Joep Beving: “I use the vertical, because its sound matches my music better than a grand”.
The Dutch composer and pianist Joep Beving (Doetinchem, 9 January 1976) performed on 23 and 24 November in Spain, first at Barts in Barcelona and then at the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid. These were not his first visits to Spain, but they were his first concerts in our country, in which he showed why he has been worthy of being signed by the most prestigious record label in the world, Deutsche Grammophon, for which last summer he released Trilogy, a luxurious limited edition vinyl box set of his first three long-playing records: Solipsism (one Lp), Prehension (two Lp’s) and Henosis (three Lp’s), plus a seventh Lp consisting of alternate versions of some of his pieces and other unreleased studio material.
Beving has made a name for himself in a short time within that musical current of which Nils Frahm, Max Richter or Ólafur Arnalds also form part: creators of a music of great beauty that combines neoclassical tints with conceptual approaches born of the minimalism of Philip Glass.
This interview was conducted just a couple of hours before the concert took place at the Auditorio Nacional. All except one question, the last one, which he answered via his Instagram account.
When did happen that wrist injury that forced you to abandon your piano studies? What grade / year were you in?
It was when I went to the conservatory. I was also studying something else at the university. So I had very little time to practice piano. That was when I was 18, in 1995, in my first year of piano. I learned something there…
Are you still currently affected by this ailment?
Yes. It does it. Actually today is the first day since a long time that I have pain in my arm again. Because I was too enthusiastic last night playing, I play one song which is really a demanding a lot from the arm and if I don’t get the sound that I’m after, I just play harder and harder. And then my arm starts to swell up. So it’s swelling now. So tonight will be tricky. But it’s the the last one, so I will manage.
So… To what extent can you be considered a good pianist? Are you able to play Bach, Chopin…?
I’m definitely not a virtuoso pianist. I’m not technically good. I’m really bad technically. I think my inability –not being so good at the piano– makes that I accept the music that comes out and I don’t want to make it more complex. So I think my inability makes me a good piano placer, because I put a lot of emotion into which I am playing, so I’m more a storytelling than a good piano player.
I admire people that are really good and I wish I would be able to play Bach on that level. But I would have to train every day really hard. And then I’m probably all the way at the bottom, so I would only do it for my own enjoyment. This what I’m doing now. I also started doing only for my own enjoyment or for my own necessity when I started it. But then people wanted me to perform the music as well. But I’m still amazed if I give a show that people pay a ticket to come in and see me perform.
When you started your first album, Solipsism, was when you were almost 40…
How was it possible that it took you so long to realise that you were able to touch people’s heartstrings with your music?
I think because I couldn’t believe it myself and I also, um, I never played that type of music; so it was only around that time that things happened in my life and that I sat behind the piano and that all of a sudden I started playing this type of music. Because I felt I needed to feel something myself, that was and then when I started feeling something myself, I thought, maybe this is not up to me to decide. Maybe I should share this, because maybe other people will have the same benefit or the same effect with it. And so that was relatively laid and I had never really given up on the idea of wanting to do something in music, but I never thought it would be with the piano. But back then it was. It was really the piano that provided the… everything I needed at that time to find some form of comfort and understanding basically. So I don’t know why it took so long, but it it just took so long because I had to crash first. So I crashed first and then, you know, the piano took me out of there.
What was the crash?
Um, like a burn out!
Of your Job?
Yeah. Of my job and the things I was doing. So I was putting a lot of energy on things that I didn’t really believe in and it didn’t give me energy back and I was just sad that I wasn’t finding what I was looking for or what I was desiring on a deeper level. And when a friend of mine dies, a friend who always said, “Never stop, never stop knowing that you’re actually an artist and you’re actually want to make and need to make music”. And then he died, and then I was like, OK, now I have no excuse. No, I have to start believing and I have to start doing it. That was all around the same time.
The titles of your albums refer to philosophical concepts… Which concepts would never find an echo in your music? Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre…?
Solipsism! I mean, my whole trilogy is there to fight solipsism, fight the idea of solipsism. So that has been the starting point, and that still is my main drive to basically practice and make see and make feel that we’re all connected, that we’re all wanting the same and we’re all one consciousness instead of isolated nucleus of existence in individuality.
Other concepts? I’m not very nihilistic though! But I recently started reading up Sartre again, and I discovered that he had other sides to his philosophy as well, but I’m definitely not an expert in the insightful. But, to give the right answer, is definitely solipsism, because the opposite is what I want to do.
I read in an interview you were given a few years ago, which musicians have influenced you the most and which ones are your favourites… and only Mahler and Arvo Pärt coincide. Why do you distinguish between those who have influenced you and your favourites?
Can you explain it to me?
Yes, the list of influences includes Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Chopin, Saite, Radiohead and Mahler. And in the list of favourites, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Mahler, Brahms, Arvo Pärt, Peteris Vasks and Tigran Hamasyan?
Oh, well, that’s probably the moment. I mean, if I asked you, what’s your favorite composer and who influenced there is so much there and it’s how you zoom in on the question. I mean, if I recall moments where I was touched by a particular music or a particular composer or that had an important part in my development, then I know I should say Glass. I should say Keith Jarrett for his style of playing and for linking, for just making beautiful music. Prokofiev was there in my in my teen years when I started to look into classical music and the Third Piano Concerto has been my rock and roll. So to say so that that got me interested in classical music, but I was never fully immersed in it. But there’s just waves and moments in my life that they had an influence and a very strong impact.
