THE "PROGRESSIVE CLASSICAL MUSIC" OF WIM MERTENS
by Raymond Benson
One of my favorite composers is a Belgian named Wim Mertens. He is fairly well-known in Europe, but not many people in the U.S. have heard of him. This is a crime. With his latest CD, Charaktersketch, just released, I felt inspired to revisit and update an article I wrote that was published in 1998 in Progression Magazine. I had the pleasure of meeting Wim in Brussels that year when I was researching my third James Bond novel, High Time to Kill. In fact, I put Wim in the book—music is playing in a restaurant where 007 and his latest girlfriend are dining. She responds to the music, Bond asks what it is, and she tells him that it’s Wim Mertens. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in contemporary classical, modern, or progressive music seek out Wim Mertens.
Wim Mertens and me in 1998.
When the Belgian/Flemish composer Wim Mertens is asked how he would classify his own music, he raises his hands in a bewildered gesture. "These labels are changing from country to country," he says. "In Spain it's different from Mexico. It's 'New Age' in one store, in another it's 'New Music.' I've seen it as 'Minimal Music' or 'Contemporary Music.' In some retail outlets I've seen my CDs classified under 'Classical,' 'Pop Music,' and 'Jazz.' Even in Belgium it's changing from store to store. Is that a good or bad thing?-- I don't know. I cannot change it. The only label I can propose is 'Contemporary Music.' It's a complicated thing that is never resolved."
When the description "Progressive Classical Music" is suggested, he laughs. "That is a new one! A new label! Doesn't sound very commercial! I've answered that question at least fifty times. If I say my music is produced in the tradition of written music, that is not really true because only about 80% of it is written music. Much of it is scored on the piano but I can also say that my music comes from no tradition, and that is more interesting for me. I see myself not hampered by elements that I don't do myself. This comes from a long tradition passed down from generation to generation—my father and his father, etc.—that's how I prefer to see it. I work from piece to piece and project to project. Defining it is irrelevant."
Therein lies the key to the simply amazing music produced by this relatively unknown (in America) composer and musician. Long-standing admirers of progressive rock, film music, and so-called contemporary classical music, might honestly say that "progressive classical music" fits the bill. Some listeners would most certainly lump Wim Mertens in the same category as Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and other practitioners of modern classical, minimalist music. It is arguable that Mertens goes beyond these extraordinary talents by imbuing his own work with more dynamics, emotion, melody, and ambition. If his music was performed by a rock band format, it would definitely be in the "progressive rock" family. However, Wim Mertens chooses to use classically-oriented ensembles (as do Glass, Nyman, et. al.) as well as a personal, solo-piano and voice combination that is totally unique.
Mertens' comment that his music comes from generations of tradition is quite true. His father, Henri Mertens, was not a professional musician, but he was a musician who constantly filled the home with music (and even recorded an album). He was a singer and played piano. "It's because of my father that I spontaneously get in touch with music," Mertens says. "My brother and two sisters—we all started in music."
Wim Mertens was born in Belgium in 1953, close to the Dutch border, in a town called Neerpelt. At the age of eight he went to music school, where he first studied classical guitar. From a very early age he was composing songs. He went to the Genk Music Academy at the age of twelve, and finished when he was eighteen. Going on to university, Mertens attended the Music Conservatory in Brussels, but he gave up music for a while and chose to study social and political sciences and communications. He went back to the main university in Leuven, on the Flemish side of Belgium, at the age of twenty-two, to study Musicology, and later dug into Contemporary Music at the university in Ghent. His interest in modern classical music resulted in the writing of a book, American Minimal Music, which was published in Flemish in 1980 by Kahn Publishers, and was later published in English in America and the UK in 1983. Mertens' book was an intelligent analysis of the work of composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. Naturally, these composers served as Mertens' main musical influences.
