The struggle of Wim Mertens

A classicist, a minimalist or a post-modernist, Wim Mertens has been described in a variety of ways over the years, yet not even the composer himself can offer a simple answer when it comes to defining his work. A pianist and guitar player who often does his own vocals, the 50-year-old Belgian artist is known for combining musical elements from different eras and civilizations. Mertens’s talent was evident early on in his career when at the age of 28 he founded Soft Verdict. While the group’s recordings were numerous, recognition came when Mertens provided the original score for Peter Greenaway’s «Belly of an Architect.» More challenging projects followed, including the five-hour-long «Alle Dinghe,» which was recorded on no less than seven CDs. The composer, who is scheduled to appear at the Ark complex in Athens on Wednesday, spoke to Kathimerini a few days before traveling to Greece. Your career began with Soft Verdict and has evolved into the kind of artistic status you enjoy today. How arduous is it for a composer to develop? It’s always a struggle. If anything, it’s about surprising yourself, making a second start. With Soft Verdict, in the beginning, we were not aware of the fact that we were working, expressing a second start. We were working on the music but at the same time we were not interested in music itself. It was all about music as an echo, finding a way to put across something different. It’s important to feel this urge. And that is a struggle. Musicians have always been fighters. Do you still surprise yourself? Sometimes you feel that your work is not interesting enough. Your intuition says you can’t be wrong because you have confidence in yourself. Yet sometimes you think that you don’t astound yourself. That’s where doubt kicks in. And that’s when you either have a bad day or change people’s lives. Do the good days outnumber the bad days? They are equally divided. Perhaps in order to have the good days, you must have the bad ones as well. You can’t stay at the same level. It’s like in times of war, especially given music’s independent quality, its independent force. The language of music enjoys a degree of independence and the composer’s task is to present this power to the rest of the world. Following September 11, however, composers must realize that the power of the music, and of art in general, can only be a power that is shared. This is because the events of 9/11 were about «us,» the West and «the others.» Music always tries to echo different people’s voices, those coming from different cultures. The language of music is less arrogant than oral, financial or religious language. In the future, if music is to act as a unifying force, it must comprise a religious element. It cannot remain an autonomous power without incorporating that element of society. This will be the kind of challenge musicians will face next. It is interesting that you use the term «religious» even though you have stated that you are not at all religious. It’s true, I don’t follow any religion. But I’m referring to an altogether different religious experience because music is associated with «religious» transcendence and that’s where the religious element comes in. I use the term «religious» because it is precisely this term that points to the differences between «us» and «them» following September 11. Let’s talk about definitions. Your music has been defined as classical, minimalist and post-modern, among other terms. How would you describe yourself as a composer? I would start by saying that I don’t like the term «composer.» This is because composition has forever been linked to Western tradition, the European illness of having total control over everything, the notion that as a musician you can – and owe it to the world to – create something. My music stands at the opposite end of this perception. The only way to get away from all this is to place the voice in the foundations. Voice is the only genuine element. It’s not a musical instrument / object; it’s an integral instrument stemming from within the body. It’s hard to go wrong if you use the voice as the basis. Then again, one might add that in the 1980s, my music was essentially orchestral. I was just about to ask you about that. It’s true. Though, until I recorded «The Man With No Fortune» in 1986, all of my songs were based on vocal lines, which were transported via instruments. This was because instruments are a bit further away from the body. You have to use your hands, while the voice comes from within. The second start, which I mentioned earlier, is inundated by the power of the voice. In this beginning, the music is not the goal, but the vehicle. In the past, you used the title «Maximizing the Audience» on one of your albums. Is a big audience really important to you? At the beginning of his career a musician must find his audience. Later on, I would say, he has to find the people. Of course, I’m not talking about numbers here. These are the prerequisites for him to develop a sound event and share his talent. Recognizing your talent is a kind of power. I’m strong, because I’m the only one with my talent. But this kind of power can only be shared with others. Following 9/11 we saw the «other.» We saw that it is different from us, and that it has religious demands. Demands! The religious element is common between «us» and «them.» If we are to bring both sides closer in the future, perhaps we must start from the various religious demands. That is the only thing that should be on a musician’s agenda, because musicians travel. I’m happy to be back in Greece; I feel privileged to be able to say what I want. Ark, 18 Themidos, Tavros, tel 210.338.8400. Tickets available at Metropolis record stores, tel 210.383.0405, and Ticket Hellas, tel 210.618.9300.

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