Sven Helbig ~ Skills

What does it take to master a skill?  Sven Helbig‘s album is a loving tribute to generations of artisans, engravers, doctors, debaters, and of course musicians, kindly including new skills such as skateboarding and programming.  Ironically, Helbig, a skilled drummer and composer, also had to learn a new skill during the release of this album: not the integration of brass and strings, not the cover arrangement, but Kickstarter.

Take a moment to think about the skills you have mastered.  Perhaps you recall the arduous journey: how long it took to become proficient at your job, at a sport, or at seemingly mundane tasks such as cooking and driving (please do not do these things together).  Perhaps you are trying to master a new skill, having picked up a new hobby or wrestling with the ever-changing world of technology.  Perhaps the skill is simply how to make your relationship work.

According to some studies, mastering a skill can take ten thousand hours, and involves a great deal of repetition (think of martial arts movies), frustration, and perseverance.  Helbig dedicates his album to the different stages of practice and acquisition, honoring the spirit of the muse.

The album begins and ends with the same note played on a sound tube ~ a children’s instrument that symbolizes the innocent desire to learn.  Set sequencing is a skill, albeit a non-paid, lower-level skill that takes less than ten thousand hours to master.  Many other skills are also on display here, deeper than the playing of notes: mastery of timbre, contrast, mood and flow. “Induction” is a clear beginning, like an opening vista; “Transfiguration” is a sweet comedown, a culmination of themes.

Another way to approach the album would have been to stumble over notes at the beginning, to mar melody and create accidental dissonance, building to symphonic consonance.  We’re glad that Helbig did not choose this route.  Instead, he communicates the theme through the album’s videos: the trials and triumphs of an acrobat in “Transformation,” a cornucopia of disciplines in “Lore.”  The latter portrays woodworking, embroidery, baking, twirling and tuning, leading to a hard-earned fluidity as the brass and strings rise to a triumphant swirl.

Surachai lends a percussive electronic sheen to “Repetition,” the French horn personified in the Ksawery Komputery video via lines of increasing complexity, at first circular but diverging into constellations.  Then there are multiplications of patterns, each veering in their own directions as the strings stretch toward transcendence.  Finally the camera draws back to reveal innumerable, overlapping areas of art that turn out to be roses, zeroing in on a central rose.  Is this what these lines were building to all along?

At times, the music can be melancholic, especially the restrained “Despair.”  Many people stumble, fail, and/or quit along the way, while others continue to pursue glory, whether the humble pride of personal mastery or the public recognition of lauded skills.  By “Metamorphosis,” a clear change has come over the orchestra: louder, sharper, more self-assured.  Ten thousand hours of practice have paid off; the students have become masters.  The music also offers an encouragement to the world: you’ve gotten it right in many ways; it’s not perfect yet, but keep striving.  (Richard Allen)

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