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, photo by Jean-Michel Bale

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.


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

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