This is your composer speaking: Steven Kamperman

Steven Kamperman

Interview by Co de Kloet at New Music Conference, 11 November 2022

Steven Kamper­man is in France at the time of the interview, where he is artist-in-residence at the Van Doesburg House (situated in Meudon, a municipality in the southwestern suburbs of Paris) from November 2022 to February 2023. The clarinetist and composer is extremely excited to be there, he tells De Kloet, as the conversation with the radio presenter and author gets underway. The conversation is part of Buma Cultuur’s New Music Conference and zooms in on Kamperman’s work and approach. Bas Pauw, of Performing Arts Fund NL, explains that the call gets opened every other year to honour De Stijl originator Theo van Doesburg and his wife Nelly. ‘Do you feel homesick yet?’, both gentlemen ask Kamperman. The answer: definitely not. ‘I’m having a ball.’

At Van Doesburg House

Co de Kloet dives right into the main topic the duo is going to discuss, which is that Steven Kamperman is in Paris working on special projects. ‘Steven, you arrived a few days ago, right? How are you doing?’ Steven Kamperman: ‘It’s fantastic! The house was designed in the 1920s by Theo Van Doesburg and it’s amazing. Van Doesburg is one of the founders of De Stijl. Everybody knows Piet Mondriaan, but Van Doesburg was the brain of the movement and had many talents as well, although he was lesser known. He was a key figure to the Bauhaus movement and was inspired by the Dada movement. I’m staying at his house now, where he unfortunately did not live for long. He died a few months after it was constructed in 1931. I find it very inspiring to be here by myself.’

Van Doesburg House walkthrough video by Steven Kamperman.

Co de Kloet mentions that the house does not look very Parisian: ‘If I had seen images or footage of the house without any introduction, I couldn’t be able to tell that the house is in Paris.’ Steven Kamperman elaborates: ‘I’m in a village right outside of the city where a lot of artists have lived, like Jean Arp and Auguste Rodin, so it has a rich artistic history. The thing I really liked about the house is that I immediately felt at home. That might have something to do with the enormous atelier I am sitting in right now. The acoustics are great as well, so I instantly knew I wanted to record something here. For the past two days, I’ve been working on a project dedicated to this house and its different spaces.’

The road to the residency

Fonds Podiumkunsten hosted an open call, and I immediately knew I wanted to go’, a visibly excited Kamperman continues. ‘My wife almost had a heart attack when I showed her the open call and couldn’t imagine me being away for four months, but after lying awake all night and thinking it over, she told me I needed to chase my goals. From that point on, I started thinking about what I wanted to do if I would become the artist-in-residence. I wrote an application and got a phone call saying I was the one that could go, and it’s been very unreal since.’

“I like the attitude of French jazz musicians”

Steven Kamperman

‘Why do you think they chose you?’, De Kloet asks the composer. Kamperman: ‘I have a history with French music and musicians, for example with hurdy-gurdy player Valentin Clastrier, or the CD I recorded with avant-garde jazz musician Michel Godard. Besides that, I speak the language and I like the attitude of French jazz musicians.’

Iron city and Steven Kamperman

‘I also pitched plans that related to this house and to Van Doesburg himself, like writing a piece about his Dadaistic poems or writing a piece for Dutch musical ensemble Calefax, a project that is dedicated to Paris and all works of art that are made of iron in the city. Besides the Eiffel tower, there’s a lot of iron that’s being used in the city. I draw inspiration from that for the piece I’m writing for Calefax. The propositions I had were already linked to Van Doesburg and Paris, which helped me being selected, I suppose.’ Bas Pauw of Performing Arts Fund NL: ‘We had a lot of great applications, but Steven’s ticked all the boxes in the sense of not only creating new work, but also reviving the work of Van Doesburg.’

Steven Kamperman panel magazine

De Kloet wonders what the attitude of French jazz musicians Kamperman mentioned entails. How exactly are they different from English or American jazz musicians? Kamperman continues: ‘In the 90s, a lot of interesting jazz musicians like Michel Godard diverted from American jazz music. They didn’t come from traditional American bebop music but were classically trained. For example, Godard started improvising and had a whole other outlook on music that started with contemporary and modal music, medieval modal music, and even folk music. I feel very much akin to that.’

