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‘Does music have to be heard to be music?’ – Aart Strootman

A remarkable piece of music from love of the night. Two artists from different corners of the world, another compass point. In what way will they understand each other? How can the intangible desire to create in collectivity find its own form? These are the ideal ingredients for an entirely intuitive experiment. Gaudeamus boldly offers the space for it, without knowing the end result. At the moment of the performance the outcome will reveal itself.


Soña Lee is an illustrator/artist. From her very vivid imagination she often draws brightly coloured dreams starring miscellaneous creatures. Born in 1989 in Seoul, South-Korea, she decided to move to Rotterdam, The Netherlands in 2015. Until a few days ago she was unfamiliar with Aart’s work. Now she has been invited to create an art- work in response to one of his compositions.

Aart Strootman is a guitarist/composer/ music pioneer. Born in 1987 in Oud Beijerland, The Netherlands, Aart has travelled all over the world and is now living in Rotterdam. In 2017 Aart won the Gaudeamus Award. That same year, during the Gaudeamus Muziekweek, Nyctophilia received its premiere. For the creation of this piece, Aart played with strings, percussion, bass-guitar and recorder. The work was performed by the ensembles s t a r g a z e, TEMKO and trio aXolot.


Aart (A) and Soña (S) have never met before. Nyctophilia brings them together, a choice that was made for them by Q. Q will guide them through an intuitive experiment, with their agreement.

The two live only a mile apart, on opposite sides of the Nieuwe Maas in Rotterdam. However, since covid19 ‘rules’, they will have a video conversation. Aart signs on from a somewhat dark looking music cellar. Soña answers from her small, sunlit workspace. They receive a brief explanation before they are gently pushed into the deep end.


Q: Nyctophylia could have been the name of a Greek goddess. Out of spontaneous love for its elegant name this composition has been selected to be the theme of our conversation. Here’s wishing you an inspiring start.

As a warm-up the two are invited to reflect intuitively on several associative notions.

Q: What do ‘alienation’ and ‘darkness’ evoke in you? Feel comfortable and take your time.

After a few minutes Aart kicks off. His eyes look cheerful, while his voice contains appreciative dark tones.

A: For me alienation and darkness merge into ‘the not knowing’. As a matter of fact, that is a very inspiring topic to me. It relates to ‘the unheard’, I mean something that you’ve never heard before. Some sounds can be alienated and therefore be unheard. As much
as darkness has a certain ‘unseen’ effect: there is something covered by the darkness.

Soña absorbs the description. With a pleasantly light voice she introduces her spontaneous thoughts. There is a subtle hint of ‘white noise’.

S: Thinking of these words I imagine myself meeting a bright floating ball. Something that is alive, like a creature. We merge together. At the same time I feel darkness inside me. It also feels like a white canvas that is filled with darkness …

Chuckling amused …



Q: You are already broadening our minds. The next pair of words is ‘awake’ and ‘dreaming’.

S: Am I awake or dreaming?
I constantly ask myself this question. Sometimes I pinch myself, because I’m not sure if something is a dream or reality. For example when I am happy. Maybe when I come to the end of my life, I will think: is this life just a dream?
And maybe I am also dreaming this meeting right now.

A: That touches my thoughts, Soña. I especially like the space between being awake and dreaming. It’s a liminal space, so to speak, or a limbo …
in which the lines are blurred between falling asleep, dreaming, and waking up. It’s also about sensitivity. It may feel like
having a dream within a dream, or having such a vivid dream that it feels like you’re awake.

S: Sometimes I pinch myself, because I’m not sure if something is a dream or reality.


Q: This leads you almost naturally to the next couple: ‘twilight’ and ‘humanity’. Aart, how do you feel about these two concepts?

A: Hmm, twilight … I associate it with shadow, time and space, the position of the sun. When the sun is at its highest point, you cannot see any shadow. Resonating on humanity… I think of being able to reflect on what it means to be human. Together the two notions prompt thoughts about current affairs* and how humanity is dealing with ‘the not knowing’. We are living in a twilight zone. Drenched in shadow.

S: I see a human being saying ‘we need to shine as sunlight’. I think of how humanity has developed towards high technology and a longer life span. Humanity now has to figure out how to deal with pollution and environmental problems. We cannot see the real sun – the bright future – without solving these problems. Or we are already going down after sunrise.

* the lockdown for people all over the world because of covid19, red.

A: What you said earlier, Soña, about the white canvas filled with darkness.

