Heleen Van Haegenborgh and the musicality of the number Pi

A conversation about nylon wire, percussionists and controlled freedom

Heleen Van Haegenborgh is a composer, pianist, improviser and performer. She does not allow herself to be trapped in specific disciplines or musical genres. She collaborates with visual artists, theatre and film makers. For ZINDERING, a festival in the framework of sweltering silence that starts this week in Mechelen, Belgium, she composed Squaring the Circle for four percussionists and electronics, with the drawings Pi by Johan De Wilde as source of inspiration

By Wynold Verweij

How does a pianist end up with percussion? 

Van Haegenborgh: “I actually find that a very logical development. As a pianist, I often use the inside of the piano and the link to percussion is easily made if you know that I once started with the prepared piano pieces by John Cage. In it, he really transforms the piano into a percussion instrument by inserting screws, rubbers and drawing pins between the strings in order to transform the sound. I left those preparations relatively quickly because they are so closely linked to Cage’s world of sound. The sound world of George Crumb, for example, was much more to my liking and mainly because of that I started looking for techniques that were more in line with my own aesthetics.  Inside techniques that can really be combined in a musical way with material on the keys. I didn’t really see the piano from a pianistic point of view, but mainly as a means to tell a story. The inside piano sound world is rich but with percussion the possibilities are really endless. ”      

You have a thing for nylon wire.

“Yes, my favourite preparation is nylon wire. Depending on how you use them, you can create a huge variety of timbres. When you braid the wires between the strings, you need both hands to make the horizontal bowing motion. But you can also attach them to the strings with a knot and then play them by pulling or rubbing the wires. The colour is then completely different. With the knot you get a very fragile sound world, without the knot the tone is fuller and you can search for the different harmonies. You pull the sound out of the piano, as it were. I am always amazed at how beautiful that sounds and it touches me to see that my pupils are also amazed when I introduce these kinds of techniques. “


“The choice of percussion, for me, ties in very naturally with the inside of the piano, so that feels familiar.                
 I have a lot of respect for percussionists because they have to learn the (new) logic of a score every time. Other musicians can rely on the fact that the solo will always be on the second line of the staff, but this is not the case with percussion. Each piece is notated differently and each composer has his own notation logic. A new choreography must also be devised for the ever-changing instruments and at times the almost impossible must be done. are inventors. In one of my recent pieces, I had asked the percussionist to scratch the cymbal with a metal object, but there was very little time between the other strokes. What did he do then? He tapes a coin to a fingernail in such a way that he can still get it done. And I’ve often noticed that with percussionists, they like to invent new things to make things work. So I think that’s a special breed.”

What have you remembered from your study of composition?

“I have had the advantage of spending 10 years of experimenting intuitively on the piano for a year and of imagining step by step the sound world I wanted to create. Then I started to study composition, to learn how to write in a more informed way. The most important thing that I concluded for myself is that a composition technique does not coincide with aesthetics.
So I use many different composition techniques –counterpoint, harmony, serial, spectral, conceptual, traditional and Messiaen techniques — interchangeably to say what I want. The contribution of my teacher Peter Swinnen was mainly that he didn’t push me in one direction or the other and gave me all the freedom. Peter is a very enthusiastic and very intelligent person and, above all, he asked me the right questions. He was my sounding board and I felt good in the Brussels Conservatoire because the teachers did not work from their ego but from their enthusiasm to get things across. Most teachers were very dedicated and passionate about really teaching their students. Crucial to being a good teacher.       

You are also active with improvisation, although you are ambivalent about it.

“Improvisation is a leitmotiv in my life but rather as a peripheral activity. I was thrown in by Wim Wabbes – at the time Vooruit’s programmer – who sent me on improvisation adventures to Istanbul, Peking and Poland. Here in Belgium, I mainly improvise with people from other musical styles whose sound world appeals to me. With Tsubasa Hori it’s traditional Japanese music, with Christian Mendoza it’s jazz and with Esther Venrooy it’s electronic music. I have in the meantime some experience with improvisation, but I take a double view on that. I find it each time very fascinating and very instructive to link back to the essence of immediate communication with the audience. The nice thing about improvisation is the freedom that is sometimes lacking in composed music. But on the other hand, it can also lead to a non-committal attitude, which I then walk away from. Improvisation for the sake of improvisation is not part of my practice. I like a fixed structure with loose elements. I also realise in the meantime that it is never my intention that the cooperation remains purely as improvisation. It should evolve to a project that is coherent and that ultimately results in a composition. And as long as that end goal is not reached, I am left with an unfulfilled feeling.”

