Luc Brewaeys: a life of timbre, bells and exuberance

BREWAEYS UNFOLDING is the title of a project dedicated to the hyperkinetic Flemish composer Luc Brewaeys (1959 – 2015). With an exhibition, a catalogue and a webpage, the curators have succeeded in keeping the colourful beauty of his musical career up-to-date.

MATRIX (Centre for New Music) in Leuven is the driving force behind this project, in collaboration with KU Leuven Libraries, the Musicology Research Group and the University Archives of KU Leuven. SPECTRA Ensemble, Odysseia Ensemble and radio Klara also contributed. The occasion is the transfer of Brewaeys’ artistic archive to the University Archives of the KU Leuven. The intention is that the archive will stimulate broad interest in Brewaeys’ music and initiate new research initiatives.

The most striking feature of the project is the exhibition in the Leuven University Library. The visitor has two rooms at his disposal in which to be stimulated by photos, letters, notes, comments, info-panels, a video and showcases with scores — most with English translations. The scores show that Brewaeys’ eye for detail and his tendency to squeeze as many notes as possible into a measure are not incidental qualities. But all the material, from calligraphically written notes to practical instructions for the tasting of malt whisky, points in the direction of a colourful person whose field of vision consisted of sounds, whether or not in clouds of confetti. It is striking that his wealth of ideas hardly manifested itself in notes and experiments but found its way directly into the scores and especially into performance practice. A drainpipe, bottle organ, bathtub, extra reverb from reverb generators — anything for timbre. His great love for the orchestra was obvious, but then the orchestra in which everything moves, everything is nervous. So a bit like himself. And with electronics, he could add his favourite bell-like sounds at will, or develop new chords by holding down notes or endlessly extending them.


Brewaeys did not make it easy for his musicians. A trumpeter had to be able to play a long glissando, which requires superhuman control of lip tension, air pressure and subtle manipulation of the valves. And in a saxophone part, the musician was expected to play an alto and a tenor saxophone simultaneously for 7 minutes, which is only possible with the help of the technique of circular breathing. In 2011, his entry for the compulsory work of the semi-finals of the Queen Elisabeth Competition for (solo)singing was rejected because it was “difficult”. But two years later, radio Klara chose him as Musician of the Year as a matter of course.

Fortunately, the curators also included a corner for opera. Although he had great reservations about the theatrical aspects of opera, Brewaeys could not resist the temptation to compose the opera L’uomo dal fiore in bocca (text Luigi Pirandello) at the request of the then intendant of De Munt, Bernard Foucroulle (2006). It is the story of a man who has an unusual tumour -in the shape of a flower on his mouth- and in the face of death develops a changing outlook on life. He tastes the juice of an apricot differently than before and he sees new aesthetic horizons in wrapping paper. Not much happens in this opera and that created space for Brewaeys to unpack musically with a mixture of the classical singing and a concerto for tuba, including a solo. He also chose Sprechstimme in order to be able to stick the text as accurately as possible to the music. And the chaotic orchestration at the end expresses how the protagonist struggles with the acceptance of his approaching end.


Brewaeys consciously sought international contacts. Not just to learn from, but also to make his own work known. For example, he once sent some scores to the British composer Brian Ferneyhough, the master of complexity. It was he who pointed out to Brewaeys that he was impressed by his technical abilities but could not understand why he was playing so many tricks. On four long typewritten sheets of paper, the visitor can become acquainted with his doubts: was the virtuoso acrobatics in all those bricked-up bars meant to give as much information as possible or to create confusion? And what function do all those repetitive movements have, to fill time perhaps?

The exhibition is complemented by an online version that also features an extensive playlist of Brewaeys’ music. If you look carefully, you will also find a video of the solo Very Saxy with Dominique Spriet on the bass saxophone elsewhere on the webpage.

Finally, there is a pleasantly designed exhibition catalogue that also serves as a liber amoricum. Twelve contributions ranging from personal memories, musicological analyses and two interviews give a complete picture of Brewaeys as a musician, teacher, conductor, inspirer, bon vivant and above all as a human being. “In music, too, I am a bon vivant”, Luc Brewaeys said in an interview, “I like nice-sounding exuberant things”.

  • WHAT: BREWAEYS UNFOLDING, project by MATRIX (Centre for New Music)
  • WHERE: Exhibition hall of the University Library, Mgr. Ladeuzeplein 21, 3000 Leuven. Thursday – Sunday from 10h to 17h, until 12 June 2022. Entrance: € 2
  • BOOK: BREWAEYS UNFOLDING, €8 (with ticket)
  • WHO :
  • Curators: Ann Eysermans, Melissa Portaels
  • Online exhibition: Klaas Coulembier, Melissa Portaels
  • Book: Ann Eysermans, Rebecca Diependaele
  • Podcast: Gerrit Valckenaers
  • Design: Klaas Coulembier

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