Freedom fighter

German composer Sven Helbig is a musician that doesn’t like labels. Maria Roberts meets with the innovator to find out what makes him tick and what he really thinks about the classical music industry

When I catch up with Sven Helbig over breakfast at a hotel in Manchester he tells me that he’s already been up composing since 7am. “It must be handy having a laptop”, I say breezily. Apparently not.

“I don’t use a computer, I do it by hand because it’s a totally different aesthetic. Composing is about how far can I go with my brain and my imagination – I can develop my skills without a shitty computer. I have a totally different approach to a guy who
makes music with computers. I prefer the old way – as 
a human being trying to improve their own skills of
their own body and their own brain, their intellect and their fantasy and what’s coming out 
of here.” He taps his head to confirm his 
point. It’s this frank tone that sets the pace
for the next hour of our interview.

Helbig is a prickly character, that’s for sure: intensely serious one minute, light-hearted and joking the next. He hasn’t much patience for small talk and he doesn’t have much tolerance for the classical music elite either. He’s part of a new generation of composers exploring the boundaries between classical music and experimental art, pop and electronica.

Some five years ago Helbig had everything a new classical artist could have hoped for: representation at artist management company Polyarts (the trendy partner of HarrisonParrott), and a recording stint with Deutsche Grammophon (which released his album Pocket Symphonies in 2013). He relinquished it all to join indie German label Neue Meister (created by Berlin Classics / Edel Germany) and adopt a more hands-on entrepreneurial approach to his career.

Why the break from the norm? “Labels are there for sucking ideas out of artists and income. They concentrate on business and making money, what do they get their 50% for?”

Sven Helbig © Claudia Weingart
Sven Helbig © Claudia Weingart

He met his current manager, Christoph Becker, in a bar when they were “drinking dry Martinis and talking about music”. Helbig confided he was on the lookout for new management and two weeks later Becker, who had honed his craft at Universal Music Group and Deutsche Grammophon, called Helbig to put himself forward for the job. Now the pair work with booking agent Ralf Diemert at Selective Artists on touring projects.

‘Contemporary classical’ and ‘neo classical’ are labels that have been used to describe Helbig’s work, but how would he describe his music? “It depends on the context,” he muses. “One thing is important, I do this for people, and I don’t care who likes it or not. I do this for making a living and for my crowd.”

His real interests, he adds, lie in veganism and environmental issues, and it’s these issues that face nature that he wants to explore with his music. Hence his piece I Eat The Sun And Drink The Rain.

“When I started composing in my 20s, I did so from a crazy art-mindset preoccupied with the avant-garde and being very special and provoking. I am not interested in those aspects anymore. I compose for my mother, my friends, my family, you, others … I think connecting with people is the most important thing. All other concepts of art are totally wrong.”

Being a ‘mixed genre, within a genre’ is problematic,
 he adds because the press team for classical ensembles
and venues invite the wrong reviewers: more often than not time-served critics who can’t relate to new music, don’t respect the form, and don’t enjoy it.

“You would never call a jazz journalist to write a review of a classical concert, even though some of the instruments are the same. It doesn’t make sense. You wouldn’t call a blues guy to review world music, and for hip-hop you wouldn’t call an R&B critic, but this happens in my genre, they invite the wrong sort of critics.”

“Today’s composers don’t listen to just Brahms and Dvořák and Bruckner anymore, they listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Rós, Mogwai, and post-rock artists that don’t have typical song structures, as well as ambient artists like Biosphere and Ben Frost. Contemporary composers create tracks that have large arcs of movement transferred to classical instruments, without being concerned with technique. And the audience for this type of music is growing: they don’t necessarily want to hear Brahms when they go to see Ólafur Arnalds or Max Richter.”

This is an extract from an article featured in IAM volume 14 Issue 2. Subscribe to the magazine to read the full article.