"I've got singing in my genes"
Vocalist and composer Roderik Povel grew up in Heerlen but later settled a bit further to the west, in Maastricht, where by now he’s pushing forty. All of that came about singing.
R.P. – “Writing music always had my interest, but I was also singing all the time, already as a young child. And apparently I liked that a lot. So it must have been something in my genes. Studying singing was the next logical step. And whether that really suited me? It never even occurred to me to ask that question. It always seemed self-evident that I would be living a singing life.”
Did you have a preference for some specific musical style or genre?
R.P. – “I studied jazz singing. Started that in The Hague, but then graduated in Maastricht. But when I was young I also sang a lot of classical repertoire. And I still have this hankering for classical music. So I never considered myself as being purely a jazz singer. There is so much more music than jazz alone that I find interesting to tackle. And that is of course also why I end up participating in projects like ‘Songs of Doubt’, for this year’s edition of the Musica Sacra Festival. I found the score in my mail early August and am now studying it. So I am still in the stage of discovering. I have, for example, yet to find out what the precise sound is that the composer has in mind.”
The piece has been written by Niels Rønsholdt, a young Danish composer. Did you know him?
R.P. – “No! Not at all! Bart van Dongen, Intro in situ’s artistic director, discovered Rønsholdt’s music in Aarhus in Denmark. That was at the Spor Festival, an annual festival for contemporary music and sound art. He was impressed and contacted the composer. Which then led to a commission for Musica Sacra. And apparently Bart thought of combining Niels’s music and my voice. Which then led to me entering the project.”
But I guess it is not the first time that you are involved in an Intro in situ project ?
R.P. – “Indeed it is not. Two years ago I did a project for Cultura Nova. And well, I am also one of the so-called ‘Jonge Honden’: the Young Dogs, or Pups. I’m really lucky to still be just about young enough to be one of them (Roderick laughs). It is a bunch of young musicians and composers that obtain a lot of room to perform and create at Intro in situ’s, with the only condition (speaking for Intro) that one tries, continuously, to re-invent oneself as an artist and as a musician. And that, I think, is a very, very inspiring way of working. Quite a few of those Pups are still students. It is an important part of their curriculum. Because it obviously is very important that as a music student you have the chance to do things also other than the standard repertoire that comes with your studies. And although it is not an official part of the conservatory, Intro in situ does have a very important – I’d even say: essential – complementary function. I am a teacher at the conservatory myself, so I have one leg in the one world and the other one in the other. But that does make kind of an interesting splits.”
Can you tell us a bit more about the piece for Musica Sacra, ‘Songs of Doubt’?
R.P. – “It is very much a vocal piece. It is scored for a singer, a choir – at Musica Sacra that will be Studium Chorale – and, remarkably, the Ondes Martenot. That is one of the oldest electronic instruments. It has a somewhat spooky but also songful sound. A bit like a singing saw, just like that other early electronic instrument, the Theremin. But contrary to the Theremin, the Ondes Martenot is played with a small keyboard. The French composer Olivier Messiaen has written a lot for the Ondes Martenot. In that sense it is an instrument with quite a long history in ‘musica sacra’.
Is ‘Songs of Doubt’ one piece, or rather a series, a cycle of songs?
R.P. – “There are ten songs. The score here in front of me counts 84 pages. That’s quite a bit. But I try not to get stressed by the amount of work. I tackle it in a systematic way. So I began by digging through the notes to see what the composition will ask from me technically. And then I will start to practice in parts. That is my method. What is asked for by the text? How do I need to articulate? How do I handle the melodic material? What is the rhythmic structure? What will be my harmonic function? Are there also theatrical aspects? Those are the things that I first study one by one, in order to be able to put all of it together during the rehearsals.
But of course for now I have only the notes. I do not know if Niels has anything else up his sleeve. We will have to wait until the rehearsals to know whether, for example, there will be room for some improvisation, etc.”