"These names were influences, yes, but more important was that when I went to study the situation on the European side of music in the 70s, for many reasons I felt at that time I didn't have a plan to start recording or composing. I felt that the European avant-garde music was not what I was looking for. It was not my starting point, I had to find my information somewhere else. It was impossible to escape from that school, though. It helped me to define my own music by moving away from the European experience. When I listen to music—I went through all the European avant-garde, but I also listen to American music and contemporary jazz—Monk, Steve Lacey, etc. I also listen to medieval music. For three years I worked as a music journalist and I had to listen to everything!"
Mertens began recording in 1980 using the name Soft Verdict. "It was an artist name that I used from 1980 to 1984," he explains. "Soft Verdict was the name I used to present my music." (Since that time, the Soft Verdict albums have been re-released under Wim Mertens' own name.) "My first studio recording was produced by the American, Peter Gordon. It was a single called “At Home/Not At Home.” He introduced me to the commercial recording studio. Soft Verdict was not a group, but I used bass, drums, saxophone, harp, vibes, piano, guitar... the harp was from my classical guitar experience, and the saxophone did what I eventually came to do with my voice. The name came from the contradiction of words—a verdict is not soft, so I liked that contradiction."
Wim Mertens is perhaps most well-known in America for two albums released on the New Age label Windham Hill—Close Cover in 1986, and Whisper Me in 1988. (Mertens is also known in the U.S. for his score for Peter Greenaway's 1987 film, The Belly of an Architect.) Both of the Windham Hill albums were anthologies of works taken from Mertens' original Belgian albums released between 1982 and 1987. His "signature" piece, "Close Cover," a beautiful and haunting song scored for piano and ensemble, appeared on several Windham Hill samplers and anthologies. Unfortunately, these two albums went nowhere, and the label chose not to pursue the artist any further (the two titles are now out of print). It was the Windham Hill compilations that first attracted the few American listeners to Wim Mertens' music. The real treasures, though, are to be found in his works produced post-1986. For those who have been aware and interested in Wim Mertens' music, they have had to search high and low in import shops, over the internet, or even go to foreign countries to find them.
What is most extraordinary is that this prolific composer has released nearly sixty albums between 1980 and the present, not including compilations!
Mertens' work can easily be placed into three distinctive categories of music. The first is his ensemble work, which is arguably the most interesting and accessible. From his first ensemble album, Vergessen (1982), to his brand new CD, Charaktersketch (2015), Mertens has pushed the boundaries of the ensemble by using brass and string instruments as percussion. Using less repetition than his contemporaries, Mertens blows Glass and Nyman out of the water with high-energy, tension-filled, incredibly fast pieces such as the less-than-two-minute-long "Watch!" (from 1989's Motives for Writing)—a recommended cut for introducing someone to Wim Mertens. “’Watch!’ is a special piece," Mertens says. "In a minute and a half you have this kind of excitement in it that goes beyond the normal expectance you have from such a short piece. We do it live these days. I have a new band which is bass trombone, trumpet, two saxophones, piano, drums, and we are actually touring a lot these days."
At the same time, Mertens is capable of haunting, beautiful melodies, such as "Au Delá du Fleuve" from Integer Valor (1998). Sometimes there is such an inexplicable element of sadness in the music that it causes you to stop whatever you’re doing and just listen. "Yes," Mertens nods, "many people have mentioned the sad quality in my music. I cannot deny it, but I cannot confirm it either. To do that, I would be too much in it, or I would have to identify with it. I don't have enough distance to say yes or no. Probably that emotion you feel is something you have felt in some other way in your life, and the music has somehow tapped into it," he explains.
All of Mertens' ensemble works combine various instruments (usually with a piano at the forefront), and sometimes voice, to create a continuing progression of similarly-themed musical textures. Of all of Mertens' music, it is recommended that the beginning listener start with any of the ensemble CDs—especially Struggle for Pleasure (1983), Motives for Writing (1989), Shot and Echo (1992), Jardin Clos (1996), Integer Valor (1998, or the full-length epic, Integer Valor Integrale from 1999), Skopos (2003), Receptacle (2007), Zee Versus Zed (2010), A Starry Wisdom (2012), When Tool Met Wood (2013), or the latest, Charaktersketch (2015).
