Luca D. Majer
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In the wake of "Voice of the living", his symphonic pièce developed in remembrance of WW1 (premiered in Ypres on October 28th, 2014, 99 years after the first, infamous gas attack of man's history in that same town) I have talked to Wim Mertens, about this project and several other things.

Published in Italian, in the October 2014 issue of Blow Up Magazine. Hereunder an excerpt of the original, un-edited interview in English.


LM- There was this beautiful comment you made in a very early interview about how you considered yourself an average piano player and for this reason you had decided to use Crumar pianos from Italy, the second-last best they made!

WM- I think l'histoire with the Crumar piano, from which I still have two copies of that same instrument, was interesting because, afterwards, you can say that was helping actually to move away from the clichés of piano music, so to say.

It was an instrument which has a rather limited tessiture in terms of octaves, so the manipulability of the instrument was very little. So, probably, it helped to go to a kind of quintessence or to move away from clichés of traditional piano composing, piano pieces, and on the same time you are forced to get to something from which later on, much much later probably you have the experience that it was this single kind of idea that was there, it was there you did not invent it, it was there, like an a priori. Around that element you could then go on, and invent, invent probably a new, kind of a new way of composing.

How do you treat something which is given - I recently called this "Given without given-ness". Something is given, what exactly is given you have no idea, you cannot verbalise it, the language approach is not enough to define it and even your own mentality is that you don't feel you need to first define it in a verbal way, or to... you don't want to know in a rational way, the conventional rational way with the help of conventional language what it is. It is give without givenness. This has of course to do with a very long tradition, which goes over generations: my father was musician, his father was musician... so there is a kind over the generations, a kind of information which you could even say has a kind... there is some element of secrecy, a secret element connected to it, and that element is giving you enough known information to start or to continue.

LM-Your left hand seems to like fortissimos. At times it almost seems as if it were able to modulate the pitch, pushing an acoustic piano to get as close as it can be to Jimi Hendrix...

WM- It's not that much a question of volume but it is absolutely true that there is something very special in my left hand. And the first musician who gave attention to that was Michael Nyman because by coincidence in the early Eighties we did one or two concerts in London, I invited  him as a guest musician on second piano, and he later said "be aware of that left hand of Wim Mertens" - because the left hand has this kind of rhytmic function but also harmonic function, also melodic function in one. Now: I was left handed as a kid and they tried, they obliged me - it was in the Sixties and the Fifties - to change and so I had to stay at school to write with the right hand. I don't know if it comes from there. For many things I am still left handed, so to say, not for writing but...

So it is interesting that even today in my composing and also performing yes there is the left hand, not only complex things (in terms of 2 and 3, two bars and two bars and three etcetera)... so there is absolutely a kind of activity going on in the left hand... which is all the time [there] as a factor of interruption, of discontinuity. I know that I have that left hand to... It is also a way... when you work on something and you have the feeling that you get a bit closed in it, with the left... (and the voice, but that's another story) with the left hand there's this way of escape.


LM- In 1992 you interviewed Cage and recorded what has been told as one of the few moments where Cage turned himself into a pedantic old-timer. To be abruptly synthetic: there was the one composer who operated - we might say - the cruellest act a music composer can impose upon his esecutore by asking him to sit down and watch the time pass by. And there he claimed that Glenn Branca is "a leader insisting that they agree with him". When you challenged him, pointing to the contradiction of affirming that a non-goal is not a goal, he diverted the subject using rethoric, sophistic arguments. We all loved and love Cage, but did not that moment turn a hero into a plain man? Can a leader be not one?

WM- Cage’s hyper-democratic concept seems not always working in music composing.Also Cage was not used to music amplifying in Branca’s music. Also, thinking  composing in a vocal way means very often an association with one single person-I can’t sing in your place. It’s possible to distinguish between rational goal directed processes and goal directed approaches respecting a certain materiality coming from the musical materiality itself.


LM- "Almost everything can be bought and sold, today" said recently Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel. Everything is propaganda or at least propaganda-used, when it floats to the top. Yet music is politics. What role is left for musicians or can musicians play in today’s society?

WM - First of all, it is not interesting to see music "as such". As I said I was never interested in music "as such".
On the other hand, if we can include a kind of open-ess, radical open-ess: not totalitarian but radical open-ess to the materiality of music, there we have possibility to think again about the notions of victims and victors. But we have no credibility if we deal with these themes, with these political themes, and we don't change le cours of the language, the musical language in itself.

So if asking about memorial music for the 1st WW, everything that exists... you feel that the musical language used for this memorial has not changed, did not change at all.

So the impact - in the long term - of music is that you find, you arrive at defining a kind of synchronisation moment of the epoch in which you are active as a musician, as a composer, as a music maker. And that re-defining the elements of victim, victors, re-defining the elements of what kind of subjectivity, humanist subjectivity we are looking for (are we at the end of the classical notion of human-kind?)... and trying to define this out from a musical way, out from a musical material... so in the attention of creating a new attention for the materiality of music

This is the only way to deal with these very interesting questions or remarks you made about the relation between music and politics.

Because at the same time music is very conservative: it is moving very difficultly to another paradigm, to use other techniques in developing music. But at the same time I believe strongly - from the first day - that music has this capacity, it has this possibility to make breaks, interruptions, ruptures etc. And it is very important to stay alert to this and meanwhile the main item has to do with: how can I integrate in composing the elements of chance, of contingency? How can I escape from vertical thinking in hierarchy?

Who speaks? I don't have to listen to someone who speaks by coincidence. I have... my object is... to find my own voice and translating this in the music you want to make.