Your own compositions, like the ‘When the caged birds sing’ cycle, show that the lyrics are very important for you. How about the lyrics for ‘Songs of Doubt’?
R.P. – “The (English) texts were written by Niels himself. They are rather simple. By which I mean that they are not pretentious, or overly poetic. And what is very remarkable: in large parts of the piece one is asked to sing them backwards! That it is pretty exciting. It happens all through piece, and it does seem to be more than just some fancy trick. I am very curious to find out how this will work out. Otherwise, Niels is very sparingly with explanations. And that is on purpose, I think. To begin with, he just wants to leave the interpretation to us. So for the moment I cannot say too much about meaning. That is something you will have to ask the composer. But I do think they are very much sounding lyrics. There are many repetitions of words, for instance. They also strike me as being rather modest, leaving the front role to the music. The music is very atmospheric. And indeed, were you to put some complicated text on top of that, you run the risk that the combination becomes hard to digest.”
What is your personal relationship with ‘musica sacra’, with ‘religious music’?
R.P. – “I do have a strong sense for spirituality, hence for religiosity. But that is purely an emotional thing, which has nothing to do with Allah or with God or with whoever. Of course I cannot escape the fact that I am a child of our Christian society. But I don’t consider myself as a religious person. Not at all. Contrary to singing, religion is not in my genes. So, yes, I could say some nasty things about that. In general one may ask oneself how ‘religious’ the Pups have been that wrote much of the so-called religious music that we know from history. Maybe one should oneself not be too much of a saint in order to really know what holy music is!”
In the ‘Songs of Doubt’ project your role is that of the solo singer, an interpreter. But other than interpreting others’ works, you also compose your own music. How do these two roles relate to one another, thinking for example of your ‘When the caged birds sing’ cycle?
R.P. – “That indeed remains a major quest for me. Questions like: how do I put my classical background and my training as a jazz singer to good use? What is it that I want to do as a musical being, but also as a professional musician? I like good lyrics an awful lot, but good lyrics are rarely found among the lyrics sung with jazz standards. So if you’d think about producing a jazz CD, it is awfully difficult to come up with a series of pieces that have good lyrics and that not have been done already millions of times by others.
So that is a path that I decided I should not follow. The same for the idea that the music I make should be accessible and appeal to a big and general public. What also counts is that, even though in a way, yes, I am a man of the stage, for me, no, this does not come natural. The stage actually is the scariest of the places that I need to frequent in my life.
While searching for good lyrics I came upon the pre-jazz age, where I found the poems of the Afro-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in 1872. Dunbar was a great inspiration for the so-called “Harlem Renaissance”, an Afro-American literary movement in the 1920s and 1930s. And that was really a hit! I started to read these poems and then choose some of them to set to music. The selection was a very difficult task, because much of the material already was very musical in and by itself. In some cases so much so, that it would be ridiculous to try to add even more music to what already was… music. For the texts that I finally did use, I started from the rhythms and melodies that arise naturally when you are reading the poems. And in a way, the pieces then wrote themselves, from rhythm and melody to harmonies and timbre. So apparently this is the sort of thing I am looking for.”
“I like languages very much. I recite, for example, Ingrid Jonker’s poems, in African. It is a great experience to dive into that and make it sound as good as possible. It is something that I like to do that with whatever language I come upon. Some of them are more open, others more nasal. Also my own language, Dutch, is a beautiful language. Every language can be made to sound beautiful. It is mainly a cultural thing that here in the Netherlands we think of some languages as more sexy than others. I just came back from an exchange trip with the Chinese city of Chengdu. There of course I have heard a lot of Chinese. Though the Chinese language sounded really interesting, it was not what, with my Western ears, I would call beautiful. That is why I decided to start to study Chinese. For I want to discover the beauty also of that language. It has to be in there. I want to discover the rhythms of that language, which for now seems to be so remote. That frustrates me. So I’ll have to do something about it.”