Saturday 22 October 2016

Crossing boundaries: composer Sven Helbig talks about his latest work 'I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain'

Sven Helbig- photo Claudia Weingart
Sven Helbig- photo Claudia Weingart
The German composer Sven Helbig is perhaps best known in the UK for his work with the Pet Shop Boys including their Alan Turing project at the BBC Proms in 2014. Sven is a representative of the new classical music, spanning both the classical and pop worlds, and he uses elements of each in his music. I first met him in connection with his Pocket Symphonies disc, which I heard the Faure Quartet perform live at the Reeperbahn Festival in 2013 (see my review). Sven's latest project, combining choir and electronics, I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain, came out on the Berlin-based Neue Meister label in September, recorded by Vocalconsort Berlin, conducted by Kristjan Järvi. Sven was in London recently and I took advantage of catching up with him, and finding out more about I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain and the philosophy behind the work.

Sven Helbig - I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain - Kristjan Järvi, Vocalconsort Berlin
Sven Helbig - I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain
Kristjan Järvi, Vocalconsort Berlin
At first, our conversation seems to continue the themes from my interview with Kristjan Järvi, as Sven talks about how he is troubled by the current state of the world, and wonders how art can make a difference, feeling that we need to go back to human values. So it comes as no surprise to discover that Kristjan Järvi is a friend, and that the two have worked together on a number of Sven's projects. When, later in the interview, I ask Sven to describe I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain for someone who has never heard it, he starts not with the music but with the text and with the work's philosophical meaning.

The work is not just a concept album created simply for the recording studio, but something which has a life in the concert hall, combining choral performance with Sven's own live electronics. The work was performed this year at the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, with visuals from Icelandic artist Mani Sigfusson and costumes by Esther Perbandt. Sven comments that the classical part of the festival has grown considerably since I saw him performing there in 2013, and this strand of the festival very much represents the new classical movement, spanning the interface between classical and popular.

Composers like Sven take influence sideways, rather than just from past classical masters

Sven feels that this style of music is very much a product of our times, being influenced by the availability of information via the internet. Composers like him take influence sideways, rather than just from past classical masters so Sven's music uses post-rock and electronics but transforms it by classical instruments.

Sven was born in 1968 in Eisenhüttenstadt in the Eastern part of the DDR close to the Polish border. He talks about how in 1982 if you found a disc which you liked, a recording by Anne Sophie Mutter say, there was little opportunity to find out more information about her or the music, all you could do was ask your friends, and wait until someone came across something. He talks graphically about phoning magazines, ensuring you have enough change for the phone, to try to get a copy of an article about an artist he was interested in. He sees all this as making people more focused, not really able to see what other things are happening, being so focused on Anne Sophie Mutter and probably not taking in music by Miles Davis or Radiohead.

Sven Helbig, Kristjan Järvi, Vocalconsort Berlin - I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain
Sven Helbig, Kristjan Järvi, Vocalconsort Berlin
I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain 
But nowadays, if you search for Anne Sophie Mutter on Amazon, then it will start giving you other suggestions and you are just as likely to get suggestions for music by Miles Davis or Radiohead as well. Musicians can wander across the border between classical and popular at will, a border which is really only in our heads because that is what we grew up with. Sven sees new classical music as not being a leaf in the tree of Beethoven, and he feels that much that is being written today does not have the same roots as classical music.

He uses an analogy with Brazilian music to describe this development of a new style from multiple roots. Nowadays everyone regards the bossa nova as classical Brazilian music, but it has its roots in a complex mix of Spanish conquerors taking African slaves to South America, killing the natives, marinading for a period and out comes the bossa anova and no-one remembers the time before.

Sven points out an important difference between classical and popular music. If you see the instruments from a guitar, bass, drum set combo then until the musicians start playing you cannot know what style of music they will play from jazz to rock to RnB. But if people see two violins, a viola and a cello, then they immediately assume they are going to hear a quartet by Shostakovich, Brahms or Bartok. This is something which Sven wants to change, but he feels that we need to take account of different styles and genres in new classical music so that someone who regularly reviews Mahler needs to recognise that they are not necessarily suitable for reviewing new classical music. And Sven is firm that this isn't crossover, it is a new genre.