The second category of Wim Mertens' music falls into the "solo piano and voice" department. Whereas these works can more easily be classified as "New Age," Mertens has brought something entirely unique and personal to the concept. He sings in a characteristically high-pitched countertenor voice, using a carefully crafted and imaginary personal language that is improvised over the structured piano pieces. On first hearing, one might find this quite strange. Repeated listenings, however, result in a subconscious connection between the composer and his audience that ultimately moves into a purely emotional level. In the end, it doesn't matter that one doesn't understand the words he's singing. It's the emotional intensity of the phrasings that finally affects the listener. If Jon Anderson of Yes uses lyrics and his own voice as "an instrument," then Wim Mertens does the same thing in a much more original and dynamic way.
"The words are not related to one single language," Mertens says. "I can use different languages, I can even sing in English sentences or words. I use names of friends, or phrases, or whatever. I also write phonetically for other singers to sing. Since the end of 1984, I started using voice and singing in this kind of language. It's been there now for decades. I'm not sure where it comes from. I created it, it was a spontaneous way of singing. It probably has to do with the fact that Belgium is a mixed language country—there is French, there is Dutch/Flemish, German—and probably also I needed a language that was conducive to musical sounds. I could emphasize the dynamics and be very free to do what I want to do. Most of my music is written out, but the singing is the only element that is changing or improvised in concerts. While the instrumentation is constant, the voice might change nightly."
Does this language tell a story? "I cannot imagine that the words would not tell a story, but at the same time, if they were spoken there is not such a story-telling thing as we know from pop songs of today. Sometimes people tell me that I'm using the voice as an instrument, but I don't really think so. I use the voice in a very subjective way. The voice is the subject of the piece, it is the only vocal means I have to express myself and I've always used that language wherever I am. All of the information is in that voice. I was very shy to sing for a long time, and it was tentative at first. I was actually singing in the background on “Close Cover,” but that was very subtle. I was self-conscious at first because I'm singing here [pointing to his throat] and not here [pointing to his diaphragm]. I consulted a specialist to see if I could hurt my throat that way, but I was okay. It's a technique used in medieval music. I began using the vocal element more prominently in the album Maximizing the Audience . When I compose these songs, the piano doesn't come before the voice or vice versa. They're together, always together. I improvise the music and use different techniques to get it out, which is very difficult. But after it's done I write out the piano parts. Sometimes I add a second piano track, as in the song “Lir” (from Maximizing the Audience).
As in his ensemble works, Wim Mertens' albums of "piano and voice" follow a progression and are essentially parts of a series that began with A Man of No Fortune and With a Name to Come (1986) and evolved to the latest piece in this category, Open Continuum (2011). Other notable piano and voice albums are After Virtue (1988), Strategie De La Rupture (1991), Jeremiades (1995), and Un Respiro (2005).
The third category of Mertens' music could only be called avant-garde experimental music that is epic in nature. This class of the composer's work is the most ambitious and most difficult to grasp. Some critics might call these pieces "self-indulgent," "tiresome," or even "bombastic." In truth, however, they are honest expressions of a minimalist nature taken to extreme lengths. They are magnanimous and complex three and four part "cycles," composed for different settings for solo piano, solo woodwinds or brass, or chamber music ensembles. The music is often written for unusual instrumentations using multi-track recording—twelve piccolos, ten bass trombones, or thirteen clarinets.
