Composer Wim Mertens: What you see is what you hear


One of Flanders’ most famous composers on a life spent in music, the importance of politics in art and understanding through listening

Fortunately, effortlessly

For 35 years, Wim Mertens has been one of Flanders’ most famous composers. Yet after all that time, he still seems to be an outsider: not classical enough for the classical music world; too classical for the world of pop.

He did have some crossover successes in the 1980s, in particular with Struggle for Pleasure, the album by his ensemble Soft Verdict. Years later, the title track was used as a jingle by mobile phone operator Proximus, becoming one of the most widely known tunes in the country.

Mertens (pictured) kept on working solo as well and now has some 50 albums to his name, some made up of several CDs. He’s just released Charaktersketch – the title is German – which is the first part of a trilogy.

“For the first time in my life, I wanted to produce something that referred to both politics and the arts,” explains Mertens, who, in the first half of the 1970s, studied political and social sciences at the University of Leuven. “What’s the position of the arts – music, literature, paintings – versus the powers that be? That’s what I want to discuss in this trilogy, with only music.”

The second part, What Are We, Locks to Do?, is a solo album inspired by the work of the Greek poet Callimachus who, in the third century BC, developed in Alexandria’s famous library the first system to classify 300,000 scrolls. The album is already recorded and will be released next year, as will the third part, Dust of Truth, on which Mertens is still working.

That final album is based on the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, where Octavianus’ fleet made mincemeat of Cleopatra’s, bringing Europe under Roman rule. Mertens: “If it had gone the other way, Europe would have come under Egyptian influence.”

A sketch of Europe

Charaktersketch, meanwhile, deals with the problems with which Europe is confronted today. At least, that’s what it says in the promotional text that came with my copy of the album.

Since the record contains nine instrumental compositions and no reference to this subject matter in the booklet, I doubt if the listener would get this by just playing the CD. Mertens, though, is convinced it works perfectly. 

Europe will have to function differently... Or it will collapse

- Wim Mertens

“I come from an intellectual background, but in 1980 I made the decision: What you see is what you hear,” the 62-year-old says. “Everything I want to say should be deduced from the music; you have to hear it. You have to understand me by listening.”

Even so, can he elaborate on what’s he’s trying to say with Charaktersketch? “What I try to do is explained in the title: making a sketch of the character of Europe. Not an essay, since that would take a much more definitive form. A sketch is more suitable.”

Europe, he continues, “isn’t the bulwark it used to be. On the contrary, it’s in danger. It will have to function differently from how it has done until now, or it will collapse. Nothing that’s based on unfunded authority will survive. It will need to be legitimated.”

More than the music

Mertens, born in 1953 in the north Limburg border town of Neerpelt, embraced music when he was eight. “Literally, even, since I started with the guitar, an instrument you can take into your arms,” he says. “It’s an ideal instrument to start with: not too dominant, adapting to the body of an eight-year old, very different from the piano.”

Uncertainty paralysed him at 18, when he had to choose the direction in which he would steer his life. “It was a huge crisis,” he recalls. “Between eight and 18, I’d been involved with music very intensively. Literally on a daily basis: guitar, piano, music theory and history, you name it. Logically, after high school I would have gone straight to the Brussels or Antwerp Conservatory.”

But his piano teacher Didine Geens felt there was more to the boy than music. “She lent me books about art, history and so on. I started to realise that music – and other art forms, too – change throughout history, and suddenly I was really interested in what elements caused those changes.”

Music training, he says, didn’t at that point provide answers to those questions. “And I think it still doesn’t. That’s probably why music is so conservative – because you can only pass on what you know.”

So, he says, he was looking for other answers. For two years he even stopped playing music, but then the urge became too strong. “While I was still studying in Leuven, two mornings a week I travelled to Brussels to follow some theoretical courses. After receiving my degree in political and social sciences, I went on to study musicology. First in Leuven, where at the time they focused heavily on early music, and afterwards at Ghent University, at the Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music.” 

I don’t make music with epic dimensions. I’m looking for the power of smaller compositions

- Wim Mertens

There he wrote a Master’s thesis about American minimal music, a style that has clearly influenced him. “This music told me there were still new territories to explore, that we didn’t have to run aground in musical sterility.”

A rhetorical question follows. “You know what the problem was? The Second World War had led to such a disastrous situation that no composer dared to work intuitively any more. They fell back on serial work and rational compositions.”

Intuition, on the other hand, is highly important to Mertens’ work. “That’s how my music germinates: par chance sans effort.” French for “fortunately, effortlessly”, it’s also the title of one of his older compositions.

“Coincidence implies risks,” he continues. “After this fortunate, effortless start, the real working process begins: the practicalities for a new production, recording with the musicians, orchestrating the music. But the moment of the discovery is ‘given without givenness’. It’s free, and you have to leave it free. This has always been very important to me. It’s a way of escaping the purely rational.”

At one point, Mertens calls Charaktersketch a symphonic work without a symphonic orchestra. “I don’t make music with epic dimensions,” he says. “I’ve never written an opera or a symphony. I’m looking for the power of smaller compositions.”

From the start, he says, “I worked outside the existing musical organisations, to assume an independent position towards a dominant recording industry. Now this kind of attitude is commonly accepted, but back then, it was unusual.”

In the moment

is played by an ensemble of 16 musicians, composer included. The four instrument groups all have their place in the nine compositions. There are four ways of a producing sound, Mertens explains: bowed (string instruments), blown (wind instruments), strung (guitar and harp) and beaten (percussive instruments).

“I linked these four groups with one of the basic elements: water with the strings, air with the winds, earth with the strung instruments and fire with percussion.”

Mertens has compositions in which he sings (though not on this album) with his characteristic high-pitched counter-tenor – in a self-created language. “It has been called an artificial language, which is both true and false, since I sometimes incorporate existing words,” he explains. “During a performance, the language stays the same, but it can change from evening to evening. I can never identically repeat what I’ve sung before. Unless, as I have also done, I transcribe the words phonetically and let professional voices sing them.”

But a song on an album is a recording – it doesn’t change. But, still, “each concert is different, even if you play the same composition as on a recording. A CD, in the end, is just a primitive recording of a first possibility. Afterwards a composition needs to grow.”

Not long after our interview, Mertens left for Spain. He’s popular in Mediterranean countries: Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece. Is this is a case of “no man is a prophet in his own country”?

“Until the end of the 1980s, that might have been so,” he says, “but afterwards it changed. Now it’s more or less 50-50. In those Mediterranean countries the music world was less dominated by the Central European musical traditions. That certainly helped me over there. All in all, I have no reason to complain.”

The Wim Mertens Ensemble play on 22 July at Rivierenhof, Antwerp, 23 August at Openluchttheater, Ostend, and 25 September at Ancienne Belgique, Brussels

Photos by A Vanhee