Choral music with a flavour of electronics

When describing I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain, Sven calls it choral music with a flavour of electronics. Here he uses another food and drink analogy talking about the choral music being infused with electronics, like a dry martini made with Noilly Prat. He also mentions in passing the bar in Paris which Bunel and Dali ran, where they wanted to make the best and driest martini. As with the dry martini, the electronics in his new piece is just flavouring to fill out the space left in the music.

Sven Helbig, Kristjan Järvi, Vocalconsort Berlin I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain
Sven Helbig, Kristjan Järvi, Vocalconsort Berlin
I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain 
When creating the piece, Sven started from the story, what did he want to tell? He was thinking about humanism and human values and wrote lyrics about these. He chose to use a choir because singing represents the most human values in music, and he calls singing the mother of all music. Also, singing in a choir is a very human experience, and transports individuals into a collective experience. Sven uses the analogy of people in a communal activity wanting to be part of a bigger picture, striving for salvation, or overcoming death, or experiencing eternity.

He sees that there are so many layers in society which obscure these thoughts, and he talks about an advert he saw when travelling to the UK, offering total freedom when you buy the new ..... but all you get really is total slavery.

The poetry in Sven's songs are about trying to achieve salvation, trying to lose the guilt to leave the past behind, but of course it doesn't work. To his own texts he has added the Kyrie eleison, Agnus dei (trying to find salvation through someone), and words from Leopardi's L'Infinito (finding eternity in yourself, becoming one with nature). All the movements on the disc are driven by the content and the lyrics. So that Meernacht uses our relationship with nature as a mirror of our souls, and an emblem of what is going wrong in this world.

He uses the electronics in the 'space left by the choir'

For the performers Sven wanted a slim sound (he uses the German word schlank) and so he chose Vocalconsort Berlin who specialise in early music. Sometimes Sven's choral writing is in eight parts, and Sven feels this works better with the Bach without vibrato sound. But also this sound translates better for people outside the classical world, as it is like the sound of choirs Björk uses, the sound of Nordic choirs.

And Sven was concerned that the choral writing was pure composition, and could work without without the electronics. He uses the electronics in the 'space left by the choir' so for instance the electronics are an octave below the lowest note possible in a choir. And he admits that you have to know a lot about electronics, or else you could go so wrong. When writing the work, the electronics was part of Sven's thought-processes from the beginning rather than being added later, so the electronics becomes an additional contrapuntal line.

Sven has received good reactions to the work, both from those in the classical world and those outside it, whereas for his Pocket Symphonies there was more of a problem as some people loved it and some didn't. Sven doesn't necessarily feel that this new music is the only way forward. The Boulez-era school of composing, as Sven refers to it, still goes on and he feels that so it should. Sven thinks it is good to have everything, diversity is important.

Sven Helbig, Kristjan Järvi, Vocalconsort Berlin I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain
Sven Helbig, Kristjan Järvi, Vocalconsort Berlin - I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain 

Sven's music was created crossing boundaries ... because he did not know they were there

In past eras, crossover was a performer from one genre performing another (classical singer in popular music or vice versa), whereas nowadays new classical performers know classical music well and know electronic music. In Sven's case this is partly the result of his upbringing in Eisenhüttenstadtstadt, here he grew up listening to Wagner and Strauss but also electronic music. He grew up with no live theatre and no orchestra. There was no music in the house and his mother still hates it when put on music at breakfast. He built himself a radio and listened to music on it. He never had a network of musical friends, so that his music came only from the radio and the two channels which he could get, one classical and one the American radio station in Berlin so that he absorbed both classical and RnB without knowing what was what. Never having seen an orchestra, he didn't know what is was, it was just a sound. It was many years before he saw an orchestra and it was some 20 years after first falling in love with the sound that he came to understand the details behind it. So Sven's music was created without the idea of musical conventions, crossing boundaries because he did not know they were there.

Sven will be bringing I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain to the UK next year. He is also writing a new work for the 2017 Dresden Music Festival to accompany the 1927 silent film Luther as part of the anniversary celebrations for the Reformation. Full information of all Sven's performances from his website.

I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain is available on

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