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Barely Dry Ink (3): Jasper de Bock

During the many concerts of Gaudeamus Festival 2023, countless brand new works, whose ink has only just dried, will be performed. Intern Sofia Chionidou interviews several composers who tell us about the compositions that they have written – or are still writing – for us. Today: Jasper de Bock on his new work for Joe Puglia, 1001 Stokslagen (1001 strikes), part of the Voices of the Violin performance, which will take place on the Thursday night of Gaudeamus Festival 2023.

We met with Jasper de Bock on a Wednesday morning, exactly after his summer vacation. We had an energetic conversation in which, motivated by his renewed appetite for creative work, de Bock struggled to trap his dynamic and multi-dimensional practice into words. He elaborated on many of his compositions’ intangible qualities and the space they open up within contemporary classical music for experimentation and risk-taking.

Autodidactic

De Bock’s introduction to composition came at a very young age. Learning to play the piano when he was seven years old, without taking lessons, and writing down his improvisations led him to discover his interest in creating music. Naturally, growing up, he received musical education, including some unofficial lessons on composition, and is now studying it officially in the relevant department of the Royal Conservatory of the Hague. However, the autodidactic dimension of his trajectory so far allows him to not be bound to specific classical traditions. In each of his compositions he starts his creative process anew and, therefore, each of his pieces has a completely different character. “I guess I really admire composers, like Ligeti or Stravinsky, who don’t just find their ‘thing’ and then do it over and over”, he adds.

When talking about his collaboration with Joe Puglia for this year’s festival, de Bock reminisces about his previous experience composing for Gaudeamus. In 2021, he was part of the Summer School with the winners of the Princess Christina Competition, another close collaboration, that time with an ensemble. This year’s collaboration was a great pleasure for de Bock, he says, with great admiration for Puglia’s skills with the violin and his contributions to the composition process. Even in their first meeting with the violinist, Martijn Padding (senior composer of the project) and the rest of the young composers, de Bock was taken by Puglia’s presentation of the individual character of each violin and soon began developing his composition.

Chopsticks

His creation of 1001 Stokslagen (1001 strikes) began with ideas about the resonance of a violin. De Bock remembers trying out a different playing technique on his own violin, striking its strings with a pencil and producing loud, aggressive sounds. When he brought this sketch and a chopstick to Puglia, the violinist was able to produce clear tones behind the walls of noise that the striking technique created. The quality of sound produced by this technique guided de Bock to create a stripped-down, bare composition with several distinctive parts. As he describes the different sections of the piece, de Bock navigates me through scale figures, cadenzas, arpeggios and references to the classical violin repertoire, revealing how the complex canons and elements of classical music give shape and content to the otherwise absurd-looking technique of striking a violin with a chopstick. He elaborates on the work’s emotional transition from absurdity towards seriousness, something he likes to incorporate in his compositions, which creates an immanent tension underlying each piece.

This is a recurring tendency that de Bock sees in his recent works. He has repeatedly introduced non-conventional elements in his compositions, such as spoken word, chopsticks and, even, vibrators, in order to explore music beyond the canon of classical composition. “Making rules for art is the least intelligent thing you can do”, he proclaims, “because it never works out. You can make this rule, and then there’s a million examples that break it in a brilliant way!” However, he does not see himself as a radical, disregarding or breaking the classical traditions. It is only that, due to the contemporary conditions of music being stored and distributed all over the world through the internet and the relatively easy access to great interpretations of canonical pieces, he seeks something that can take contemporary composition one step further. In his forward-looking composition approach, one thing he does not wish to change is the physicality of musicians, instruments and concert settings. He values the collective “contract” which binds the musicians and the audience in a concert and creates, in his words, “a fake reality”, which, “if everyone believes is there, then it’s there”.

At stake

It is his ability to bring together the heavy tradition of classical composition with new ideas in the physical space of a concert hall which makes his pieces so compelling to hear. For de Bock, his works are all about risk. “The most important thing is that it feels like there’s something at stake in the piece. If there’s something risky or if something almost doesn’t work, then the piece works.” After such an intense discussion with de Bock, oscillating between classicism and unconventionality, somberness and absurdity, praising Puglia’s talent and expressing the need to keep the audience on its toes, it would be irrational to miss the performance of 1001 Stokslagen (1001 strikes) in the festival. We have marked our calendars for September 7th and suggest you do the same!