The origin of this website is how much I like many of Philip Glass’ works… What has Philip Glass meant to you?
Philip Glass showed me the power of minimalism, the impact of a postponed harmonic change or the impact of overlapping sequences that start to create their own music within the piece, it’s very much like nature. I feel strongly connected to it because I recognize it. I think I was 16: I grew up in a small town and there was one record store, and I just craved something else. And I went through the boxes and then I picked out Philip Glass. I think it was Dance Pieces, I’m not sure, and I took it home and it was like a completely new world. I still feel that way, I still feel that I react the most to that type of beauty although I also became a romantic. But it has shown me that you don’t have to, uh, you just have to look for that particular sensation or you have to look for that, um, small change that gives such a big impact to create music that has legitimacy to exist. And you don’t have to write overly complex or very technical pieces to have value. I also like his use of instrumentation, that’s very fresh and very much… Philip Glass!
And how was the the influence of classical music when you were young instead of rock music?
I was lucky to be in my school where I was studying. So from age 12 to 18, they had a music program. And before that, I was into jazz. And then I took part in the music program in school, which was a lot about music theory and music history, and that’s when we went through the entire history of music. So on a cognitive level, I was introduced to a lot of thinking and a lot of developments within classical music during that course. But out of school, we would go as a small class: we would go to the house of my teacher and we would drink some port and he would sit behind the piano or put on records. And we started to really, you know, learn to feel the music and to understand the music, so that has been very influential in my life, I would say. And my mother is a singer, sings in the choir with beautiful repertoire, and I would go to her recitals and I would hear to play Arvo Part and that has been also very influential, I’d say.
Do you feel you are part of the Dutch tradition of minimalist music? I mean Louis Andriessen, Simeon ten Holt or Jeroen Van Veen?
I think they would kill me (laughs). No I don’t see myself as a serious… I mean, I’m a serious composer as I compose music that I want to listen to but I’m not consciously taking part in the traditional art world or conceptual art world. There’s another Dutch composer, Joep Franssens, I think he’s sixty five by now [on 13 January he turns 67], and he’s not very known and he’s also a minimal composer. He’s fantastic, and I’m pretty sure he is also not really part of that minimal tradition, although his music is clearly. So I’m trying to avoid your question, but I can say that I don’t see myself taking part in that, classical tradition.
Conatus is an album of orchestral versions of some pieces from your first two albums, originally for solo piano. Did you also write the scores for other instruments for that album?
I write it and then I have an orchestrator who puts it on sheet music. I basically write it for all the instruments, and then he will say, “maybe you should give this part not to the viola, but it’s better to give it to the violin and or to the cello”. But so the orchestration, putting it from midi and from my audio recordings into sheet music, is someone else who is doing that.
Trilogy is such an extended condensation of all your career that it sounds like it’s an end point for something. And now I think maybe you have another things for the future.
Yeah, the I’m very much driven by my concept. So, for the trilogy, I had a very strong feeling what I wanted to tell and musically that follow the idea is that I had. So and then I was like, OK, I need to finish this and I need to find maybe a new theme or a new concept. But in the last couple of years, I’ve worked on a film score for a Dutch film, and for a theater project. I wrote something which is more ambient electronic, abstract, also life instrumentation. But now, next year, April, we’ll see the release of a solo piano album where I didn’t ask myself to do anything different than just play what I wanted to hear myself. And so it’s kind of back to the beginning with the knowledge that I have now from the experience from the trilogy. And then I probably will be releasing the theater soundtrack. And then I hope to have two ideas. One is more… song… singer songwriter, song based. I’m not going to sing, but I write songs with vocals.
Philip Glass made an album, Songs from Liquid Days, with lyrics by David Byrne, Laurie Anderson or Paul Simon, among others, sung by Linda Ronstadt or The Roches….
Yeah, I’ve asked Laurie Anderson, but she wasn’t available for it (laughs). I think lyrics are very difficult. And it would be a challenge and an ambition to see if I could also do lyrics, so writing words, and for the rest, I don’t know, it’s it’s also, you know, you make plans and also from what would we like to tour in the future. You know, we created the whole Henosis show with choir and electronics and modular scenes and visuals to tour it around. But due to covid-19 that was not possible. So that’s also why I thought I want to go back to the basic and focus on piano and piano concerts.
And something orchestral?
Yeah, I mean, there’s probably going to be a release of the theatre score I wrote, which is somewhat orchestral. I’ve worked with Echo Collective again. And that will be. I still need to mix it. I still need to finalize that recording. But I think that will also be released next year.
Some other projects?
I’m going to work on two other projects in the coming year: a ballet and a secret project I cannot talk about.,
By the way… why did you use the vertical piano instead of a grand piano? And was it your own piano, travelling with you wherever, or was Auditorio Nacional’s one?
I use the vertical, because it’s sound matches my music better than a grand. Also because it is easier to install a moderato/felt layer between hammers and strings. Many of my pieces will drown when played on a grand. And I only bring my own piano to shows played in the Benelux. For the rest I have to go with rentals and try to make the best of it with my felt bar that I travel with and with mics and Eq-ing.
© Photograph by Rahi Rezvani downloaded from the Deutsche Grammophon website.