Day -3, preparations

“Hey Steven, just a shot in the dark and it’s totally up to you, but if you pay his travel expenses and his food, we maybe could send you our intern next week for your recordings in Paris.”

Wow, that was a fantastic offer by Alex Geurink and Evert Aalten from studio West Hoogland. A totally spontaneous idea, after my inquiry, if I could borrow a microphone from them. And a life-saving one, I might add, because did I really think that I could host three musicians in three days, rehearse a totally new and quite demanding program, have a photographer over to do a photoshoot, produce some video’s on location, do the catering, and do the audio recordings all by myself?

Yes, I did. Hahaha.

Kan een afbeelding zijn van 1 persoon en binnen
Our sound engineer kind of saved the whole project

Here enters Dries van Elten, whom I’d met during an earlier recording session with HOT Het Orgel Trio. Sometimes a 22-year-old has the rest and conscience of a fully grown adult. Dries is one of them. What a fantastic helping and reassuring force he was during these three-and-a-half crazy days at the Van Doesburghuis.

Because the whole project definitely had a touch of craziness about it.

Day 0, arrival of the party

Pianist Albert van Veenendaal and violinist Oene van Geel both arrived Sunday afternoon the 22nd of January, and though we originally had some plans to have dinner in Paris, we decided to settle for a quiet night in Meudon. We had a 15-minute walk towards an Italian restaurant, where we ate some delicious pizzas while catching up with what had happened since we last met. Walking back, Oene remarked that it felt like he had a ‘wall of dough’ (‘deegwal’) in his stomach, and this fine addition to the Dutch language soon became a running gag in our conversations.

Day 1, first rehearsals

During our morning walk, we bought bread and croissants and went to have coffee in a café on the corner. A funny unassuming place where road workers stand alongside ‘dames de bourgeoisie’ at the counter. And where, as in most cafés in France, you can bring your own croissant or gâteau (always ask first!). At 10.00 our guitarist Paul Jarret arrived at the house, and we were ready for our first day of rehearsal in the beautiful atelier.

A month before, under the title ‘Maison Moderne’, I had written ten pieces in total, of which six were about different rooms in the house, and four were intermezzos about important persons and movements in Theo van Doesburg’s life. Some of the new compositions worked quite fast, some of them needed more attention, and some were downright demanding. When things are difficult, and everybody stays positive and willing to try out new approaches, you know you have a fine group.

At noon photographer Jean-Michel Bale came to take pictures of us while rehearsing. In the end, he said: “OK Steven, now you have to play also a bit, because you let everybody play, but you are mainly talking yourself.” Ouch.

Kan een afbeelding zijn van 3 mensen, mensen die muziekinstrumenten bespelen en binnen
Rehearsing in the atelier

This whole plan was a bit daring, to begin with, but you know: “Only one who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.” (Miguel de Unamuno)

Absurd indeed, but somewhere during this first rehearsal day I started to get the feeling that with these incredible musicians, it just might work.

That evening Albert cooked us dinner at home and afterward Dries arrived, and we all just were exhausted after a whole day of concentrated rehearsal.

Day 2, recording in the kitchen and the heating room

“Do you realize how much noise that toilet makes?”, Albert inquired the next morning. Yes I knew, and I totally forgot about it, hence also to inform Oene about it, so we joyously flushed the toilet during the night right above Albert’s head. But Albert laughed as much about it as I was ashamed. After this night of unquiet sleep following ‘a hard day’s work’ we jumped into rehearsals right away, with less time today because of our afternoon recording program.

But, we already sounded far more together than the day before! I keep finding it amazing what happens during rehearsals, and also during the sleep that follows. Billions of synaptic connections are being made and rearranged afterward: I probably wouldn’t believe it if someone told me about it for the first time.

At noon, photographer Jean-Michel Bale arrived again, to take a group picture this time, and we tried some different positions standing on the (strong) table made out of concrete. A nice concept of his, showing an element of the house, with us dressed in De Stijl colors.

Kan een afbeelding zijn van 4 mensen, mensen die muziekinstrumenten bespelen, staande mensen en binnen
Photos Beja took of the photoshoot

Then, it was time to start recording our first tunes at other locations in the house. Dries had set up mics in the kitchen, where we recorded an improvisation using the kitchen utensils on our instruments (Albert played electric bass for this occasion). I had invited Beja Tjeerdsma to film us, who now takes care of the Van Doesburghuis, but always has had an interest in cinematography as well. We quickly devised a small script and then improvised where the music took us. The beginning and starting point were a red cooking timer that I had bought especially for this occasion. Still, we destroyed two recordings by missing its final alarm sound, endlessly playing while waiting for it to finally go off. Not our best takes.

Kan een afbeelding zijn van 2 mensen, staande mensen, gitaar en binnen
Preparing the food in the kitchen

Followed the pièce the resistance of our location recordings: a piece that I had written about the heating room. Theo van Doesburg had a love for machines and painters who were inspired by them, like the Italian futurists and Ferdinand Léger. So I wrote a modernist piece inspired by the tubes and machines in that room.

Kan een afbeelding zijn van 1 persoon en binnen
Setting up in the heating room

The only problem was that the heating room is really small. So we had to measure and take care that there was enough space for Oene to bow, in a particularly difficult piece for him (some shifting rhythmic 15/16 cells with plenty of small melodic variations in a difficult interval, and at breakneck speed). But, no surprise for who knows Oene’s extraordinary talents, he nailed it with great power and conviction. The best moment in between the takes is Albert uttering: “If I ever get out of this, it appears that I actually have a very big house to live in, in Amsterdam.”

Kan een afbeelding zijn van 3 mensen, mensen die muziekinstrumenten bespelen, staande mensen, gitaar en binnen
Oene fitted in the room as well!

Somehow, after this, nobody felt like rehearsing the last left-over bits of that day. Instead, Paul went home to take care of his family, and the Dutch party went to a nearby restaurant where the waiter started laughing after our question about whether he had any vegetarian dishes. “Yes, this pavé the boeuf is vegetarian… [no reaction of mine whatsoever] … I am joking, sir!” “Yes, I understand that you are joking, but I am just not laughing”. On top of it, the pasta seemed like a baked leftover from yesterday.

Kan een afbeelding zijn van binnen
I wonder if Theo and Nelly ever expected to have this equipment under their noses

Day 3, recordings in the atelier

Our final day of recordings was in the atelier and started with an elaborate tuning of the piano. We had still eight pieces to finish, so we were glad that Dries had already done some sound-checking the day before. And luckily, just as the second day had already sounded far better than the first day, I immediately heard we had a band now, making a fine sound. Just one and a half days of rehearsals for a full program that is somewhere between contemporary composed and improvised music is really ambitious. But then again, being together all the time in this pressure cooker with a great atmosphere somehow makes you approach each other at a fast tempo. Making music is also a matter of building the confidence to let go of everything, of aligning spirits. I remember reading a scientific investigation some years ago, mentioning that brain waves of different people start to align when they play together, even while playing different parts. It might just be that they both hear the similar combined result in their heads, but I prefer to think that making music together is like plugging into each brain, forming a spiritual network. At least that’s how it feels when the music feels good; when the real magic is happening. I really felt that we were together, making a collective sound. Of course, we also had our moments of struggling, of searching without finding. But the good thing about making an album is: you don’t have to include those…

(I recently heard some alternate takes of Portrait in jazz, by the great Bill Evans trio. I love that album. There is magic about it. And funny enough, that magic was not there during the alternate takes. I believe we sometimes tend to over-mystify jazz history because we now only hear the great parts that survived.)

After a whole day of recording, we luckily still had time left to go out to have dinner in a restaurant. At the first pizzeria that is, not the one with the pave de boeuf… Beja and Jean-Michel joined us, and it was good to celebrate these extraordinary days together. I will certainly smile about this in years to come!

Final celebration

Steven Kamperman in Paris at Maison Doesburg #4

by stevenkamperman on 10/01/2023

I am currently enjoying a residency at the Maison Van Doesburg in Meudon (Paris) from November 2022 to the end of February 2023. In my blogs, I write about my adventures, my composition work, and my research question: ‘What place does modernism exactly have in my music?’ And I recently came to some new insights!

While traveling back to Paris after some Christmas holidays, I am halfway through my residency at the Van Doesburghuis at Meudon. Time to catch up with my blogs!

When I go out for my morning walk, before the sun gets up, after all these weeks I still feel an incredible surge of gratitude. This surely was a dream to start with, and luckily it turned out a happy one! Of course, my thoughts do sometimes wander off, but since my time is limited here, I have a lot of reasons to come back to reality as quickly as possible.

Two days in a row, the baker’s wife on the corner mistakenly thought that I wanted to have coffee with my croissant. Ever since we have been kidding about it. I asked her if maybe it was her secret wish that I’d stay drinking coffee. After saying that I had a good coffee machine at home, she asked me if I could bring her a good coffee instead. The next day, she asked where my promised coffee was. Two days later, I asked why she had suddenly been closed the day before, just when I had an espresso for her. Silly stuff, but it starts the day with a smile.

Of course, I did more than buy croissants and kid with the baker’s wife… I went to a French jazz conference where I saw the current state of young French jazz. I saw other fantastic concerts, of which especially one marked me (I’ll write more about it below). I had musicians coming over to the house and we jammed and recorded, and that was fun (the atelier sounds fantastic). I wandered through Paris, bought too many records, was stuck in the metro or sometimes couldn’t enter at all, and watched several soccer games with enthusiastic (though sad) French fans. I visited the amazing Edward Munch exhibition in de musée d’Orsay, and also many other musea, and I very much enjoyed walking past all the waiting lines with my ICOM Museum card.

One of the very nice meetings here, with Paul Jarret at the guitar.

And of course, last but not least, I composed. A lot, I might add. I finished the suite that I wanted to write about this house and the influences of Theo van Doesburg. We are going to record that on the location itself, later in January, with Albert van Veenendaal (piano), Oene van Geel (violin), and a superb and ever-so-nice French guitarist, Paul Jarret. Looking forward to that.

Van Doesburghuis

Being in this modernist house, designed by the radical but also impulsive and enigmatic Theo van Doesburg, writing the suite fell together with investigating a personal question: what is the place for modernism in my music?

Let me first clarify that I don’t understand the term modernism as ‘what is happening in nowadays music’. As far as the music system of today is concerned, most musicians are quite happy to recreate the music of the past. Hardly any modernism or adventure is to be found there, except in some far corners. And as far as commercial targets seem to rule more and more areas of the cultural sector, this process does not seem likely to stop either. So ‘what happens now’ does not seem a very good definition of modernity.

Instead, I have come to understand the term ‘modernism’ in a much narrower sense. I see it as the process of getting out of a purely intuitive approach to art, by using more mathematical-oriented structures. And that’s not unlike the work of Piet Mondriaan, and later Theo van Doesburg, at the beginning of the movement De Stijl.

Let me explain that.

Early cubist work by Mondriaan

Around 1910, after a career of painting after nature, Mondriaan became interested in abstract painting. For some time he was inspired by the cubist manner, reducing forms of nature into geometrical forms. But rather soon it became the purely abstract geometrical forms themselves that started to catch his attention. 

Because nowhere in nature you would find a pure square. And, so, geometrical forms would by themselves bring the public to something beyond depicting nature, beyond the expression of an individualistic expression of emotion. It would give the art consumer a glimpse of the universal beauty behind things. The use of geometrical forms by the painters and architects of De Stijl was very much inspired by a mystical interest. A longing to express something beyond mere personal emotion, something that would be more ‘monumental’, in their own words.

Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue, and Black by Piet Mondriaan

So, mathematical forms helped Mondriaan and Van Doesburg to overcome the intuitive way of painting after nature.

Music…

Analogously, the most intuitive music would be tonal or even modal: with the primary use of just one scale. Traditional folk music is without exception tonal. So, music in its most intuitive form uses a single scale.

One can explain the whole history of music as the process of inventing ways to get out of the use of only one scale, by means of techniques like tonal harmony and modulations up to twelftone music, or even more complex forms of sonic organization. Actually, there is no limit to how you can organize sound!

Variation on composition xiii by Theo van Doesburg

Why would you want to do that? As Van Doesburg and Mondriaan believed: it opens up ways of expression. From the purely individual expression of emotions, you can reach other musical worlds, of a more monumental kind.

