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Composers Portrait series: Interview with Roderik de Man

 

 

 

Interview with Roderik de Man

by Francesca Clements (February 2013, unedited interview)

 

 

 

What are your influences? Are you influenced by pop or other electronic music?
I listen to a very wide repertoire of music apart from classical western music, and it must influence me, absolutely. But I am not looking for influences, and I am not the kind of person who says I admire Mahler so much, I admire Bach so much. Admiration to me is something, which is quite static, you are admiring and not doing anything else. I do have a lot of respect for many composers whilst I do not even have to like their music. There are a lot of pieces by Stockhausen, which obviously must have influenced me because I studied them. Stockhausen was a great composer and inventor. Berio made a wonderful piece with his wife, singer Cathy Berberian and he is a very musical composer, it is always music and always has a flow, he is an important composer to know. The composer I studied with, Dick Raaijmakers, is a very strange composer and very conceptual. He really surprised me because he would play pieces for me at a very loud volume, of very extreme composers. In the beginning that was very confusing because when I was out on the street again I thought, is this music? How does it connect to all the other music I know? Although it was confusing, at the same time it was very good because it made you think of the infinite possibilities. Cage is also an influence, not so much that you try to copy him but he loosens your way of thinking. I have also listened to a lot of electronic music. I was in Bourges, several times, it used to be an important festival, it no longer exists due to subsidy cuts.  I have been there a couple of times and then you have the chance not only to hear a lot of electronic music but also to meet the composers and ask them about their works, look at the studios and talk about their techniques.

 

How do you start creating a new Interdisciplinary project such as Pandora’s Twist which involves electronics, dance and video?
Usually a project starts with a brain storming session together with Jorge Isaac; Jorge usually has a lot of ideas about the projects. Together we think about the whole project, and then the separate disciplines like the dance and video. Then we start working together. The dancers can only start to work if they have something to go on, so in practically all of the projects that we did the music was probably the first thing that we began with. If I know very clearly what kind of piece it is going to be, I start right away composing bits of music. When the piece is finished I give it to Jorge, with the electronics and then the dancers can start to work. Dancers call it creating, they listen to the music, and then whilst practicing and trying out the space they design the dance part and the piece grows brick by brick.

 

What about the relationship between the video and the music, do you have a lot of thoughts about the images?
I may have a lot of thoughts but the video maker is going to have to do it. Marcel Wierckx is someone we worked with many times, and he had very interesting ideas for the project Marionette. I commissioned him to make the video. Marcel used a very interesting principle that he had used before. You can also see it on You Tube, Black Noise White Silence where the sound creates the images. By using this technique he achieved a very organic connection. It is very different if you first make an abstract movie and then try to embellish it with the electronic sounds and very often it does not come together. He used that technique with Marionette using my electronic part. The electronic part actually generated the images and also the speed, the frequency and the intensity of the images. It was wonderful to see that it really came together. I like it very much when in a piece at certain moments comes together and at certain moments diverges like counterpoint, the layers should really have their own life but also have their unity together.

 

How in Pandora’s Twist do all of the elements relate to one another?
You will find the music is quite aggressive at some points and quite rough compared to other pieces and that is because of the idea of Pandora’s box. Everybody knows the story, lots of terrible things came out. At the end there is only one positive thing because the only thing that comes out at the end is hope. So the idea is not a very happy positive one. Because of this image I decided to go back to the days when equipment that you used to show pictures made noise, like  projectors. I wanted to have a noise that suggested something to do with projecting images. With beamers you only hear the cooling when it is a loud beamer but in general you do not hear anything anymore. When you use a projector to project a  slide you hear each slide. So there is a sound that belongs to the action of projecting images and that is the link I found. I used very old recordings of very old projectors creating rhythmical loops, because for a dancer you need impulses. Dancers can also move to some kind of ambient sound but at some point they need to be triggered into movement.

The dancer in that production was very good, he was really an inventor, he was wrapped in paper and made very suggestive sounds which nobody notices until he started to move. Those were also very creative additions done by the dancer, created on the spot when you start rehearsing. It is a visual thing, you need things to happen. At the end the dancer crawls back into the TV set. There is a lot of political garbage on the television, people telling you how wonderful it is going to be. I used these elements too and they were quite loud and aggressive, the idea is that the piece will give you a lot of suggestions on where to look.

 

What about the composition itself, do you compose the music first, or the electronics first or do you compose everything together?
In all my pieces, whatever kind of piece it is, be it a piece like this or purely an instrumental piece it is always counterpoint. So the number of elements are composed simultaneously, that is also a principle.  You hear pieces  where the electronic part is wonderful, but often you hear the struggle to get some nice notes underneath it. You have to create things in a very organic manner, one feeds the other.

