Hans G. Helms

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Hans Günter Helms (8 June 1932 – 11 March 2012) was a German experimental writer, composer, and social and economic analyst and critic. [1]



Helms was born in Teterow into a Jewish family, who were able to escape the Holocaust by using falsified papers.[ citation needed ] He spent his childhood and youth in Teterow and Berlin. He received his first musical education whilst young, learning the piano and theory from an immigrant from Byelorussia. During the Nazi era he became acquainted with Swing and jazz from secretly listening to "enemy transmitters".

In the years immediately after the Second World War, Helms studied tenor saxophone with a member of the US army and appeared from 1950 until 1952 in Sweden as a jazz musician. He played with, amongst others, Charlie Parker and Gene Krupa, and also in 1953 in Vienna with Hans Koller. As well as being preoccupied with new music (Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Alban Berg and the Second Viennese School) Helms, working at the Viennese radio station Rot-Weiß-Rot (RWR), created with, amongst others, Ingeborg Bachmann, the radio genre Jazz & Lyrik.

In Göttingen, where he lived from 1953 onwards, Helms first made the acquaintance of the philosopher and sociologist Helmuth Plessner, then later with Theodor W. Adorno. His social and cultural critiques were significantly influenced by the Frankfurt school and critical theory. He also studied comparative linguistics with Roman Jakobson and philosophy and social theory with Max Horkheimer and Siegfried Kracauer; however, Helms describes the Marxist economist Jürgen Kuczynski as his most important teacher.

In 1955, the self-taught Helms began to compose. From 1957 onwards he made his base in Cologne, where he worked together with the composer Gottfried Michael Koenig at the buildings of the Studios für Elektronische Musik at Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR). He directed phonetic experiments together with the physicist and communications researcher Werner Meyer Eppler, who also advised Herbert Eimert and Karlheinz Stockhausen at the same time. This work consisted of speech and sound analyses as well as linguistic and cybernetic studies.

Helms made contacts with Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and John Cage through the Donaueschinger Musiktage and the Darmstädter Ferienkurse (where Helms visited and sometimes lectured from 1957–1970); he was especially drawn to Cage's music using radio broadcasts and writings. In Helms' abode a circle was formed, which included, as well as Koenig, also Mauricio Kagel and the musicicologist Heinz-Klaus Metzger; a central preoccupation was James Joyce's Finnegans Wake . From this influence, Helms developed two 'language-music compositions' (Sprach-Musik-Kompositionen), Fa:m Ahniesgwow and daidalos; later, in collaboration with Hans Otte, came GOLEM and KONSTRUKTIONEN. His Text for Bruno Maderna (1959), a work consisting entirely of phonemes, was used by Maderna in his stagework Hyperion (1964). Helms would apply principles to language which derived from musical techniques of serialism, organising phonemes and morphemes to create new linguistic constructions in such a manner. This work paralleled that of other contemporaries of the time, in particular Dieter Schnebel.

During the 1960s, when Helms became a private pupil of Adorno, he studied the Critical theory (Frankfurt School) and its roots in Marxism. Thereby he discovered Max Stirner, whose work Der Einzige und sein Eigentum ( The Ego and Its Own ) had provoked a violent critique from Marx, which led in consequence to his basic concept of Historical Materialism. Helms worked for many years upon this work of Stirner and its reception, producing his literary opus magnum, the 600-page Die Ideologie der anonymen Gesellschaft in 1966.

Helms saw himself, with his critique of Stirner, in the tradition from both Marx and some contemporary Marxists, who had already recognised 'the suppurative focus' and Stirner's 'current danger'. [2] In his work, Helms presented the view that Stirner created 'the first consistent formulation ... of the ideology of the middle class' and further that Hitler articulated a specifically middle-class ideology and that Stirner-ism and National Socialism are both variations upon the same fascist demons. 'Because this demon lives on in West Germany, controlled by the middle classes, he has written this book to fight it'. [3]

Afterwards he stopped composing in order to concentrate on producing music broadcasts and films (including works on Ives, Boulez and Stockhausen), believing radio and television as the more effective media for presenting social critique. He concluded his studies in sociology with a doctorate at the University of Bremen in 1974; as well as travelling to European and North African countries, he held a Guest Professorship between 1976 and 1978 at the University of Illinois. In 1978, he moved to the United States, and from 1982 lived in New York City.

Here Helms investigated the effects of the computer and telecommunications development on the field of employment, engaging in critiques of capitalism and globalization, as well as the social consequences of modern town planning. He predominantly made use of field research and interviews. He published his findings in political and scientific, music and literary magazines, trade union journals, and daily papers; and compiled radio and television productions for several ARD broadcasting corporations.

In 1988, Helms returned to Germany, first living in Cologne; in 2003 he moved to Berlin. He adds to his studies work on the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe, as well as, separately, looking critically at the conditions of work of contemporary composers who use electronics and computers.



Writings (selected)


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Based upon a translation from the German Wikipedia, with additions and modifications drawn in part from New Grove

  1. "13.03.2012: Helms gestorben (Tageszeitung junge Welt)". Jungewelt.de. 2012-02-24. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
  2. Hans G Helms: Die Ideologie der anonymen Gesellschaft. Köln: DuMont Schauberg 1966, p. 495
  3. Hans G Helms: Die Ideologie der anonymen Gesellschaft. Köln: DuMont Schauberg 1966, Vorwort pp. 1–5, 481