My last month in Meudon started with a spectacular concert in my ‘own home’. In co-operation with the Dutch Embassy (shout out to Agnes, Friso, and Nicolette!), the Fondation Jean Arp, and Stichting van Doesburg I had the opportunity to invite two superb improvisers: violinist Dominique Pifarély and cellist Bruno Ducret. Wow. Someone in the audience asked if we had designed a storyline first, but it all just fled naturally from A to B. I knew Dominique personally because he had been my guest in a concert I gave at the SJU Jazz Festival in 2000, at Vredenburg Utrecht. It was fun to see him after all these years! He had suggested inviting the young Bruno Ducret as well, since he had known Bruno from childhood, being a very good friend of his father, the famous guitarist Marc Ducret. And even Dominique was amazed at the spectacular progress that Bruno again had made in the last year since he last heard him when they recorded together. Bruno is a phenomenon, and with an adorable eager state of mind: he is still playing as a guitarist in several rock bands, besides being the cellist in Louis Sclavis’ newest project, and in… everyone’s actually.

And then it was time to start recording my own solo album, for which I had written repertoire earlier in January. The title of the album will be ‘Drones and Dialogs’, with partly some solo pieces in which I also sing, stomp, or play the glockenspiel. And for the rest, some pieces for bass clarinet up to the small E flat clarinet, to be recorded in layers. I had borrowed a bass clarinet from my good friend Paul Weiling, and even borrowed back a harmonium from the vocal quintet Wishful Singing (who had bought the instrument that was originally mine). And I had the intention of drumming on two tracks as well. I expected that two songs a day should be doable, so the whole project should take like a good week, maybe one and a half.

I made the final recordings almost four weeks later. In the meantime, I felt I had undergone a ‘rite the passage’.

When you record in layers, you start with the first layer. Everything else must be on top of that line, so if this first line is out of tune, everything else is out of tune. If it slows down, everything else slows down. If it lacks energy, every next recording will lack energy. So, when is it good enough? The same question holds true for the second line as well. And is that solo spontaneous enough? Well, let’s try another one… So if you occasionally suffer from some perfectionist tendencies, like I certainly do, they are sure to come out when it is just you, your instrument, and the recording device.

But if you just recorded something, and you finally decide to do it again, and there is right at that moment a bus passing, you’ll first have to wait until it is gone, since this is not a real studio, but a house that is directly connected to the street… So you have to keep your calm, breath steadily, and maintain your concentration…  then you discover that there are not only busses in Meudon but also a wide variety of:

– cars

– motorcycles (or mobilettes, far worse because the sound is more discernible)

– trucks that unload for the works that just have started around the corner

– garbage trucks loading

– police cars and ambulances with sirens

– small motor airplanes (they are the longest to wait for!)

– shouting children

Not a problem in every recording, if it is a loud passage, but you have to think about that too. Which takes energy. Luckily for me, you don’t hear anything on the final recordings!

Then, when you are with a band, you just try out some improvisation concepts first. Here I had to play every single accompanying line before finding out that it actually did not work as well as I had expected. So “let’s try something else!”

Also, I really wanted to preserve something of the live quality of playing. So when I decided to do an E flat & B flat duet improvisation over a prior recorded accompaniment, I first figured I could just play the high clarinet parts, and then respond with my lower clarinet. But then, in its turn, the higher clarinet does not really respond back to the answers I gave on the lower clarinet, does it? So, I decided, I’d better play four measures of E flat, turn back the recording, record the next four bars in B flat, turn back the recording, etc. It took me one hour and a half to come up with a satisfying result. The next day, when I listened to the result, I decided that it still lacked energy. So I repeated the whole process for an hour or so.

Also, when I had almost finished a tune, and there was a nice flow in the melodies and the solos, I thought the first bass parts should go along with this energy, so I recorded them again.
Not to mention the moment that my E flat clarinet stopped working in the middle of a solo… So I had to go to Paris to get it repaired. Wow, the amount of time all this consumes…
But don’t get me wrong: I loved the process, everything of it. It was certainly challenging, but I enjoyed it. There was something immensely beautiful about recording this solo project totally on my own, in this solitary house in another country, having to deal with whatever presented itself.

When I thought I had just finished the last drum recordings at 14.00, I suddenly heard ‘POOF’. Damn, the electricity went off, and I did not save my last recordings… After an hour the electricity came back on, and I recorded exactly the same thing. Then, again, just before finishing: ‘POOF’. But now, it did not come back on after an hour. First, they announced it would be fixed at 17.30, then at 5.00 in the morning, then 10.30, then 12.00, then 14.00. Though I had decided to make the best of it, the uncertainty of all of it was turning into small despair. I really wished to finish before I had to get out all my recording stuff and drum set out of the room, so that Henrietta Müller, who was visiting me, could make video recordings of the atelier for my suite Maison Moderne. It did not work out that way, so I had to take out everything. Zen training in its truest sense.

In the afternoon of the next day, I had a lovely encounter with saxophonist Matthieu Donarier (great player, check him out!), and after improvising together, he encouraged me to build my stuff again. So the next morning I could try to finish my recordings. And there I discovered that what I thought had been finished, actually was not good at all. The groovy drum pattern was quite interesting in itself but too nervous as an accompaniment. So I changed the whole concept and started to record a completely new part, based on a different concept. As often, everything turned out for the best: I would not have noticed it if I had quickly finished after the first power cut the day before. (Anyway, in light of the problems the world is facing today, all these problems were quite insignificant of course.)

The Stichting Van Doesburghuis had quite generously offered that I could stay some more days to finish my project, but it wasn’t necessary, and evidently, I wished to see my family again. My two friends Dion Nijland and Berry van Berkum (from HOT Het Orgel Trio) first came over a couple of days, and in three days I did more sightseeing than I had done in the previous two months.

Just before parting, I climbed the Eiffel tower, for the final part of a piece that I have been writing for the Calefax reed quintet (about the variety of iron in Paris). It was funny because everyone on the top was looking towards Paris, whereas I was taking pictures of the tower itself, looking in the opposite direction. I loved climbing down through one of the feet, and I just love the construction of it, which continuously does not show how it is made exactly, with a true grandeur around it. I truly felt like in heaven.

And this experience in the utmost touristic site of Paris, in fact nicely symbolized what these four months had brought me… (besides the sheer joy to work in this fantastic space, the luxury to concentrate on composition without the organizational work, to be the king of my own time.) That is: fully realizing that there does not have to be a separation between construction and an inner-felt urge. That there can be a marriage between constructivism and grounded spirituality. That a modernist surrounding can go together with a primordial human expression. One gives excitement, adventure, and freshness, the other a rootedness, a meaning. More extremely put: modernism as sheer creativity of forms, for me at least, is pointless.

Thank you, Theo and Nelly, Anne, Bas, Beja, Gerco, Jean-Michel, Fonds Podiumkunsten NL, Dutch Embassy Paris, of course my lovely wife Simone and my children Hebe and Leander who had to do without me for four months, and all others I forget to mention.

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

January 10, 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! […]

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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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