But should that process be radical, like it used to be in the last century? The further away from intuitive music, the better, was the credo for a long time. Theo van Doesburg, when he wrote about music, wanted to do away with melody altogether. And Mondrian adored jazz, but mainly because he conceived it as raw rhythms without melodies. (He liked the Charlestons which the black American soldiers – those who were not immediately repatriated – played in Paris after World War I, but he didn’t care too much for Ellington some years later.)

The first show of Josephine Baker in Paris was without any doubt one of the biggest impressions in the life of Mondriaan

What I personally discovered while writing this work inspired by the house, is that I, myself, really want both elements. I love the intuitive part, but I need a more mathematical approach as well, that creates surprises and opens up expression into unknown worlds. I need the past and the future at the same time, I need both extraterrestrial worlds and my home. I need lyricism, or expression, even in the most abstract notes. Perhaps that is what I most clearly formulated for the first time during writing this suite: that pure construction in itself does not interest me that much. It is the interaction with intuitive elements that really excites me.

Now I finally get back to the concert I promised to talk about. I went to La Dynamo because I had seen that drummer Jim Black would play over there. But what I enjoyed far more was the trio that played before, called T.I.M., led by French pianist Sebastien Palis, with the Norwegian Hardinger fiddle player Helga Myhr and vocalist Karoline Wallace. They had a fantastic balance between on the one hand folk influences and on the other hand nifty modern arrangements that hid beneath the surface. They used electronics in an exciting way, used sometimes jumpy melodies, and funny strange techniques. Some fiddle solos did not have one melodic phrase, but at the same time, there was constantly this primordial feeling of folk music, somewhere a melody, a rhythm, a bass ostinato. There was always something to create an entrance for a listener. That, I think is perhaps the answer to the question of whether there is still a place for modern elements in nowadays music for a somewhat larger audience. This was a concert of modern or adventurous music that I enjoyed enormously myself, but for which I could easily have invited my neighbors as well.

One of the more folk oriented tunes; there is not yet a CD of this trio

Doesburghuis #3

December 6, 2022

I have a pretty strict working routine here at the Van Doesburghuis. I get up at 7.00, exercise, take a cold shower, and go for a small walk around the park near the house. Then when I am almost home, I buy a croissant and a baguette at the bakery just around the corner (hey, […]

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Doesburghuis #2

November 16, 2022

My original idea is to build all my stuff the day I arrive here at the Maison Van Doesburg in Meudon (Paris), and then start composing immediately the day after. A truly ridiculous idea. Getting used to the house I do feel immediately at home in this beautiful house, certainly after the warm welcome of […]

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Doesburghuis #1

November 11, 2022

And there I go! After five months of getting accustomed to the fact that I’ll be living and working in Paris for quite a while, it still feels unreal that it is actually happening. I love my wife and children. I love my house and my bureau, where I usually write my music. I love […]

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Beirut – Global week for Syria

April 24, 2016

What is that smell when we get out of the plane at Beirut airport the night we arrive? At first I think a child before me in the row might have shit in his pants… But when I pass by him, it does not get any better. When we leave the building – after the […]

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Mozambique, with Neco Novellas

June 25, 2013

I must admit I turn a little bit nervous suddenly: one day before Neco Novellas and me are supposed to leave for Mozambique, we finally get the approval of the Dutch Fund of Performing Arts that we can go because they will pay the tickets. But we did not yet complete anything in terms of […]

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Barana in Mexico, day 6

May 13, 2013

Beginning of our concert In Mexico everything seems to change the last minute, so when somebody asks us when we play, either we just don’t know, or in 5 minutes it will be different anyway… But if you accept that fact, there is also quite some vitality hidden in the process. Anything seems possible, and […]

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Baraná Mexico, day 4 and 5

May 12, 2013

Zinco jazz club, Mexico City We have a day off, but everybody is so tired that we kind of waste the day. No museums, pyramids or promenades, but catching up some sleep and checking our mail. But my wish to visit some Mexican jazzclubs comes true in the evening: Denisse, a nice local girl we […]

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Baraná in Mexico, day 1, 2, 3

May 10, 2013

(Jamsession with Cheick Tidiane Seck at the keyboard in Mama Rumba) Just after the British airways hostess tells us the flight from London to Mexico will be ‘lovely’ (because there is practically nobody, en we can each lie down over four seats), there appears to be a problem with the wing. So there is a […]

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