 

Why use electronics what does it add for you?
It adds very much. I always say with the electronics and especially in combination with live instruments you can use the best of both worlds. It is like a palette where you can make your own colors and you are in control of the sounds and the marriage between the live instruments and the electronics. That is something that I feel very much attracted to. I knew one composer, a very good friend of mine Ton Bruynel, a Dutch pioneer who died already quite some time ago. He always said we need a live element in electronic music. In the early electronic concerts, you would come into a hall with some kind of lights which would be blue or red, two loud speakers and a little palm tree or a vase with flowers in the corner. Everybody would be sitting there, as my friend described it, looking at their shoe laces. Something was missing, so he started writing his pieces with live players. I was married to Annelie de Man, she was a harpsichordist and I wrote pieces for her with electronics. I agreed that you need a player on the stage. You need the interaction between the player and the electronics. With the electronics you can use the techniques to magnify and put the sound of the instrument under a microscope, so you can expand the instrument and go far beyond the normal compass. But you can still feel it is part of the instrument if you do it well.

I am always looking for a way to look at how you can show the hidden qualities of the instrument. Let the instrument do what it can do best and let the electronics do what it can do best and do not use the electronics to imitate the instrument because that will always be less.

 

What software do you use?
Lets say I craft the electronics like I would craft the score. So I use mainly pro tools, and I have a huge amount of plug ins that can do almost anything so I really compose the sound. I do not like using something that you put the sound in one end and something comes out the other end. I like to have control.

 

Are you using organic sounds or electronic sounds?
I use both organic and electronic sounds. At the moment I am writing an organ piece, I have written several organ pieces so I know the instrument. I sometimes also use synthetic sounds, but try to create families of sounds that really fit the organ. Sometimes I use organ sounds but I cannot always run off to a church to record a few notes from the organ. So I try to make them electronically in such a way they become one family.

 

How do you think the electronic scene has changed from the past?
The scene has completely changed. In the past older composers who were not specialized in electronic music had an assistant. Usually they wore a white or grey coat and the composers would say do this or do that. Now of course that has completely changed because you do not actually need a studio and an assistant anymore, all you need is a laptop and a few friends who give you interesting software. Which I think is a very good development because it is much more democratic, anyone who wants to start with electronics can do so almost for free. I was in Indonesia doing a project with people who had never had any experience with electronic music. We downloaded a very simple programme called Audacity. It has all the elements and you can do all the basic stuff like reverse etc. I let them experiment with simple sounds that they recorded themselves, and we talked about how to build a composition and off they went. They only needed about an hour of instruction and some of them made wonderful pieces.

The ideal thing about electronic music is that you can use any sound that you can hear.

 

What do you think are the next steps in electronic music and in your opinion what will the future of electronic music look like.
Well I asked exactly the same question in the 60s to my professor in the conservatory, because it was so confusing. His answer was that it is not going anywhere, it is like an oil spill and it is completely unpredictable, it will expand but in what direction is highly unpredictable. That was then of course, now we know a little bit more about what direction electronic music will take. There are many projects all over the world taking place which use new media, people all over the world working with the same composition techniques at the same time, the only problem is the time differences. Films are being made this way right now everybody contributes their vision on the world and it is blended into a whole thing. The great difference between then and now is the accessibility, it is also dangerous because everybody is pretty much exposed, think of you tube or twitter, the negative side is that sometimes it is almost snatched from your own hands before you know it and you find it back on the internet. Especially in the creative process there must be some time for re-thinking before it is worldwide. There was also someone that said he was very enthusiastic about ensemble Black Pencil. He said that this is the way that new music is going, because the musical community is completely internationalized. You can see it daily when you look around the Conservatorium, everybody brings their own culture with them and their own influences and that is a big advantage. It can also be a disadvantage as it may also have a diluting effect, and loose identity.

 

In terms of compositions with instrument and electronics do you think it is going to change much?
Yes its going to change, for instance you have seen this with people using max/msp patches, to interact with electronics. That is going to develop, technically the idea is already there, and very often there has been a wish to have electronics that are flexible, that will not only go along with the player but also anticipate or improvise with the player. The interactions between the electronics and live playing will become more and more refined and also more and more accessible. There was a very important guy here in Holland, sadly he died not too long ago Michel Waisvisz of Steim. He was saying it is getting to be much too complex and was working on friendly interfaces. Interfaces that could be played and studied like an instrument and people have picked up on that and are developing much more user-friendly interfaces.

