Doesburghuis #1

by stevenkamperman on 11/11/2022

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 the concerts that I regularly do. I love my home town Utrecht. I have plenty of compositional work ahead of me.

Why am I going anyway?

Somehow it feels like the right thing to do. When I saw the open call of the Fonds Podiumkunsten, I showed it to my wife, uttering: “This would really be a dream of mine”. When she looked at it, she dismissed it immediately, “Four months, you can’t be serious?” Fair enough… No, of course, I am not really serious, with the children and all… Forget it.

But the next morning, after an uneasy night in which she had been thinking it all over, she woke up saying “Hey, this Paris thing, of course, you’ve got to do it. We’ll manage somehow. It’s a dream, go for it! Paris isn’t that far; just come home regularly.”

I love my wife, now you know why.

Rest assured: when she later pondered doing a solo hike, I supported her as well.

“When you love somebody, set them free.”

Sting was right.

So why am I going? Well of course Paris is a great city, and the Van Doesburghuis is a fantastic inspiring house. And of course, it is great to have four months of concentration. But there is also something that I’d like to figure out. A kind of tension in my work. A tension in art in general, I guess.

On the one side, I like music that comes from the unconscious. Intuitively it seems to pop up. Nobody knows why. Even Paul McCartney admits he really doesn’t know where it comes from. But consider this: the very best songs that Paul McCartney wrote, were all during his time with the Beatles, while in a positive way competing with John Lennon. In one very interesting interview, he said that he thought it worked so well between them, because he himself came from a kind of happy family, whereas John had a much more negative childhood experience. So when Paul would write some happy lyrics, John would add a sarcastic counterpart, and the result would be much more interesting, even according to Paul. So you have to conclude: clashes or tension can make good art!

Opposed to the highly intuitive music of the Beatles, I love the highly structured contemporary music of people like Messiaen and Stockhausen. Music in which the tonal material is organized in other ways than the classical harmonic fashion. Surprising and unusual music. Music for which – unfortunately! – there are hardly any voluntary listeners to be found anymore. One programmer jokingly admitted: “You know, I program the kind of music where there are usually more people on stage than there are in the audience.” I kind of understand how that works, but it does not make me happy. At all.

I myself often times use this more structural approach to get me into other areas than my comfortable intuition, and from there let my inner intuitive composer do the work. So I feel like I am very much in between these two worlds: the intuitive “hey that sounds agreeable”-world and the “hey that really surprised me, but well, it’s a bit experimental”-world. (I really hate that term – experimental music – as if you are just doing some experiments…)

I already concluded that clashes can be good. So, it’s not that I personally worry about my approach to composing, and it has been successful enough to give me some confidence as well.

But still, I would like to figure out more for myself where and how exactly those worlds meet, in a positive way.

Is there still any place for modernism in the art of nowadays, and I mean in a way that it’s not meant for three consumers, but for a somewhat larger audience? If so: how?

I hear a lot of super ‘sweet’ contemporary composed music nowadays, but I somehow cannot believe that that is the solution. Do not get me wrong: I can really appreciate harmonious-sounding music, but I oftentimes hear music that is just that: harmonious-sounding, without any more intense feeling of significance that I would wish for as a listener. Do we really have to compose overly agreeable music in order to win back the interest of the audience?? What about fundamental human existential fears, what about a more mystical connection to that unbelievable world outside? What about sheer raw energy? What about chaos? Should a composer put all that away to not offend the audience? I say “of course not”, but it is what I do hear in a lot of music these days, be it jazz, pop, or contemporary composed. Especially in music, abstract by nature, it seems that a purely aesthetic approach now rules about everything.

Here comes my residency. I can’t think of a better place to think over these issues than in the Van Doesburghuis! Architect (and painter, writer, poet, theoretician, etc) Theo van Doesburg was the founder of the art movement De Stijl. And he was a radical promoter of modern art. His goal as an artist was to accomplish a more ‘universal’, a more ‘monumental’ art, by skipping the representation (even if it were cubist) of the nature around us, by ignoring the personal emotional approach, and instead going for a direct intense experience of the image of the painting. Surfaces, and lines that were in a tense balance, would make you feel connected to a bigger universe. His mate Piet Mondriaan became world famous with this radical approach to art. Van Doesburg was as a theoretician very influential on many art movements; he even redefined Bauhaus in the direction where it became enormously successful. But he died prematurely in 1931.

Van Doesburg was a radical, and I am not. Van Doesburg proposed a structuralist modernist movement, that achieved great heights, but now seems to be almost dead, except maybe in some specialized festivals. And with the current developments in media and social media, it seems that even much more acceptable genres like jazz are being wiped out by a numb mainstream, soon to be produced by computers instead of human artists. Can I secretly conclude that art – as far as a larger audience is concerned – might be in a small crisis?

Of course, avant-garde art has always had difficulties reaching an audience, but the structure of the art community, with reviewers, magazines, newspapers, and festivals always created some means of survival. But this structure has in a large amount disappeared. At least in the Netherlands, it has. Maybe in other countries, the process is slower, but it does not mean it is not happening. Modern data technology is imposing whole new laws here. Does that mean that meaningful or adventurous art will disappear as well?

In the magical surroundings of this house, I wish to start a discussion with my new friend Theo van Doesburg, about these questions: “What the heck went wrong with modernist art?” and “Is there a solution?” Of course, we can shout “We need more education”, and it is true, but is that really going to happen? I do not think there are these kinds of easy solutions. I think there is a whole conglomerate of interdependent things to take care of. I can almost guarantee that I will not have clear solutions in four months. But I am willing to have this discussion in my head, based on what I read in Doesburg’s writings, and my responses to that, and based on my experiences with the French music professionals (in France, certainly the deterioration has not advanced as far as in the Netherlands). And I am going to share it with you, and of course, I am curious to read what you have to say about it (though I cannot guarantee that I am going to react to it: I have to do quite some compositional work here as well 🙂

If you wish to follow my adventures – and in between follow this discussion – then do subscribe to my newsletter, where I will post these blogs every couple of days or so.

In the next blog: what did I actually do the last days?

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