Maison Moderne recording in Paris at Maison Van Doesburg blog #5

by stevenkamperman on 28/01/2023

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

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