Envisioning the sounds

Composer Helmut Oehring who grew up with deaf parents, adds a spatial element to his music.

helmut oehring 248 88 (photo credit: Ackerman)
helmut oehring 248 88
(photo credit: Ackerman)
There is a well known and definitively clichéd saying that suggests that it can help for an artist to suffer for his or her art. If that holds, Helmut Oehring has a head start on several of his professional colleagues. For starters, the 47-year-old East Berliner spent his formative years dealing with the constraints of living under the repressive communist regime of East Germany which, naturally, also had significant ramifications on his freedom of artistic expression. Add to that growing up with two deaf parents and you end up with far from ideal conditions for the formative period of a musician's life. But Oehring - who has three compositions in the February 19 program of the Contempo-Tel Aviv International Festival of Contemporary Music and Video Art, which runs until February 28 as part the Tel Aviv centenary celebrations - is obviously made of sterner stuff. Not only has he become an accomplished musician and composer, but he did it the hard way. Oehring took his first steps in music on his own, teaching himself guitar and composition, and graduating to intensive research of modern European music after getting into rock and jazz. While gaining an independent musical education, he kept the wolves at bay during the 1980s with a succession of odd jobs, including working on building sites. It was in the early Nineties that Oehring's career started taking off in earnest, when he became a master student of German composer and electronic music trailblazer Georg Katzer at the Berlin Academy of Arts. Three years ago, he was elected a member of the academy. In the interim, he has composed and recorded over 160 works and picked up a slew of prestigious awards. Far from being a handicap to his artistic growth, Oehring feels that growing up with non-hearing parents has had a profound, and positive, influence on his work. "I literally take everything from that into my work as an adult," he says. "It is a matter of concertizing everything: the precise, intuitive, poetic implementation and transformation of the grammar of space by the use of complex polyphone movements, in which all sign languages have their roots - in sounding stories, among others the subtractions of reality in music." The domestic silence of Oehring's childhood, he says, has also made him more aware of the visual aspects of life. "Many things that I encounter visually have an enduring effect on me - are changing my life. I live, feel, think, dream and work primarily in a visual way. My mother tongue, the sign language of the deaf, is a language with figures of movements and spaces." Since 1992, Oehring has also incorporated his earliest life experiences in his work, amazingly working with deaf people in musical milieus. "In concert music and opera we try to exploit the full scope of possible implementations of all thinkable and tangible languages. Placing deaf persons as central figures and protagonists on an opera stage, side by side with the common vocalists, the choir and instrumentation, is probably the maximum reciprocal use of languages, within the most contrasting boundaries of communication. But also designers, artists and movie directors influence me deeply in developing musical thoughts and visual soundscapes." AFTER SPENDING his early years politically gagged, Oehring is now free to express his political views through his work. "Every [piece of] music, literature and movie that has influenced me in life - which has directed me and made me the person I am today - is a political work." But the composer is quick to add that doesn't mean just sounding off about everything and anything that irks his political sensibilities. "It is also about the responsibility the artist is assigned by society. It is also about giving something back - to heal, to provoke. Generally speaking, it's about making the life of every single person engaged in music and art more open, intense, complex, rich and courageous." Oehring has, evidently, never been short on courage. Oehring's compositions at the festival include Leuchter (for oboe, cello and piano), Philipp (solo electric guitar) and How Fragile We Are (saxophone, electric guitar, percussion, piano and double bass). All the works in the February 19 concert, which also includes compositions by Palestinian composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi, Orm Finnendahl from Germany, Uruguayan-born Israeli guitarist and composer Reuben Seroussi and Michael Wertmüller from Berlin, will be performed by players of the Tel Aviv-based Ensemble Nikel and Berlin-based Ensemble Mosaik. The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Museum. For further information visit: www.contempo.co.il.