It is much cheaper to have one guy behind the keyboard than a whole orchestra or band. In game music they use a technique called fattening up, adding very low sine tones adding to the already massive orchestral sounds so it sounds bigger. Electronics sneak there way into the former classical combinations and that is also a very interesting development, game music used to be all bleeps, but now in order to give it more body and status they add John Williams like music for large symphonic combinations, especially in the more expensive games. All the sounds in the games are electronic and that has become a separate profession, a sound designer. That is like an oil spill it is developing here and there. There are also very irritating developments, like a Christmas tree plying 24/7 wrongly harmonised Christmas songs. When I give my grandchildren ordinary toys they always look for where the battery or switch is. Now our cars talk back to us, and that will still get worse but at the same time it makes it much easier for people to accept anything that is electronic because it is apart of daily life.

 

In your opinion how has sound changed and developed in electronic music?
If I make a purely musical piece I try to make it into one thing and also to soften the borders so to speak so at some points you do not really know who is doing what. That is a development which started especially when we had digital sound. In the old days when we used tape you always had tape hiss which was very difficult to hide. When a passage was very soft you would always hear the tape. Now you do not hear anything, the speakers are completely quite so you can also let a sound appear suddenly from nowhere and that is very interesting. Another thing that is still in the development stage is sound projection and that will become a part of the whole scene. There is for instance a very complicated speaker systems in a square. There are many loud speakers and the ideal is that you sort of have a matrix and you say I want to project this sound exactly there and I want this sound to move from here to there. I have heard more or less successful experiments in that way you could almost compare it to projecting light.

The system was very sensitive. I was on a commission for an exam and someone wanted to show the system. The people in the jury were not all that technical and opened a window which accidentally unplugged a cable and crashed the system. It took so long to start up the whole system, that they had to do it in stereo. That was a big disappointment.

Jorge is a fine example of someone who really knows how to build in all kinds of elements into the electronics. I never had a concert with him where something went wrong or was not fixed in a moment. That is really the kind of musician you need.  In the future you will see and hear a lot of pieces where sound as well as video projection is going to be all over the place, and I do not know if I will still experience it, but there will also be holographic projection. Its too difficult now, they can already do it but its too expensive, they already have video screens which you can role up like a little mat. You could make an interesting theatrical piece having all these screens all over the place, imagine what you could do.

The problem with all these things is how to integrate these electronic concepts into instrumental music. You hear many examples, it is ok and it is nice what they do, but it is not integrated and it remains someone playing here and someone doing the electronics there. It is really rare when all the elements come together.

 

Do you think it is difficult for people to experience music which involves electronics and other disciplines?
I composed a big piece with the Asko in muziekgebouw. There was a very large screen over the ensemble. I worked with Arnoud Nordegraaf, the piece is called Inside Out and the ensemble is also shown in a completely different way on the screen. Many people said ‘I like the music’ or ‘I like the video’ but ‘I can only experience them as separate entities and not as a whole’. Combining the two seems to be difficult for most of us.
Jorge also takes his inspiration from the game world. What we are looking for is an experience, which is purely musical and abstract. There are very interesting developments which go way beyond our traditional systems. In Japan they do experiments by sending waves in to the brain and you hear and see directly, but that will be a future development where we might have a completely new way of experiencing music and images.

Have you ever heard about subliminal messages in movies? They found that if you have messages very quickly between what you see on the screen you can influence people. For example “drink Coca Cola”, after that consumption went up dramatically. Perhaps one day there will also be composers making an opera using these techniques in order to influence their audience whether it is allowed or not.

Together with Jorge and his Visisonor Foundation, I experimented in a large production called ‘Mensa Secunda’ with cooking smells already, because it was about a master chef. There were smells of herbs that went into the audience and it worked fantastically well. Smell is another sense we also used it in the ‘Sensorial Box’ project. A smelling machine with all kinds of smells which were computer triggered. People enjoyed it very much because it was a complete experience: sound, smells and even temperature differences.

 

 

 

Francesca Clements (b.1987, Ipswich) is a recorder player currently based in Amsterdam. She has given performances throughout England, Holland, Belgium and Germany. With her ensembles she has appeared on the BBC, dutch TV show Vrije Geluiden and Radio 4 in Holland.

 

Francesca has received a number of prizes including the Birmingham Conservatoire recorder prize, the Rollason music award and was also a finalist in the ERTA Consort Competition. She has also been supported by the Wolfson Fund and the Annie Tranmer Charitable Trust.

 

Since September 2010 Francesca is continuing her studies at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam with Jorge Isaac . She joined the Royal Wind Music in 2012 and has recently formed a duo with Accordionist Erica Roozendaal. Francesca has always had an interest with community music and currently works with the Memorable Moments Foundation in Amsterdam giving performances to youngsters aged 0-4.

francescaclements.com

 

 

Check out as well Roderik de Man's video interview talking about the Recorder and his collaboration with VisiSonor's Artistic Director Jorge Isaac. Interviewed by Walter van Hauwe (December 2010, Amsterdam) after the premiere of the interdisciplinary performance 'Pandora's Twist' for Music, Dance, Theatre, Video and live electronics.