The artist in residence then goes on to explain why breaking with old traditions is important in relation to the Van Doesburg House. ‘Van Doesburg was pretty obsessed with destroying tradition and old values when it comes to art, and for me, that’s an interesting concept. It was the beginning of the modernist movement, in which structure is much more important than your individual feeling, and we all know that in contemporary music of the last century, that same conviction has gone to great heights. But you could argue that in recent years it’s almost become the opposite. A lot of composers are starting to work intuitively again and draw from emotion and experience. I feel the same clash between individuality and structure in my own compositions. It’s very inspiring to be here and contemplate on where I stand in this.’

An intuitive radical

Co de Kloet: ‘Would you consider yourself to be radical?’ Kamperman laughs and lets out a clear no. ‘I believe in good concepts, but I’m not that radical. I would never go into this one concept and stick with that, because I get inspired by the clash and the tension between concept and result.’ De Kloet asks him how he is going to achieve all of that by himself in an empty house. ‘The way I like to work is to start with a concept or a sound, and then mess around with it in a rather intuitive way. Sometimes that means the interesting parts don’t fit in the concept I started with anymore. I struggled with concepts falling through when I was younger. I don’t anymore, I follow my intuition these days.’ De Kloet: ‘So you became milder?’ Kamperman: ‘I’m certain of it, yes.’

The question rises if Kamperman has made a roadmap for the time he gets to spend in the house, and how he plans on following up on it. ‘I diverted from the plan already. I have three projects I want to finish while I’m here, and I can write fast. If the deadline becomes a problem, I have to work harder’, he adds with a smile. Bas Pauw mentions a residency is not a commission, so there shouldn’t be too much stress for Kamperman. The residency at the Van Doesburg House is meant for creative freedom, according to Pauw.

‘Have you thought about documenting your process, Steven?’, asks De Kloet. ‘Absolutely, I write blogs about my experiences here, and I aim to include my thoughts about the artistic process as well’, says Kamperman. ‘In my application I mentioned Van Doesburg publishing a lot of manifests, and although I feel like manifests are not of this time and age anymore, I jokingly mentioned writing one consisting of questions modern artists can ask themselves. I don’t know if I can make that happen, but I think a funny manifest would be a great result of my residency.’ De Kloet: ‘Has such a question already popped up in your mind?’ 

people at panel Steven Kamperman magazine

Kamperman: ‘The house already influenced my studying of the clarinet. You must study a lot to play the instrument and while I was here, I realised I never want to study in a mechanical way anymore. So, I stopped studying skills and approached practicing in a more playful way. That’s all because of the room I am in.’

In his closing words, Co de Kloet asks Steven Kamperman if the isolation is a new component for him. The composer is quite resolute in his reply: ‘Absolutely. I’m curious to see how the work comes out when there’s no influence or interference from the outside at all.’ 

Photos panel conversation by Karen van Gilst At New Music Conference, 11 November 2022

Update 9 January 2023 with Steven Kamperman

Two months after above interview, Steven Kamperman weighs in from Meudon about his activities so far: ‘I have finished a suite about the different rooms in the Van Doesburg House, in which I let myself be inspired either by the functionality of the room, or by its formal properties. The suite is like a promenade through the house, from the entrance via the library, the music room, the Grand atelier, to the kitchen and finally the heating room. As intermezzo’s there are pieces about his friend Mondriaan (who loved to dance the Charleston), Theo’s wife Nelly van Doesburg (who didn’t dare to admit that she didn’t know Satie, when they first met), Bauhaus (on which Van Doesburg had a big influence) and dada (Van Doesburg organized the first dada-tour in Holland). End of January, I am going to record the suite on this exact location, with Oene van Geel on viola, Albert van Veenendaal on piano, Paul Jarret on electric guitar, and myself on clarinets. We even record in the kitchen, and welcome the sounds of the street.’

‘I thought about – and wrote the first two parts of – my piece for Calefax, inspired by the many iron constructions in Paris, from strong pillars to ornamented art nouveau curls. In this work I play with some Debussy-like elements, so I dived much deeper into his work than I ever did before. Debussy wrote his first important works while the Eiffel-tower was being built in 1887-1889. During the process, I realised that my grandfather being a fifth-generation blacksmith probably somewhat explains my fascination for the subject.

Also I started to write for a solo-project, in which I will use overdubbing of several clarinets. The atelier sounds so fantastic that it seemed a pity not to record it here. Finally, I wrote several blogs on my site, on which I kept track of my investigation, and that process was highly fertile for my own thinking!’

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