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04-05-2021

Interview with Frank Nuyts

We would like to introduce you to the Belgian composer Frank Nuyts. Frank is one of the most renowned composers in Belgium and has written an extensive oeuvre including 5 symphonies, 18 piano sonatas and a lot of chamber music with the piano in the central role. The piano sonatas in particular are all works of art and an asset to the piano literature.
Frank studied chamber music, percussion and composition at the Royal in Ghent. Frank writes, as he himself says, in a "complex simplicity". His musical textures are clear but without shying away from 20th century expressionism. With harmonies again based on tri-tonic relationships. In short, an extremely original, transparent and honest sound in the classical music world. We asked Frank some questions. 

Your composers career begins with Lucien Goethals' invitation to study composition with him. Goethals is known as an innovator in the field of composition. What was it like and to what extent did his vision on composing determine your current style?
It is true that during my conservatory studies I was not at all attracted to the "Belgian neo-classical school" of composing. I was young, and I couldn't find myself in a style that refered to a world I didn't want to have anything to do with. Certainly, because I already felt then that "they" misunderstood Stravinsky’s so-called neo-classicalism: you do not make "classical forms" with a style based on a modernist form of montage.
When I quite accidentally heard an electronic piece by Lucien Goethals on classical radio, I was immediately sold. Immediately went to the IPEM in Ghent, climbed to the top floor where Lucien usually sat composing, and presented him my previously written pieces. Lucien was not impressed. Actually, blamed me for what I blamed the composition teachers at the conservatory. And immediately drew me into Webern's camp, an influence that - although one might not think and or hear so immediately - continues to this day. And with Lucien I immediately learned a way to consider blocks of time as the first work material. Not notes, or "themes", but a way to generate permutations of pieces of time (varying in length according to Fibonacci sequences), and only then start thinking about what might belong in them. When I later started reading Cage's books, this method has increasingly refined, until now actually, although I now deal with it much more intuitively.

You started with percussion and chamber music. To what extent has this training influenced composing for piano and your writing style?
Here, too, the influence of Goethals and the great modernists of my youth can be discerned. The insight that rhythm was NOT an ostinato. That rhythm is mainly pieces of music, of unequal length and spread over time. And that you don't have to hear barlines. After ten years of composing post-serial I - and Ligeti who then did the same thing, although I didn't know this at the time - started looking for other ways to free the rhythm from too strict meters. And strangely enough, I actually ended up at both The Police with their virtuoso "white reggae" and Schumann, with shifting the heavy count in the most unlikely places. Lucien was actually not happy with that evolution. Although the short piece "Rastapasta" meant for me the start of my "own" path: A title that says it all.

How does a new work take shape in your hands? Do you start with some kind of roadmap?
I cannot compose a work before having devised a concept around the questions that a new composition entails. It is as if I have to build a relay system in my head through which all my ideas for the work to be composed, have to pass. Which means that I cannot use old sketches for a new work.
In that sense, my "method" is more like the quest of plastic artists who do "research" into what exactly can characterize the new work to be made.

I often also use non-musical sources, which is why I always told my composition students that you cannot compose new music without filling yourself with books day in, day out - fiction and non-fiction, theater, film, essays, basically everything what life has to offer. In that deluge of information, you then begin to search for that which begins to resonate with that indeterminate desire that began to arise in you. With that you start to design "rules" for yourself that should guide and, above all, limit your inspiration. And paradoxically, once you are sufficiently constrained, you can only then feel free.

You have written a lot of work for piano and your sonatas in particular are really a "labor of love" project. You have consciously chosen this "classic" shape. Does prescribing rules for yourself also give you new possibilities for creativity?
I have indeed written a lot for piano, but this is only a small part of the entire output. The sonatas project started after I temporarily stopped the Hardscore project. Hardscore had been a quest to give that "new style" its own sound. What was implicit in my classical works was made explicit: grooves and drums and synths and Zappaesk percussion were not shunned in this. When it turned out that in times of crossover a real crossover band in Belgium could not find a market, despite the fact that we made five CDs anyway, I decided to get back to "classical" composing.
And this was the start of the sonatas project. I had already written one in 1991, but now it started for real. Immediately with a kind of meta-sonata: 2-3-4 together form one large sonata, a piece of music that lasts almost an hour and a half. I discovered that there are many pianists walking around with a great appetite for new piano music. And also want to invest a lot of time (sometimes even years!). As a result of which I could indulge in the most insane formals and rhythmic experiments, although all still fitting in a reasonably post-tonal idiom, with the influence of the insights gained in Hardscore. Each sonata has a subtitle, which unemphatically suggests where I got my inspiration for that specific work. If you look at the last six sonatas (19-24), you notice that they differ greatly in format. They are therefore composed for very specific personalities. I thank and admire all of them. If more such pianists were to roam our tormented planet, I would almost see a long future for humankind!

How do you prevent that as a teacher of composition at the conservatory of Ghent you steer someone too much in a certain direction instead of stimulating someone's personal creativity?
By looking at their personality. By gauging their true desire, however early it may be. And breaking open that desire, by stimulating them to listen to the still unhatched, the unknown, the unsuspected. To explain to them that all those "strange" things that composers have done in the past (starting with Pirotinus) were also prompted by THEIR confrontation with the inability of the then tradition to realize their desire. And by pointing out that composing is not only about notes. That living, studying and working continuously is the only option to ever feel like a bit of a composer. Although doubt will NEVER go away. In fact, it is inherent in the craft of any true creative.

