Q&A with Germaine Sijstermans, Koen Nutters, and Reinier van Houdt about Circles, Reeds, and Memories
“I see scores ideally as invitations to explore a world, gather experiences there and then start balancing the music with the intuitions of your body and mind.” – Reinier van Houdt
Yuko Zama (YZ): First off, who initiated this trio project?
Koen Nutters (KN): I initiated this project. Reinier and I had worked on a Cornelius Cardew project a few years ago in which he played (amongst other things) the harmonium while I had 2 harmonas in the space. Germaine and I have played together many times in different projects like the DNK Ensemble and my band: The Names. So, I thought clarinet(s) and two portable organs (one electric, one hand-driven) would go together very well.
YZ: When I listened to this live recording of your trio, I was deeply moved by the way that the three of you maintained a great balance as a trio throughout the concert, perfectly in sync with each other. Also, the three pieces feel so organically connected to each other. The concentration and harmony of your trio were so impressive that I was completely immersed and hardly bothered about the noise from the audience. Had the three of you ever played as a trio before?
KN: We had not, no. But we are all aware of and interested in each other's recent activities. And there are many cross-connections, like we've all played quite a lot of music by Wandelweiser-related composers. I don't know if Germaine and Reinier worked together before but I have played a lot with both of them in quite varied projects.
YZ: Was there a common theme that you discussed earlier that you wanted to realize in each of your own compositions?
KN: We did not discuss a theme beforehand. But I think we are all doing things in a similar direction, be it in slightly different ways. This is another reason why I thought we would work well as a trio of composer-performers.
YZ: In the past, you have performed and recorded several other versions of the piece A Piece with Memories (2017) with different musicians in different instrumentations. In this live performance with Reinier and Germaine, were there any particular discoveries, inspirations or surprises that you had?
KN: I am happy that this piece is versatile enough to work with quite different instrumentations. I think we managed to really keep a sense of suspended time in this version which is something I secretly aim for even though it's not stated so specifically in the score. Here's another version played by my old Berlin ensemble: Konzert Minimal which is a bit more active and varied because of the instrumentation.
YZ: This may be related to the question above, but how did you feel about this live concert? Do you think that the location and/or the time influenced the trio's performance in any way?
KN: It's hard to say, I think all of these things played a part in what was happening in this concert. But I think it's mostly the fact that we've all known each other's work for quite a while now and feel comfortable trying things out together. You can already notice this with how well the pieces fit together while they also all add something new to the gradient. I can say that having worked with composers like Eva-Maria Houben, Michael Pisaro, and certainly also Antoine Beuger has really opened so many corridors of thought for me. And I think Germaine and Reinier will tell you the same thing. This and just calmly working on our own music without being too bothered to fit it into any specific scene has, at the same time, made us all quite open and ready to engage with each other's music.
YZ: Germaine, in your 2022 interview you told me that your biggest source of inspiration is nature and its workings. Like the other pieces on your album "Betula", this piece Linden evoked in me a soundscape consisting of nature sounds, but also with some more human elements associated with this particular live setting. You also mentioned in your previous interview that "I often strive to provide the players with a sort of biotope for the given, (rather) abstract material to occur, develop and move in an organic way."
In this trio project with Reinier and Koen performing Linden, what discoveries, inspirations or surprises did you have from this live performance?
Germaine Sijstermans (GS): A trio is the smallest possible instrumentation for Linden. There are two types of material the musicians can engage in, with one of those being melodic material, in which the players have a lot of freedom in (i.a.) timing. The sense of time in this version is definitely different from all the previous versions I've played in or heard, which always had an instrumentation of wind and string instruments.
I enjoy (performing) music that moves, to an extent or completely, with an organic unpredictability. I was enjoying this aspect of Reinier's and Koen's playing very much during the concert. It really captivated my attention all throughout and it was a joy to engage with as a player.
YZ: How did you feel about this live concert? Do you think that the place (Heerlen, Limburg) and/or the time (after the pandemic?) influenced the performance of the trio and the concert situation with the particular audience in any way?
GS: As I've stated before, I believe the physical context of a performance always influences the players and the experience for all present.
By the time of our concert, events had already been happening again (without any restrictions) for a while in the Netherlands. I think a bigger influence came from the time of year. We were very close to the shortest day of the year and the weather had been typically Dutch – cold, windy, rainy, and grey – for too long already. It's a time of the year that most people around here just want to get through or over with, on to something new or different. I feel that the concert was a welcome (for some maybe unexpected) change of attention and perceiving. We had a very attentive audience that was listening and concentrating with us. The chapel space the concert took place in is very well-suited for this kind of music, in acoustics, size and possibilities for creating a connection between the players and listeners. It's always a joy to play there and I'm happy and grateful that the organizers of the concert series strive to program experimental music alongside their usual (jazz) concerts.
