An Island We Never Leave

Aaron Helgeson discusses building music from childhood memories in his recent work for live and pre-recorded flutes


the Japanese island of Tori-shima (photo by Japanese Ministry of Land)


This is the music I barely remember imagining when I was a child, put together from all I knew of music at the time. I'd hid it away somewhere. I'd forgotten it. It's taken a lot of people to help dig it out again.

Sometimes life takes you strange places.


This morning, for the first time, I saw our 18-month old daughter imagine she was someplace else. She stopped dead in her tracks, stood absolutely still, and after a few seconds looked all around her before bursting forward to reach out and grab a whole universe of invisible floating objects. Then she turned her head back. She looked at me with narrow eyes. A huge smile was on her face. And, very slowly, she raised a closed hand — holding a secret she'll never be able to tell me.


I wouldn't have seen it. Wouldn't have been ready for it. Except that a few hours earlier I'd felt the same thing myself, when Sarah Tiedemann sent me recordings with the first glimpses of music that's lived in my head for years, but that I hadn't really heard until just then.


Having dreamed it for decades but only realized it in the last six months, An island we never leave is assembled using simple rudiments and ornamentation of folk traditions from some of my earliest fascinations with the flute.


This music is collaged by muddling together tiny transcribed fragments from various historical performances and recorded oral histories of flutists in Ireland, Japan, Norway, and Slovakia — some koro koro from Yoshinobu Tanaguchi’s shakuhachi recordings, Irish trad flute crans and rolls as set down by Gray Larsen, seljefløyte overtones played by Eivind Groven…a complex encyclopedia of trills and harmonics that have been a secret obsession ever since my grade school music teacher handed me a recorder and played us some tin whistle tunes.


The music’s title flirts with the unusual phenomenon of Bird Island, a singular name belonging to dozens of places around the world that I found while I was researching the folk materials stitched together in An island we never leave.


Bird Island is simultaneously…


— a home for centuries of shipwrecked travelers in southern Japan, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1902


— a lakebound rock in Ireland, near the village where Rev. William Warwick was hanged for supporting the Irish Rebellion, that will soon vanish due to climate change


— a manmade structure on the Danube River in Slovakia, built to re-home bird populations that were displaced from flooding caused by dams constructed to produce renewable electricity and divert floodwaters away from human settlements


— a site near Brookings along the Oregon coast I was so fond of while growing up, home to both the first World War II bombing to hit the mainland United States and a recent tsunami resulting from the 2011 Sendai earthquake near Tokyo


The process of writing An island we never leave was full of thoughts I desperately wanted to share with my younger self:


That things which sound alike are often different. That things which sound different are often alike. That patience and waiting are dangerous twins. That you only know a home when it’s gone. That fullness, while messier than emptiness, can make room for others too. That you're not alone when you hum along. That the world is, in fact, an island we never leave.


This is the music I barely remember imagining when I was a child, put together from all I knew of music at the time. I'd hid it away somewhere. I'd forgotten it. It's taken a lot of people to help dig it out again. I'm glad that Sarah (and my daughter) are here to finally help let it touch the air.

Aaron Helgeson (b. 1982, Eugene OR) is a composer who uses transcription, adaptation, fragmentation, and collage to find new ways of engaging with old musical traditions.

© 2020 AARON HELGESON, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED