The sense of eternity that can be found in the simple doing of something: Sven Helbig’s Skills

Sven Helbig (image posted on Kickstarter in March 2021)
Sven Helbig in an image he posted on Kickstarter in March 2021

German composer and music-producer Sven Helbig and my paths have crossed several times over the years. I first came across him at the first UK performance of his Pocket Symphonies [and I also caught them in Hamburg at the 2013 Reeperbahn Festival, see my review], and most recently, in 2019, I heard the premiere of his work for cello and orchestra commissioned for the Dresden Music Festival as part of a new concerto with each movement written by a different composer, the others being Nico Muhly and Zhou Long [see my review]. In between we have managed to cross paths in various ways including my interview in 2016. Now he has a new album, Skills, that comes out next month and we met up over Zoom to chat about it.

Sven Helbig: SkillsSven's musical style is very much a product of his background, as he was born in East Germany in 1968, in Eisenhüttenstadt in the Eastern part of the DDR close to the Polish border. In our 2016 interview he talked 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 never really had a network of musical friends, so that his music came 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.

His new disc, Skills comes out on 22 February 2022, and in many ways it is a very personal disc. For a start the disc's subject matter has its origins in Sven's family background, whilst producing the disc this year, with few live concerts, meant trying out a new way of financing the disc using crowd-funding.

Sven has had the idea for the disc in his head for a long time. He comes from a family of craftsmen, his parents and grandparents were craftspeople so he grew up surround by craft, the topic of conversation at the dinner table was often about how to do something properly. And growing up in East Germany meant that if you couldn't buy something you made it yourself.

But he was also interested in how things have changed, how we are developing new skills (and he cites the use of computers and the recent development of vaccines), whilst at his daughter's school there have been discussions as to whether handwriting is important. And Sven collects porcelain, and has noticed how much cheaper it is getting on eBay, as if people do not value the artistry that went into creating this. 

So the disc cover for Skills has a photo, a vanitas Sven calls it, that is full of elements that refer to the way humans are always self-inventing.

The idea for the disc was that he would use music to describe these skills, he would use his own musical skills. The project originated before lockdown, so that Sven had the name and the idea already, but 2020 gave him more time to concentrate on the music and bring things together. Normally he is travelling, giving concerts, but without this there was the time to dig deeper than usual. And, partly as a result of lockdown, he did the artwork for the cover himself, learning photography to do so.

Recording session for Sven Helbig's Skills (Photo Mirko Glaser)
Recording session for Sven Helbig's Skills (Photo Mirko Glaser)

When it came to the musical details, he had to consider how to approach the topic, to refer to different crafts perhaps. But he realised that whatever the craft or skill, people always go through a similar process, moving from attraction to ultimately mastership and then transfiguration. Sven had learned an instrument with lots of study, so he tried to distil the steps that this takes, induction, interest, immersion, dedication, desperation (he comments that this happens to everyone at some point, am I good enough, is this my thing?), tradition and vision, until the whole process all comes together and the last step is transfiguration. This is a state that not everyone reaches, where what you do is more than the sum of the parts. And behind all these is the idea, why do this, why do people get up early and try to be better?

Sven feels that even for the simplest craftspeople, craft is a way of dealing with the dilemma of being mortal, a way to touch eternity, to become part of the eternal world in your mortal life via finding the perfect shape, laws or balances. The sense of eternity that can be found in the simple doing of something, its repetition. And the various steps outlined are very much a metaphor for the human journey, and they can fit all sorts of situations from learning an instrument, to making something, to meeting a girl! They are always the same steps, but not everyone finishes, some end with despair or repetition, people give up and cannot stand that it is a slow process.

From the beginning, Sven had a particular sound in his head. He found the idea of a string orchestra too blurry, impersonal and abstract, and so uses a string quartet (the Mondëna Quartet), the sound of which he finds very direct and personal. Opposing to and contrasting with this is a brass quartet, three horns and tuba (Jörg Brückner, Robinson Wappler, Anne Grethen and Tom Götze), which he uses in a more hymn-like and celebratory way. And he refers to the strings as the muses who fly in and make the craft become art, using as an example his Repetition movement where the brass play the same phrase over and over, whilst the strings come in an make things different.

Initial thoughts of balance problems were solved by simply using microphones, so that he can adjust the balance. He found that the sound-world fitted the emotion better, adding that you can never have enough bass!

Sven Helbig
Sven Helbig

The disc was produced via crowd-funding on Kickstarter, a first for Sven. Normally he gives concerts throughout the year, and uses money from these to fund his recordings but in 2020 with no concerts there was no possibility of this. A friend suggested crowd-funding, pointing at that whilst he didn't have audience members at the moment he still had fans and maybe they would support the project. He took a long time to be convinced, but it was so moving that so many of his listeners supported the project (you can read about the journey in Sven's updates on the Kickstarter page). The crowd-funding meant that he had the money to pay for the studio and to pay the musicians (none of it went to himself), it all worked and he was very happy.

He points out that there is the older narrative of composers being disconnected from their audience, but this was a newer, 21st century narrative where the audience becomes the composer's friends and family via  project like this. But without a live audience, Sven's writing of the music was different. Normally he would try new pieces out in concert, but little of this happened with Skills, instead he drew on his long years of experience performing and composing. Now he cannot wait to put the piece on stage (there are plans for a tour of Skills later this year). But previously he always wrote with performance in mind, creating solos that people could respond to. Writing Skills was detached from this process, and he admits to being somewhat worried that the music will seem boring in live performance.

Pre-2020 he had been planning an opera but they have now lost two years of the process so he will see how things go. At the moment he cannot really see beyond bringing out Skills, so plans for the future are flexible, he describes the next year as a blank page.

Three singles from Skills have already been released, Vision, Repetition, and Lore, with a fourth, Metamorphosis, to be released next week.

The first live performance of Skills is at the Staatsoperette in Dresden on 12 February 2022, with concerts in Lisbon, at the Philharmonie in Berlin, the Southbank Centre in London, Bamberg, Stuttgart and more. And Sven cannot wait for it to be born on stage. See Sven's website for details of the performances.

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