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“The classics were relevant in their era, but they can't represent the tensions of today”

Wim Mertens, on piano, accompanied by violin and cello.
Wim Mertens, on piano, accompanied by violin and cello. / PIET GOETHALS
  • “The Spanish audience has been crucial for the development of my music,” acknowledges the Belgian pianist, who will play at the Teatro Cervantes on 22 June

  • Wim Mertens Composer, countertenor, pianist y musicologist

His philosophy has been clear from the beginning, ever since the release of his first acclaimed compositions: For Amusement Only, Struggle for Pleasure and Maximizing the Audience. Wim Mertens (Neerpelt, 1953) has experimented with rhythms and melodies since the 1980s and his objective has always remained intact: to connect with those sitting on the other side of his piano.

The Belgian composer, musician, countertenor and musicologist will meet his Malaga audience once again on 22 June at Teatro Cervantes, where he is set to open this year's edition of the Terral Festival.

Spain is an essential touring stop for you. Do you feel a special connection with the Spanish public?

I think that finding an audience, people to join me on the road, was primordial for me in the 80s. As a young composer, it was very important for me to get feedback. At first, this didn't happen for me in Belgium, but instead in Italy and Spain. In a sense, the Spanish audiences have been crucial for me and the development of my music.

You've always thought about your audience and how they will experience and enjoy your music. Do you think that some composers of contemporary music tend to be more introspective?

In my opinion, music should always have a connection with its own epoch. It is a challenge to translate the events of today using musical means. Music has its own inner law, it will never capitulate for verbal language. It has to be played again and again. It has a practical and a theoretical part and I try to give them the same importance. What happened in the 70s and the 80s was that composers themselves wanted to be musicians too, so we are very closely connected to this kind of practice, doing, playing, performing.

How do you think your audience connects with your music?

I've been very lucky in the fact that my music also attracts younger people. There has always been change and development in the composition of the audience. In a more general way, I now understand more clearly that it is always the audience that determines the composition, the score. That is something I did not understand at the beginning, but now I think I see what the role of the audience can be, why musicians want to perform in front of an audience. At the very last instance, the moment of performance, the audience will give a piece determination.

You're coming to Malaga with your latest project, the Cran Aux Oeufs trilogy. In publishing such an extensive work at a time when sales of CDs and vinyl are plummeting in favour of streaming, do you feel that you're going against the grain? What is your opinion of the streaming phenomenon?

I think it is something we should try to use in a positive way. For many very young composers, it's a very interesting tool, an interesting approach. You are able to present new work, without any material complications. At the same time, in my case, we continue to produce the CDs and we are still quite successful. The two approaches can be used at the same time. A project like Cran Aux Oeufs is also interesting, in that you still have this physical object of the triple CD, each part referring to a situation in society. It is something I have called 'music fiction', how music can speak about cultural or political phenomena. Music has to be in service of an explicit verbal content.

The first part of the trilogy is dedicated to present-day Europe. In 2015, you spoke about a 'crisis of values', even before the Brexit vote. What do you think of the current situation in Europe?

I have actually composed a piece explicitly about the problem of Brexit, but I will release that at a later date. Charakterscetch, the first part of the trilogy, deals with values, in culture, in politics and especially in the new situation that Europe entered about, five, ten or fifteen years ago. It used to be very important to describe what we were feeling and experiencing. This was the only historical reference that was accepted. Now we are in a new situation: Authority is no longer accepted by young people, by media organisations. We can call this a crisis, but I see more of the positive characteristics of this new evolution. We are permanently posing the questions: “Who is saying what? Who is speaking?”

Have you ever found it difficult to resist the passing musical fashions of the moment?

This isn't really a problem for me. I can only compose this sort of music, there are no other possibilities for me, I have no choice but to compose this music.

Moving past genre

Would you say that your music has shed divisions of genre?

That is one of the conditions. If I decided on genre and said I want to write in this or that genre, it would be néfaste [French for 'disastrous'].

Could experimental music ever become as popular as pop?

As I said before, music has to be played again and again, in the presence of an audience. It is exactly this element of play that is related to taking risks and dealing with chance. We are very far away from the avant garde music of the 50s and 60s, when the connection with the audience was problematic.

In order to understand contemporary music like yours, should audiences familiarise themselves with the classics; Bach, Beethoven and Mozart?

That wouldn't hurt, but it is not a condition. Music should have the capacity to allow listeners who do not know [the classics] to connect. These composers were very relevant in their own era, but their rhythms and the materials they are using cannot represent the tensions, small and great, that we have today in our own society. It is up to the composer to detect, integrate and present this, to allow people living today to understand, without really understanding.

If you were to go to a concert hall to listen to music, would you prefer to hear the classics or contemporary composers?

It depends. You can easily combine. But I listen to the older music in a museum context, but it cannot give me the same strong nuances of my own musical experience in 2018.