Since nearly ten years the Dutch composer Nicoline Soeter has been creating a varied oeuvre for acoustic and electrically amplified instruments, with special attention to timbre and special sounds. Increasingly also a philosophical outlook plays a central role in her work. An important and recurring theme is how changes in our view on human nature tend to correspond to changes of perspective on our society and on progress.
I am really not in the habit of pulling female composers onto my lap in the course of a first encounter. But in this particular case it was pretty difficult to avoid. It nicely illustrates – with a wink – the intertwinement of perspectives and ideas. For here the perspective will certainly change when I additionally tell you during this conversation Nicoline was at home, in the village of Berkel-Enschot near Tilburg, while I was sitting in a chair at home in Paris, with Skype on a laptop on my knees.
Originally you are a violin player, Nicoline, but then you decided to concentrate on composing?
N.S. – “Yes, that is right. It is from around 2008 that I took up composing seriously. I started to study composition with Willem Jeths and made musical composition my main occupation. Timbre became a very important focus, together with things of a more philosophical kind, like the impact of big social changes on the world of ideas. I am very interested in a multidisciplinary approach. That is how this philosophical thread entered my work. Just to give an example: I organized a project called ‘Eigen Brein’ (‘Your Own Brain’), which was about how the developments in contemporary brain and neuroscience influence the way in which we see ourselves. Nowadays our brains are increasingly considered as independent entities. Much is explained solely from within the brain, much more than in the past. So this is an example of a change in perspective: we explain things in a different manner and look at ourselves in a different way.
I presume that we will also find these foci – timbre and philosophy – in the work that you were commissioned by Intro in situ to do for Cultura Nova 2015?
N.S. – “Indeed. The Cultura Nova production is a collaboration with visual artist Alien Oosting. Its theme is ‘the Year of Mines’. Our point of departure has been the mine water.
That is the ground water that formerly posed a big problem during the construction of mines and the digging of mine shafts. The water had to be removed.
And in the early days that was not an easy thing to do. And much, much later, when in many places the mines were being closed, the shafts again filled up with water.
Which had several consequences. Like a rising of the soil, and other environmental effects, that one also sees for example in Groningen as a result of the gas extraction there.
So it may have rather unpleasant effects. But in Heerlen they started a very interesting project related to this mine water.
It is a completely new technique: the pumping of the water for heating or cooling systems. The natural isolation of the earth keeps the mine water at a constant temperature: warm in the lower parts, and cooler in the parts closer to the surface.” “This in turn led us to the historical fact that only since the arrival of the steam engine one has been able to pump mine water from greater depths. The steam engine made it possible to develop the mines in a really intensive way. Which then set the large scale world wide industrialization in motion.”
Your work for Cultura Nova is an installation?
N.S. – “Yes, it will combine video and sound. At several occasions the installation will be supplement by a live vocal performance, by Rianne Wilbers. Both for the visual and the audio part the mine water has been the principal ingredient. Mine water from the past until now. When these days the water is being pumped once again, it brings a pretty large chunk of history along with it to the surface. The work will be installed in Heerlen in a bicycle cellar. Underground. Considering the theme, that is perfect of course.”
An old mine shaft would have been even better, no?
N.S. – “Ha, ha , but then we would have ended up in the water ourselves! Maybe that would have been a bit too much. But as part of the installation we do use video material that was made in 2006 during a test drilling for pumping mine water to use in those heating systems. It will be projected onto a wall in the cellar space. And Alien’s own video piece will be projected onto a round, cylindrical screen. I still have to see how that will be done precisely. But also her work is of a cylindrical shape: it is a pumping movement. And in that pump with water – there is a lot of water – one sees a parade of old images from the mining past.”
“My soundtrack will be projected into the space using six loudspeakers (it is a six channel piece). It includes the recorded sounds of stones, of water, voices, the sound of steam… partially modified using electronics. And then there will be four days on which along with the installation there will be a live performance by Rianne Wilbers.”
And she will sing texts that are related to the mines and the mine water?
N.S. – “She will be singing when she approaches through the pretty long corridor that leads into that bicycle cellar. And then the performance continues there along with the installation. She sings about the changing perspectives and the changes in the world of ideas. For this I use a compilation of texts that I collected. The first one is from a letter addressed by John Symmes, formerly a captain in the infantery, in 1818 to the American Congres. Symmes believed that the earth is hollow. And he claimed to know a way into that hollow earth, so he asked the Congres permission to undertake a journey to explore the inside of the earth.”
The text will be sung in English?