Q: Let’s move to the ‘real music’ of Nyctophilia. Would you like to recall the first time you listened to this composition, Soña? What happened then?

S: From the beginning it felt like I was sleepwalking alone at night. Then this story came into my mind … A boy is lying asleep on his bed. A kind of darkness in the room is getting closer to him. Its shadow is spreading all over. Then, all of a sudden, the darkness comes to the boy’s bed. In his sleep he is very aware of this dark feeling. Finally the boy opens his eyes, he looks at the furniture in his room, the closet and the book shelves. Everything is shaking. The closet doors are opening and closing. Books are falling on the floor …

A smile of surprise becomes visible on Aart’s face.

Then there is the climax in the play. I enjoyed that part very much.

Soña continues.

The boy is sleepwalking towards the door of the room. The door opens. He can feel, he fears, that something is getting into his room … but he can’t see it. There’s a mirror opposite the door. The boy looks at it. The boy is really scared and somehow he is also very fascinated. Then he sees himself in the mirror. All of a sudden he wakes up … All the furniture in the room is leaving the room. The boy follows. He reaches the forest …

Silence. S is delving into her memories.

There is more, but [slightly hesitant] … I can’t catch it now.

Aart looks honoured by Soña’s description.

A: Wow, generally, when I write a composition, I’m not so much searching for a story line. It surprises me when it happens.

Q: Can you give a glimpse of how you did create Nyctophilia?

A: Well, it started with an invitation from Gaudeamus. I was asked to prepare a piece to be performed by a large string ensemble. I intuitively added percussion, guitar, bass guitar and the recorder trio. Then I started to rewrite a piece that I already had created before, but about which I wasn’t completely satisfied yet. I intended to write a really wild virtuoso solo for the first violinist of the string ensemble. I also wanted to explore the unknown explicitly, find a way to bring the unknown to life. Meanwhile there was very limited rehearsal time. So I came up with a different way of conducting. I incorporated certain cues in the score, and each cue meant something different for everyone. In fact it was another kind of language with its own syntax. In a sense it’s very dark material to handle. Even at the premiere we didn’t know how everything would come together at the very end.

Aart starts gesticulating.

If you look at the video, at certain points you will see me show three or five fingers. It corresponds with the cues. Different musicians then respond to each other … I built my own house of cards, as it were. It could easily be destroyed if someone missed a cue or wasn’t listening. So the performance itself is ultimately about not knowing what is going to happen.

Aart notices Soña visualising his words in her mind. He waits two seconds.

There was a great atmosphere. I really liked the kind of tension that it brought onto the stage.

Deep silence. To break the silence, S, A and Q briefly laugh heartily.

S: Sometimes I can picture the whole illustration in my head…

Q: And how do you feel about Soña making an artwork as a – yet unknown – response to the recording of Nyctophilia?

A: It’s actually the first time that someone, you Soña, is going to interpret a recorded performance instead of the score. Every time a score is performed, the musicians give their interpretation to it. Once an interpretation is recorded, it gets in fact fixed, while I prefer the liberty to make each performance sound differently. ‘Records ruin the landscape!’ said John Cage already in the sixties. This time is different. I’m very happy that the original openness of the score is passed on through the recording.

Aart says this with modesty and a kind of understated excitement.
Soña takes over smoothly.

S: I agree with you that creating is hard to grasp as a process and needs genuine openness. If I try to visualise a story too hard, then somehow it runs away from me. It’s delicate. I just always have to wait for the moment that it comes to me naturally. I’m still figuring out if there is some kind of trick, a way to let the inspiration come to me at any time I want. But I haven’t found it yet. So I feel like it’s just magic, this moment when all of a sudden I can clearly visualise a feeling to make an illustration.

I once heard an interview with the actor Joaquin Phoenix. He got questions like: what was your intention? What did you want to show? What made you act this way? He answered: I don’t know. I don’t know. I just was in the moment and I did it.

His reaction interested me, so I kept following his interviews. He always gives the same answers: I don’t know. I can’t explain. It was just the feeling. I like his answers very much. To me they explain a lot. You just make the best out of it within the moment.



After this striking reflection by Soña, the words disappear from the scene. About 100 minutes have passed. Much has been said. There is still much more to discover. The two characters raise their hands to say goodbye.

Soña has been invited to create an artwork in response to Nyctophilia. The result is visible now.

Gaudeamus is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Do you want to discover more about its turbulent past, the unexpected present and the unknown future ?

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