You described your piece Ridgeway as reflecting a search for identity. Can you explain what this means as a composer and as a human being?
At the time I was commissioned to write Ridgeway I had been hiking an ancient road that crossed my hometown. I moved away from this place when I was little and it was a big event to travel back and become reacquainted with the landscape of my childhood and my memory. The piece is a tribute to the journey going back to the point of ones origin in life. I think life is about searching for identity and place. The age-old phrase “know thyself” is perhaps the most important piece of knowledge a creative artist can rely on.
There’s a certain badass quality to your music in its transparency and ability for long-term build to moments of great intensity out of simple ideas. How do you approach the questions of transparency and form in your compositions?
For me writing music comes from an inner compulsion to create something. Often the piece answers a question or a desire to understand something better. Each piece has its own reason and its own character. It has a life of its own and it’s my responsibility as a composer to give it that life.
While a lot of young composers rely too much on software to compose, your music draws out some incredible and fresh sounds from a variety or instrumentations, and you actively collaborate with some of the best contemporary ensembles. How do you go about conceptualizing the sounds you create?
Imagination is the key. When I work with MIDI or playback I find that it interferes with my imagination. Over the years I have developed the habit of short scoring my pieces using a pencil and manuscript paper. It is ingrained in my routine and if I don’t do this, the piece feels like it’s missing something like I have forgotten something vital like not brushing my teeth in the morning. With short scoring I can find a direct connection with my inner imagination. I love entering into that abstract world inside my mind, a jungle of infinite possibilities. It’s a very liberating place to be and rewarding to be able to translate the inner space into something real and physical.
I work with technology quite a bit in the form of creating spatial tape pieces, sampling sounds in nature and recording instruments in different acoustic settings. I have learnt a lot about the way sound works through this and I often draw on this when conceptualizing sounds for a piece.
When composing I work with instruments such as a piano or any other instruments related to the piece that I can get access to. I think it’s important to feel the physicality of the instrument. By doing this I have the best orchestration book in the world remembered in my muscles.
These days I do write up my final scores onto a notation program. I have to admit that it’s a very practical way to get written music to performers. However, I love handwritten scores. They are like original pieces of artwork. Gorgeous to look at and unlike a visual artwork, they have a whole other dimension in the form of the invisible world of sound!
Can you explain the conception of the use of pre-recorded and live string quartet in your piece Violins and Skeletons? What’s the acoustic result?
Clear as water (that’s a quote from my teacher Mr Andriessen). I’m fascinated by listening to recordings of the ensemble playing the piece in the past and comparing them to the way they sound at present. It’s sort of a coming together of the two mediums musicians work with: that of recording and that of live performance. The structure and harmony of the piece are distinctive, yet when layering the recordings the impression of the piece distorts due to the discrepancies between them as every performance will always be different. It’s like looking at a riverbed where the shape of rocks beneath the river change as the current of water runs over their surface.
The Netherlands seems to produce a lot of contemporary art music that is both innovative and on the ground. Is there some reason the scene there knows how to keep it real?
There are many layers to Dutch society. It is a diverse place with many facets and the fact that it is a tiny country with a big population situated in the middle of Europe and is constantly at odds with the sea explains a lot about the way it is. People from all over the world come and go and there are many platforms for discussions and innovative ideas making it a lively and interesting place. At the same time it is very practical due to the fact that resources, in particular space, are limited. There’s no room for the unnecessary.
The best piece of advice about being a composer I received while studying also outlines the Dutch philosophy: maintain a fine balance between self-confidence and humility. In my experience the Dutch are less convinced by accolades, awards and titles but encourage action, production and innovation. On one hand there is less public recognition for achievement but on the other there is a whole-hearted acceptance of the art as a profession, something that one does every day that is highly skilled.