YZ: Reinier, you told me that your piece Harmonic Circles (2022) is a trio version of your 2020 solo piece skies waves trails, which was included on your previous album 'drift nowhere past' (elsewhere 021-1). You wrote the original solo piece during the earlier pandemic (lockdown) period, but when you wrote this trio version two years later for this concert, what kind of thoughts crossed your mind?
Reinier van Houdt (RVH): To be honest, before our trio I had never written any scores for others to play. I have always worked directly on tape, using recording devices to collect materials already out there or materials I generate by conceptual experiments.
From early on I had problems with this conventional idea of a score being an exact notation of how to reproduce a pre-existing original in the composer's mind. It limits the musician to the position of mere music-player, an executor of a (often dead) composer's will. Where's the freedom in that?
Whether in contemporary - or in 'authentic' - classical music practice, I think there are essential things that escape notation, things that a score can only invite musicians to explore the possibilities of. I don't see a point in pretending to know what a composer meant or how music was supposed to be performed in its time. In a sense a composer is already an interpreter: of the world, his own ears, his complex of impulses, of the sounds he 'discovers' in their fluid state. The difference of original/copy has no relevance here and as a performer/composer I would want to keep that fluidity somehow. For me it all comes down to subverting this hierarchy of composer-score-musician-listener into a field where these positions in some ways are interchangeable. So, I see scores ideally as invitations to explore a world, gather experiences there and then start balancing the music with the intuitions of your body and mind. A long process that I just as well go through with studying a piece by Bach as well as for instance a piece by Jürg Frey.
YZ: Through the process of studying and performing the works of other composers, how did you come to define the kind of music you wanted to create for yourself?
RVH: During my music studies a composer was seen simply as someone who writes scores. For myself I was still figuring out how to compose without a score, already collecting tons of materials with random taping since high school. My main reference was the underground music of the early 80’s, the do-it-yourself mentality connected to it, the working with low-fi gear and whatever was available from your own environment. I was thinking about a music that seemed pointless and impossible to notate or to translate to a performer.
So, academically I was nowhere and in that environment it was bad for my confidence. It seemed you needed a system first before you could even think about composing. This started to change when I discovered the music of Giacinto Scelsi (the music I have actually performed the most in my life as a pianist), Morton Feldman, John Cage, Luc Ferrari, all of whom I met in that period - music without a steady system, going by contingency, intuition, listening. Then finally getting to know Robert Ashley in the 90’s was what gave me the courage and belief to just start creating pieces without being held back by a notion of good or bad.
YZ: How do you compose your solo piece like skies waves trails on your album 'Drift Nowhere Past'? And how did you develop it into the trio version Harmonic Circles?
RVH: I generate material by creating differences instead of identities: I repeat, displace and decontextualize sounds, often by recording situations, listening back and trying to bring out what my hallucinating ear discovers in hidden differences, tendencies and possibilities. Then I bring together recordings in separate tracks to explore combinations in a live situation. In this way I get to know materials and their combinatorial possibilities more in depth before I fix something in a version for a release.
When we started our trio I felt challenged to add a written piece to Germaine's and Koen's ensemble-pieces. I recognized it as an opportunity to extend my way of working to writing, to create yet another version of a piece I released on my album ‘Drift Nowhere Past’.
I decided to expand on the idea of harmony by doubling or separating chords and isolating tones out of the tone clouds. The piece creates interferential microtones by combining stable sustained tones with slow pulses made by wind/reed instruments like harmonium and clarinet: in a blown pulse there's always a microtonal difference between the softest and loudest point. This going back and forth creates a strange richness. Setting this for a live situation made the piece come alive in a new way bringing out these specific possibilities of interference more than in my previous version.
YZ: How did you feel about this piece Harmonic Circles when you actually played it in a trio setting with Germaine and Koen? Do you think that the place and/or the time influenced the performance in any way?
RVH: Although it was our first concert as a trio, it felt like we have been playing together for years. I think it's because the three of us have developed similar musical intuitions by dealing with many different types of open experimental scores over the years. It sounds a bit obvious maybe, but we have developed an ability to give attention not just to the middle of a sound but also the beginning, the end and the silences between. I think the past covid years, although a dark period for independent musicians like us, have actually made our ears even more attuned to listening.
(Interview conducted between February – March 2023)
In December 2022 the trio of Germaine Sijstermans, Koen Nutters, and Reinier van Houdt had a concert at the Savelberg Chapel, a small church in Heerlen, Limburg (NL), where they played three pieces, one written by each: Linden (Sijstermans), A Piece with Memories (Nutters), and Harmonic Circles (van Houdt). This release is a live recording of that performance.
Germaine Sijstermans - clarinet, bass clarinet, voice
Koen Nutters - harmona organ, voice, objects, sine tones, field recordings
Reinier van Houdt - indian harmonium, voice, pre-recorded organs, tapes