N.S. – “It is partly in English, but partly also in Dutch, and sometimes in French. Certain parts I found more appealing in the original language. But some of it is rather narrative. Then the singer is reciting, and I wanted those parts to be clearly understandable and accessible to the Dutch audience. Therefore I also use a Dutch version of that first text by John Symmes, because it has quite a funny post scriptum: it says that the letter is accompanied by a medical declaration of good mental health. That is hilarious, of course!”
What else do the texts tell us?
N.S. – “There is a part of a patent text from 1702. That is by Thomas Savery, the inventor of an early version of the steam engine. What I found very special is that his text actually reads like a contemporary piece of marketing. It is something of an advertisement. The title is: “The Miner’s Friend”, and it is subtitled: ‘An Engine to raise Water by Fire’. Savery also had other applications in mind, but the pumping of the groundwater in mines was the most urgent one. What is remarkable about all these texts are the utopian expectations that are reflected in them: a journey to the inside of the earth would lead us to another world to live in; the enormous expectations for all the things the steam engine would make possible, the gigantic volumes of coal that would be brought to the surface…”
As far as the steam engine and coal are concerned, I guess these expectations were quite legitimate. Without steam engine and without coal I would probable not have been able now to sit here with you, talk to you and see you via the screen that I hold in my lap.
N.S. – “That’s for sure. There is little doubt that these have been extremely important element in the process of industrialization. But from the way in which things are phrased it is also obvious that back then times were very different. And that in turn brings me again to the changes in perspective. Some of the texts could have been written today, like the patent text for the steam engine. One of the other texts states that all these developments are typical for the world’s continuing democratization and for our Christian culture. This reflects these ‘great expectations’ that I mentioned. And then – without adding more and other words – I bring all of it in a certain form. And I then try, through the way in which the texts are presented (sometimes in a narrative way, sometimes more theatrically) and the way in which they are lined up, to interpret their psychology. Some of the parts will follow one another very quickly, or are being repeated, which suggest something mechanical, and thus refers to the process of industrialization that was enabled by these technologies. Which then nicely links up with the pumping movement we see in the images.”
Did you have some pre-determined plan for your piece? A structure that you filled in afterwards with sounds?
N.S. – “The pre-determined plan was that I knew more or less what kinds of sounds I was going to use, of course in consultation with Alien. It was kind of obvious that there would be water and stones. Apart from that, it is my intuition that plays the main directing role.”
So you are sculpting the piece as you go along?
N.S. – “One might say so, yes. I often see sounds as sort of physical objects: as elastic things or dry things, or on the contrary, things that are – and sound – sort of fluid. Yes, that is the way in which I approach sound, rather than in an analytic one. I analyse what I am doing while I am working. There is no prior scheme, or a drawing or an extensive concept from which I start building. But I do build while working. It is not merely an intuitive chain. I do analyse what is going on, how I can amplify something, et cetera.”
How do you focus on sound in case you are not working with electronic or concrete sound, but with instruments?
N.S. – “For solo instruments that is somewhat different than with a combination of instruments. In case of more instruments, it is often a matter of matching timbres. For example, in a piece that I wrote for my ensemble Vonk, I combine an electric guitar, a vibraphone and cowbells. The electric guitar then uses a wah-wah pedal, so it gets sort of a wah-wah-wah, similar to the vibraphone. Moreover, the guitar, the vibraphone and the cowbells all sound warm and metallic. For solo instruments I like to use certain extended techniques. But I am not so much interested in experimentally putting all sorts of sounds together. For wind instruments I find multiphonics an interesting technique. Or something like bisbigliando’s… all sorts of possibilities that are exciting in their own way.”
Are you a fast decision maker while composing?
N.S. – “No, I am certainly not a person that quickly comes to a decision. It takes me relatively long, also because I am usually working with many layers. So finishing a short piece of music can take me a lot of time. But for the Cultura Nova piece there was a very strict dead line. A worked non-stop, and managed to finish it in about three weeks.”
“At the end of the piece there is a fascinating fact that I learned from a journalist. At the time that the mines in Limburg were being closed, there was a serious proposal from the director of a Canadian employers’ association to move the whole city of Geleen to Canada. They had picked a spot on the map that would be called New Geleen. The man wanted to send two boats to Holland to get all the miners together with their families and social environment – the butcher, the baker, the church, the schools, the brass band, the soccer team – and migrate them to Canada. But well, the good people of Limburg are not so very keen on such wild adventures. So this never happened. As far as I know there has been one, only one, citizen from Geleen that then really moved to Canada.”