Is this controlled freedom also reflected in your composition about number Pi?

“In all my compositions the struggle for a feeling of freedom, naturalness and immediacy is central. I don’t want my pieces to sound rigid, they have to be in touch with reality. In the piece Squaring the Circle for 4 percussionists there is that      also. I do use the number Pi but at set times is one or more parties are free to create these loose elements. ”                                            

It is said that the importance of the number Pi is that it brings infinity within reach. What can an artist do with that?

“Pi is a key work by the artist Johan De Wilde and property of the SMAK museum of Ghent. It is an endless series of drawings and each new drawing contains a new series after the comma. Given our common fascination with infinity, Johan gave me a painting as a gift and I thank him for it with this musical response entitled Squaring the Circle.       
 I have musically translated the chaotic and unpredictable nature of Pi freely into noise  which then borders on to silence. This is my composition for the silence festival Zindering.                              

The biggest challenge was how to bend that rather compelling system of Pi to my will. It started with a sound imagination and then the question: How can I achieve that, using techniques based on Pi?
First of all, there is the title of my work. Squaring the Circle. As the quadrature of the circle does not exist and Pi is the cause of that, it was a first challenge to give shape to that idea of squaring the circle. That comes in different guises.
I am not the composer who writes a monochrome piece of an hour based on one technique, so for a second approach I used part of the number series to determine the major structure 3589793 (a total of 44 minutes). Yet another way to bend Pi to my will and create unpredictability was to give each number a rhythmic value and thus determine the rhythmic structure. Elsewhere you can hear a canon of circles and in other places you hear harmonic or melodic squares. Visually there is also a link with the vertical aspect of Johan’s work through the choice of a set of tubular bells for each player and a reference to the title through the large number of circular instruments on stage such as 2 timpani, 2 bass drums, 8 gongs, cymbals etc. “.

That sounds very structured. Where has the freedom gone?

“I can say that, in retrospect, Pi fitted into my stall much more than expected. I used the number series mainly to create unpredictability.  Using Pi automatically creates a sense of freedom. Sometimes that freedom is tightly noted, sometimes a little less tightly to completely free. The music is played with clicktrack, but there too, the challenge is to the musicians to feel free inspite of this.

There is also a certain rhythmical passage that I had worked out completely acwireing to Pi (a large decrescendo of scattered gong beats filled with the quiet metallic sounds of cymbals and triangle) but when we rehearsed it sounded so mathematical and artificial that I decided to take away the bar marks and approach the rhythms improvisationally as a suggestion. What a difference in the way we played, how committed. The music sounded from within. Reading eyes take away a lot of receptivity in listening.  Give musicians the freedom. ‘Choose your timing, finish your sound. Don’t rush to the next sound. Take your time and make your own story’.”    

You put the ball largely in the musicians’ court. Does a composer get enough time to communicate with musicians?    

“I do indeed put the ball in the musicians’ court, but there is a relatively strict framework that determines the direction. I find communication one of the most enjoyable aspects of composing. Searching together in this very detailed matter for the best possible way of expressing something.  They are the specialists with tons of experience and can inform me best of what can and cannot be done on their instrument.

But the rehearsal time is indeed often very limited.  In contrast to theatre makers who work on a piece for weeks with actors and dramaturges, we just have two sessions to rehearse and to check whether the sound performance corresponds to what I imagined. Composing is a specific job and completely different from other artists. A visual artist      has his work full under control from beginning to end. I am dependent on the musicians, except when I make electronic music. Then I have everything under control and that is a very comfortable, although somewhat one-sided position. For Squaring the Circle, it will be a combination of both, four musicians and electronics. I consider the presence of musicians as a blessing, because control remains an illusion anyway. The perception of music by the listener is personal, and depends on frames of reference, focus and imagination. “.

WHAT: Squaring the Circle, world creation for 4 percussionists and electronics, by Heleen Van Haegenborgh

WHEN: The world premiere of Squaring the Circle is on Saturday 11 December at 19h00. Venue: Nona Arts Centre, Begijnenstraat 19, Mechelen

WHO: GAME (Aya Suzuki, Anita Cappuccinelli, Lucas Messler, Federico Tramontana)

IMAGE: Johan De Wilde

ORGANISATION: Zindering festival, Mechelen, 9-13 December 2021

TICKETS and INFO: www.zinderingfestival.be

PHOTOS: Wynold Verweij, Yannis Katsaris

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