In fact, Wim Mertens' very first recorded album, For Amusement Only (1980), features no musical instruments at all, but rather the sounds made by pinball machines—edited and constructed to form rhythmic, melodic patterns. "It was in 1979-1980, and I had not written anything. At that moment there was no way I could imagine that I would be a commercial recording artist because I had no experience with classical musicians or a studio. Antwerp, in Belgium, imported pinball machines made by Bally. We had a project with some friends there and we listened to these sounds. We would record them and edit them and use the Nagra machine, the only professional tape recorder in radio stations all over the world at the time. I worked for national radio then, and we taped many hours and used titles like “Space Invader” and “Fireball,” which were actual names of pinball games. I think it was an interesting way for me to use sounds that were already there. Bally International gave me two or three machines for a long period, and we performed the pieces in a multimedia program in Belgium, Holland, and France. We used a combination of video and tapes and manipulation of the machines themselves. It was my first important work. The title came from the warning label on the machines—'For Amusement Only.'"
The 1985 album Instrumental Songs continued the experimental work, using riffs performed entirely on a single wind instrument. Then came the sets of epic, ambitious projects that eventually totaled thirty-seven disks of music—Alle Dinghe (1991), Gave Van Niets (1994), Kere Weerom (1999), and Aren Lezen (2001). (All of these works are now available in the box set entitled QUA (2009). The enormity of the projects even overwhelm the composer himself. These are daring and confounding works. For example, one entire disk (approximately an hour in duration) of Gave Van Niets is played entirely with multi-tracked bass trombones by virtuoso Eddy Verdonck. To say that the music is slightly inaccessible is an understatement; yet, there is a power and energy in the compositions that is undoubtedly startling. (I personally find these works to be great background music for writing!)
"I think I went very far in terms of defining the musical language and musical syntaxes," he muses. "It was a very ambitious project and I've always said that I was not really interested in the music as such; it is something else that I cannot define. I'm not dealing with the musical language, it is more like I'm trying to touch my personal intelligence beyond the music. The music is very irrational, it's a different approach."
The four epic cycles in QUA are most certainly meant for the adventurous, seasoned listener.
A fourth category might be in order for Wim Mertens. In 1997, he released an album of solo classical guitar called Sin Embargo. It is such a peaceful, tranquil album that it would probably be best enjoyed with one of Belgium's famous gourmet dinners and a few bottles of fine wine. "That album came out in 1997 but was recorded in 1991. It stayed somewhere else for several years. I rely more and more on the guitar in arrangements with the ensemble music now."
Embracing all of these "categories" is Wim Mertens' work for film and theatre. "I've done several films, but most of these were never really seen outside of Belgium. I worked with Peter Greenaway in 1986 on The Belly of an Architect. Only half of the music was composed for the film. The other half was picked from existing pieces that had appeared on my albums released up to that point. The music was different from what he did in other movies. [Greenaway usually employs Michael Nyman to score his films.] The music was less conceptual, but the film is, too." Along with the film work, Mertens composed the music for the 1984 performance of Jan Fabre's Power of the Theatrical Madness at the Venice Biennial, and other works for the stage. A compilation of many of Mertens’ work for film was collected in the 3-disk set, Music and Film (2009).
So why hasn't such a prolific, dynamic composer been discovered in America? Mertens shakes his head. "Most of my audiences have been specifically in Italy. Spain is very good, and so is Greece and Portugal. Why me, being such a Nordic type, why am I so successful in these Mediterranean countries, I don't know! I'm fairly well known in Germany, Holland, and of course, in Belgium. I have fans in England. As for America... not enough exposure perhaps? I don't know. I always hope one day it will happen. Is my music too European? I don't think so."
The lack of success in America doesn't seem to bother Mertens too much, seeing that releasing nearly sixty albums in thirty-five years is a formidable achievement in and of itself. When asked what other activities occupy his time besides music, Mertens shrugs and answers, "Literature has always interested me more than music anyway."
Readers interested in sampling some of Wim Mertens' music might do well with the 2008 3-disk compilation, Platinum Collection, an anthology which indeed contains some of the more memorable moments from the composer's ensemble and piano/voice works. Do check out the official website for more information.
And here are some more YouTube cuts: