joanne lee


cross platform: ian helliwell

This piece was commissioned by The Wire magazine for issue 336, February 2012.

Brighton sound inventor Ian Helliwell perpetuates the UK’s tradition of amateur audio experimentalists, and commemorates the early history of electronic music in his Practical Electronica documentary.

For all those artists and musicians struggling through the austerity of contemporary Britain, Ian Helliwell provides an object lesson in how to survive creatively: operating largely without external funding or institutional support throughout his twenty-year career, he has nevertheless made some 68 films, constructed a host of sound generating machines (an eponymously christened series including the Hellimatic, Hellitron and Hellisizer…) and developed over 120 solo audio works, as well as making collages, installations, performances and radio broadcasts.

His most recent project is Practical Electronica, an hour-long documentary about the British electronic music pioneer F. C. Judd, which eschews the by-now habitual talking-heads in favour of experimental film, video and animation, in order to evoke more effectively the work of its subject’s most active years. Judd, an innovator in music, radio and communication is now largely forgotten, though he was once on first-name terms with the likes of Daphne Oram, Luciano Berio & Bruno Maderna, produced the first specially composed electronic score for a UK TV series, and invented a very early system for home video recording.

For those unfamiliar with Helliwell’s practice, the film offers a useful primer, given that it features many of his favoured approaches. The electronic soundtrack, by turns funny, hypnotic or dissonant, utilizes his own compositions, which have been developed through tape manipulation and with self-built tone generators. An inveterate sonic adaptor of abandoned machines, Helliwell has used kit originally designed for short-wave deep-heat treatment, as well as Slendertone exercisers and a device intended to tone one’s bottom. Like Judd, he demonstrates a recurring fascination with the visualization of sound: the film dances with waveform traces of its female narrator’s voice, before reveling in the vivid chromasonic imagery of abstract colour patterns generated by the the audio track. Playful and engaging, Practical Electronica is both an important contribution to musical history and an audio-visual pleasure.

Helliwell is clear about the root of his creative practice. “It was always industrial, it always had something about machines in it”, he observes. As a young boy his imagination was fired by visits to his grandparents in Barrow-in-Furness and Newcastle, where he encountered a landscape of shipyards and steelworks. Born in the 1960’s as Britain was being encouraged to embrace the ‘white heat of technology’, Helliwell relished the optimism of this new machine age, as well as beginning to discover an enduring affinity with the utopian ideas and aesthetics of mid-century modernity (a theme he explored in Expo 67 – a radiophonic collage, broadcast on Resonance and WFMU.) ‘Fundamentally, aesthetically, it strikes a chord with me every time and that’s the foundation of it all’, he explains.

As he looks back at the imagery and music he encountered (at first often via TV of that era) he now recognizes that, “it was a fascinating moment where so many things converge”, but he also laments that, “the technology was obviously progressing very quickly, so that period was quite short”, after which, “things were smoothed off, the jaggedness, the dissonance was calmed down and that era of experimentation when things got really wild and broke right through into the mainstream evaporated - inevitably.”

It is this period that continues to nourish Helliwell’s current practice as a musician, artist, filmmaker and historian, mainly because he believes the speed of mid-century technological progress left so much creatively under-explored. Of course, it is also thanks to the relentless development of ever-newer formats and systems that there is a tide of mechanical debris so cheaply available for his scavenging and creative re-purposing. He is careful, however, to point out that he’s not interested in sticking doggedly to analogue methods, or fetishizing old formats as some mistake him for doing: “People do say –‘oh he’s the analogue bloke’ - but it’s not actually true, I’m very much about the hybrid.” He goes on, “I’m really suspicious of people who are just into making cassettes; it seems either totally insular or completely retro-nostalgic.” He sees the current fondness for cassettes as “preposterous” and can recall wondering, “when’s that stupid format going to be superseded by something you can actually work with?” For Helliwell, digital formats have allowed him to finalise and distribute works in ways that would previously have remained impossible with the limited resources he has available.

Helliwell does, however, recognize the clear limitations of the no-budget approach. For example, whilst he has been gifted permissions to use most of the archival footage necessary for Practical Electronica, key elements remain unlicensed as he is unable afford the fees demanded by commercial broadcasters. As a result the film is unlikely to receive a DVD distribution, and the audience will inevitably be limited as a result. It’s a real source of frustration to Helliwell, for whom the issue is not how to make the work, but how to get it to a wider audience.

Perhaps it is this sense of existing on the creative margins that drives an increasingly significant part of Helliwell’s efforts as a historian of electronic music. His ten part series for Resonance, The Tone Generation, has now stretched to some 22 episodes, and increasingly tries to mine lesser-known territories: he is keen to recuperate key figures whose influence and importance has seemingly waned. “How come they’re never mentioned?” he asks, as he discovers countless individuals who have been ignored or sidelined, and as a result he has begun work on an A-Z handbook of British Electronic Music Composers, which reinstates a host of forgotten names to a history from which they’ve been erased.

Self-taught (he says the idea of higher education had seemed “absolutely inconceivable” to him), he has an auto-didact’s critical perspective upon the curricular repetitions of more institutional histories. For Helliwell the work of Ian Loveday, a 13 year old amateur music-maker, can be as relevant as that made by renowned members of the Radiophonic Workshop. His face lights up as he speaks excitedly of discovering a 1968 letter to Amateur Tape Recording magazine in which Loveday describes an early piece of intuitive electronics: “He’d modified this circuit and made these strange oscillations and a sequencer from a doorbell circuit…”

Just as Helliwell questions the line that divides hobbyists from the ‘real’ professionals, he is frequently exercised by acts of categorization that serve only to separate potential audiences. As he has increasingly pursued ideas across a range of media, he describes how it has been his experience that, for example, “visual artists working in collage won’t come and see collaged films or music that involves collage. There are all these natural crossovers but they don’t want to go to each other’s events.” He admits that he is sometimes frustrated by such limitations, which persist in the programming and discussion of his work, and laughs, “I think that working in a multimedia way isn’t a good career move.”

In truth, for Helliwell there hasn’t ever been a career plan. “It’s just been a gradual expansion”, he says, “lots of work put in…” That childhood fascination with machines gave him a creative drive, but he was uncertain where to start. “I knew I wanted to make things but I didn’t really know what to make”, he recalls. He began as a musician, his interest inspired at 12 thanks to his older brother’s collection of punk and electronic music (and memorably fostered with the gift of an acoustic guitar made by inmates at the prison where his electrician father worked.) After playing in bands for several years, he came to realize that the sounds produced in a studio were often more compelling for him than those made live. It was whilst he was living in a shared house with a range of visual artists that he finally began to think about combining images with sound and he hatched a plan to make a science-fiction film for which he would compose an electronic score. This early project, shot on location around the defunct Shoreham Power Station, took two years to complete and was, he acknowledges, “totally primitive”, but also, “really inspiring”.

Helliwell continues to explore the interlinked possibilities of sound and vision, and the joy of practical discovery remains fresh. He can clearly remember the difficulty of finding things out for himself, especially before the internet made available what was once esoteric technical knowledge, and he tells of his excitement at making his first tape loop. “I’d never seen any tape loops before, but I thought you could just join it with sellotape, make a cut and have a loop going round. When you’ve not heard it before and no one’s told you and you do it for the first time on your own it’s absolutely eureka! It’s brilliant!”

Frank about how long it took him to get started, he is now committed to sharing his knowledge and opening up possibilities for others. ‘For a lot of the time I didn’t have an avenue in’, he reveals, and today he runs workshops in analogue film and sound at his Helliwell HQ for those seeking their own beginning. “You’re giving them a bit of a kick start. My workshops are an encouragement, but without saying this is the way to you have to do it.”

Although he admits that the lack of formal training means he has taken longer to get to this point than he might otherwise have done, he is ultimately happy about the route he has taken. “You bring your own idiosyncratic ideas, your own style without any compromise. It’s your own particular vision”, he asserts and goes on to suggest that it was his frustration with the increasingly corporate and conformist 1980’s that ignited him creatively. “You don’t have to go along with the flow if you don’t want to”, he says and this lack of concern for what is or isn’t ‘cool’ persists in his approach. This is a useful lesson for anyone starting on their own journey, and although struggles with distribution continue, Helliwell believes he has found a way to sustain an ongoing practice. As a result he is able to conclude positively, “I do enjoy my life a lot.”