyrics and music for this project.
When it came out in 2017, choirs from all over the world wanted to sing it and I travelled around, performing it with them. It never failed to move the audience. I think it was the circumstance of total freedom that made it the most coherent project. And maybe this transmits from stage to audience.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I’ve made music for 35 years now and I can’t answer this question.
I was trying to create something in a free week on Madeira, with a view of the Atlantic and nothing happened. On the other hand I can be in the car during rush hour and have a melody in my head. For me personally, this has always been an autonomous, un-manipulatable process.
The only thing that helps me is to look for new experiences. This can be art, travelling, experiencing nature, meeting remarkable people or simply watching my daughter sleep. All this goes into a barrel and at one point, life will make wine from it. When this wine will be served isn’t under my control.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I can always alter my mood with music, and I purposely use it that way.
That is my everyday procedure. I know always what is good for me in the moment. Like I use food to heal me. There is always something different that helps me.
Less musically-experienced people can still feel the effects of relaxing music or anything uplifting. For musicians, this is way more complex. When my TCM doctor tries to calm me down with some Chinese music, I feel hurt, because I can’t stand these harmonies for long. I become extremely tense.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I never experienced how somebody mastered a cultural dialect, without being rooted for generations in that culture. This one to one copying stays unsatisfying for me. It is everybody’s right to try and feel comfortable with it. For me as a consumer, if I want a Fado, it will always be the best sung by a Portuguese woman.
But cultural evolution is fuelled by the alterations that appropriation and exchange bring. Both aspects added to the evolution of European Rock’n’Roll. The Beatles copied Little Richard, for example, and later created their own style. Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music wouldn’t exist without the exchange between African and Spanish / Portuguese music.
In classical music, we see wonderful new colors in the interpretation of German Romantic music by musicians from other continents. But it only happens with a new personal reading rather than trying to copy the original (if it isn’t the search for copying the original, but a new, personal reading.)
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
The most interesting thing for me is how the senses trigger our intuition and how these experiences are stored for a lifetime. In that way, musicians, cooks, painters are communicating directly with the subconscious. And even more. Since we know today that experiences of the senses stay stored for generations, they are communicating with the compressed treasure of experiences of many centuries.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I try to reflect as purely as possible. A thought I have or music I hear is worthy of being written down. This is how I see my work as an artist in a society. I am using music to set people in a mood that makes it possible to think beyond the horizon.
As a musician, there are people that follow and watch me. I think it is more powerful, to influence them with my way of living, how I care about environmental questions, animal rights, politics. I personally don’t put political messages in my music. Instead, I try to create an atmosphere of inspired awareness, where real communication and exchange becomes possible after the concert.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I think music gives a wordless answer to the question for sense that is raised by the anachronism of our short lives in an eternal world.