Steven Kamperman at Maison van Doesburg Paris Blog #6

by stevenkamperman on 07/03/2023

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.

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