From accordion solos to spectral music and works for self-made instruments: Aart Strootman is an eclectic, multifaceted composer. In his continuous quest for new sounds and playing techniques, he deliberately blurs the line between composer and performer.
The score to Requiem Apoidea opens with a challenge. Its very first page presents instructions for building an instrument necessary to perform the piece: a ‘bull roarer’, whose tautly-strung elastic bands produce a bee-like, fluttering sound. ‘When I start on a piece for a certain instrumentation, I usually begin by analyzing what those instruments do and how their sound is produced. Often I end up adapting an instrument. Or building a completely new one, to achieve the precise sound I’m looking for.’
The emphasis on sound analysis in his music betrays Strootman’s background as a performing musician. He plays guitar in ensembles, including the group s t a r g a z e, and is a sought-after soloist. His master’s thesis was devoted to researching a method to perform Brian Ferneyhough’s (at first glance) unplayable solo guitar piece Kurze Schatten II. This led to a fascination for what he calls ‘musical contraptions’ and for music that calls on players to approach their instruments in an unconventional way.
‘Many of my pieces involve two or three tempi simultaneously. In order to pull this off, the players have to be thoroughly acquainted with each other’s parts. Just as in chamber music, it’s essential that you know how your own part relates to the others.’ And since as a musician he’s accustomed to the performer-composer dialogue, in his own work as a composer he always seeks out a dialogue with the players.
‘It’s fascinating to collaborate with the person who’s going to go on stage with my music. That classic model of the composer who hands over a sheaf of paper and only shows up later during rehearsals—that can be interesting, but for me, the dialogue is far more interesting. In fact, my own evolution as a composer is a result of this dialogue.’
At present Strootman writes mainly for s t a r g a z e and for his own ensemble Temko. He hopes to use his nomination for the Gaudeamus Award 2017 to raise his work to a higher plane. ‘Normally I start by talking to an ensemble or musician for whom I’m going to write, and together we come up with a rough concept for the piece. Participating in a prominent competition like the Gaudeamus allows you to turn it around and say: “This is the premise on which I’d like to start that dialogue.” In that way the discussion begins on an entirely different level.’
Strootman’s work is produced in brief, feverish periods in which he lays the basis for a piece—often inspired by science or literature—in 18- to 20-hour workdays. His accordion solo The Old Man and the Sea, for instance, is based on the eponymous Hemingway story, and Requiem Apoidea is a reaction to the current worldwide wave of bee deaths. ‘Themes taken root out of pure enthusiasm, which I have to tackle immediately. That makes it highly impulsive, but it’s how I work best and fastest.’
Photo © Anna van Kooij