What do you recommend to a beginning composer?
Keep your ears and eyes open. Study what is necessary, lifelong, but not blindly and a priori: do not see tradition as the only point of reference, because each -ism is the result of an individual need of a predecessor. To put it in a quirky way: every -ism is also implies a conservatism. And work, work, work: 24/7, 12/365, but not immediately on paper or piano or screen. Inexorably sharpen your mind. Continuously expand your reference system. And be damn glad that the proteins that break open in your cortex prevent you from ever getting bored for another day.

How do you keep developing yourself as a composer?
By always going on. I found myself in 1985/86 and see all my works as points on a continuous curve for 36 years now. Where I drove myself into the bushes a few times. Where I quite often have encountered a certain incomprehension (is my music of a complex simplicity, or is it simply complex? Is that tonal-sounding idiom a mockery for the work that is now happening on sound transformations? Isn't that reference to Zappa terribly out of date? Why did I necessarily want to make people's toes move up and down in a classical concert hall? And so on and so on?).
We now live in times where freedom is severely restricted physically. This has led to an explosion of works for me in the last year, both for my new band ‘Beat Love Oracle’, in which I feel for the first time that I am writing a kind of repertoire for a future generation (which even now is, fair is fair) of non-classical musicians, looking for challenges that cannot be addressed in the commercial music landscape. A repertoire that I can actually write down. Drum parts noted down to the last detail, and yet they groove nicely despite their idiosyncratic approach.
At the same time, I now write a lot of chamber music. People who organize small concerts and then stream them. Covid-free music: a symphony for two oboes, just to name one example, is the last finished project: 25 minutes of hard work for two musicians. Will I ever hear it? Maybe… If not: it fits my curve described above.

Why did you and your group Hardscore opt for a more accessible writing style that appeals to many people?
I have already explained above that it was never my initial intention to "just" compose more accessible. If you want to make a certain rhythmic complexity comprehandable perceptually, you have to adjust certain parameters (the early expressionists did the same thing, but differently "). As a result, if I came up with note aggregations that appeared to be "more accessible", that is a consequence and not a choice. It's what happens to it that makes a piece. And I must honestly say that I have had to experience that the music of Hardscore actually met even more resistance than my so-called classic works. I started up Hardscore again in 2013 for a large project entitled Carbon Fixation. Made another 600-page score, both notes and lyrics. It all rehearsed with the eight top musicians. Conceived an accompanying film. And finally, after three years of intensive rehearsals, being able to perform it TWICE live. With beautiful musicians? Accessible? Not for concert promoters anyway. But I continue and do not look back.

‘Beat Love Oracle’ seems to be a bit more successful now, although we have been rehearsing with that band for 5 years now. But the smaller line-up and the fact that I did not compose a classical singing voice in the whole, perhaps makes it feasible for a slightly larger group of people, more pleasant. We still mainly play on jazz stages, although it is not jazz at all. Although it is all almost even more virtuoso than in Hardscore… Too bad for the musicians of that previous band who gave so much and received so little. Besides my many notes then.

How do you see the future of the musical landscape, will the composer ultimately have the last word? And what is the role of the publisher in this?
In recent years I have felt that there was a huge increase in the number of people who want to compose classical music. Although many young people initially associate "classical composing" with film composition, I can assure you that once you have brought them into contact with Cage's way of thinking about music, many more doors will open in their minds. There is still a lot of work to be done.

A few years ago, I was sitting in the train next to a CEO of a large Paris company. When I opened my laptop to prepare for a rehearsal in Amsterdam, she asked me if I was a musician. More specifically what instrument I played. I answered that I play drums and piano, but that my main activity is composing. And her disarmed question was, "Are not all composers already dead?" "

We also publish here in our small non-profit organization, although the paper score, just like the CD, has almost become an "afterthought". You stream music right? Scores in PDF, you don't have to pay for that, because that costs nothing, does it?

Eventually it will probably become clear to people that having a physical thing in your life turns out to be much more valuable than a code or a digital product, which after some time cannot be opened anyway, or that you have permanently lost due to a crash of your computer (or because of what you can still experience in our current digitized world ...)

I've been collecting scores all my life, which has given me hours of fun and information.
We must of course keep up with the times. But a publisher that comes along and publishes those nice gadgets, he helps the musical world move forward.

I can tell you that all my students now agree with that attitude. That's why I can sometimes get angry at the fact that "big names" in the popular music world (as I recently heard from the frontman of "Coldplay") dare to say that they are so glad they never learned solfège. Because then they would never have been able to create their masterpieces so intuitively.

How could they know that? Seems to me the same as Gwyneth Paltrow who preaches against vaccinations, and thereby plummeted the vaccine against Lyme disease. "Not being plagued with ignorance" is not something to be proud of. So let's say "yes" to publishers. Against people who, like beavers, restore a landscape, often tainted by commercial greed.

Why did you choose to offer your music through the Sonolize platform?
Actually, the answer is contained in the many words above. A digital platform has become indispensable in our world. Making things known and offering them at a reasonable price is a democratic attitude that must be encouraged. Even cheer.

It will probably not be an easy course for Sonolize. The big players mainly aim for self-preservation. You choose the "Great Preservation" of a cultural artifact. And a valuable cultural body of thought. So I can only say a big "thank you" and, above all, wish you discouragement to keep going on a road with many barriers and deep potholes in the road.

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