Pianist, conductor, composer and publisher. A repertoire that varies from piano, violin, opera, oratorio and wind orchestra to chamber music. His musical toolbox is overflowing, but it did not come naturally. A frank conversation about the hard and soft sides of the profession.
“A piece has to be right. In the end, that is the only thing that counts for me. A score is right as soon as you have the feeling that every note you take away causes a problem. For me, the perfect mastery of the craft comes first. That is sometimes denigrated. But if you don’t master the craft, you are not a master. Pronounced complexity is sometimes an excuse or a smokescreen because the composer does not get to the essence. I admit: nothing is as difficult as being transparent and clear. That has also become my credo. You can write atonally or tonally – every music is essentially tonal – but it has to be right.”
Piet Swerts (Tongeren, Belgium, 1960) actually wanted to become a writer. When he was little, he went to see Flemish films and wrote letters to the actors. He would get handwritten letters back. (“That was fantastic”). But his first written product was a piece of music. Swerts was 11 at the time. And for his 14th birthday, he received a score of Strawinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. A year later he wrote his first work for orchestra. After that the train had left.
Swerts: “When I was 17/18 years old, I was captivated by avant-gardism. I then wrote Parallaxis, a hyper-complex work. It consisted of musical modules that you could combine, a complete role-playing game with detailed instructions. The notations were graphic, so the pitch was not exactly defined, but I had no problem with the final sound result. It sounded avant-garde, but allez, I was open to it.
I was a very sensitive person at the time and I was surprised by the huge resistance of musicians to play something like that. I drew the conclusion that the freedom in that complex score was too great and that the sound result always remained the same. But the musicians became so cranky that one of them put down his instrument, stood up and said: ‘Does anyone have an aspirin? That touched me enormously. Those are moments that stay with me, because if that hadn’t happened I would have been an enormously progressive composer.”
The famous Queen Elisabeth Competition eventually acted as a turbo for Swerts’ compositional journey. In 1987 his chance came when ‘Elisabeth’ organised a national competition for the compulsory work and Swerts’ Rotations for piano and orchestra was selected. That gave a catapult effect and Swerts became musically famous overnight.
But perhaps 1993 was even more important because the Elisabeth Competition then selected the compulsory work via an international competition. There Zodiac for violin and orchestra was picked, there were 154 entries from 28 countries. A concrete consequence immediately followed: the commission for the opera Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Piet Swerts: “In retrospect, that was a poisoned gift. Usually, you receive such a commission as a final career step, but I was 33 years old – ambitious, young and inexperienced. I just let them walk all over me. The cooperation with the conductor, director and librettist was a big problem. It started with the librettist, an expert in old French literature, but not in opera. He had never written a libretto. The director had rarely directed an opera. In my case, I allowed myself to be influenced too much by the conflicts between the librettist and the director. I was squeezed in the middle and that conductor who was making his debut had an enormous opinion of himself. There was this big communication problem and I actually let myself be steamrollered. Terrible, terrible. I made five or six versions. I know that the day after I handed in the score, I had acute pneumonia. Pure exhaustion. But it didn’t turn out to be a dramatic story because commercially it was a success, the ten performances were sold out. But the reception was very mixed, so that gave me a serious setback. I must say I learned a lot from that.”
“Whether I will ever write an opera again? Absolutely. I often think about it. I do not need to be commissioned to do so. Take Debussy: he worked for ten years on Pelléas et Mélissande, without a commission. Alban Berg, Beethoven idem. They went in search of their own artistic needs and presented the piece after it was finished. I think that is a healthy attitude, because you are not dependent on a commissioner. Because of the financial aspect, they have something to say about the content. That is my biggest lesson: don’t compromise on that. At the moment, I am not working on an opera but I am playing with the idea of casting Jedermann by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in an opera form. I can say that I am ready for it, technically and above all mentally.”
“My working method is to start around 8.30 a.m. and if I have the opportunity, I just keep on working until I can’t anymore. That is usually a maximum of 3 hours and then it just stops. The next day I play it and continue. I don’t try to consciously interfere, I just want it to happen. You try something and you see if it can become meaningful or not. Sometimes it is very difficult, but then after 3-4 versions you have gone and it is self-explanatory. But a creative process is unconscious, you let your intuition speak. Deletion is a conscious action in which you tap into your intellect, but it should no longer allowed to be present when creating. With me, creating is an unconscious and natural process.”
“The big problem with large and established publishing houses, such as Schott or Boosey & Hawkes, is that they work with contracts for the duration of the copyright and that is until 70 years after your death. What company can assure you that they will represent you in good faith 70 years after your death? So why would you go to a publisher and sign a contract renouncing all your property? So I went into business for myself. I now have my own publishing house, Zodiac. I have about 130 editions, plus a digital webshop. That was a lot of work. I edited 5,000 pages in one year. The means are there: video recordings, audio recordings and you can look at digital scores. It pays off. I also see how many people visit the site and which visitor has contacted me. In fact, it’s no different from the way the Bach family worked, which was a whole company that sold the first copies of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier very dearly – they flew away.”
“In my teaching activities at the LUCA School of Arts in Leuven, the focus is on teaching skills. A student must already have the essence of composing. We actually try to create situations in which students can develop as many concrete projects as possible. I share experiences with students. I see that many composition students always make the same kind of mistakes that I used to make myself. That is: not being aware of the materials. Many students have good ideas, but appear unable to develop them into a meaningful whole. Sometimes a student comes up with one page of score after a week. I sometimes write 200 measures in a day, but many students quickly block because they have not examined the material from all sides. Then I say: look at the texture, the orchestration, the power of repetition, the upbeat etc., so very small things that have a huge impact.”
“The orchestral medium is fantastic, but I’m leaning more towards the chamber orchestra now, so more intimate. It’s true that everyone always dreams of the large symphony orchestra; as a composer you can put a lot into it. But it is always a lot of work and the programming remains difficult.
I still dream of cycles. I have been thinking about that for a few years, a cycle of 7 symphonies, but the challenge is to connect them cyclically. Those large-scale works, works that last longer than half an hour, that is always a challenge, especially because of the requirement of form control. I saw that, of course, with my oratorio A Symphony of Trees (2017), but also with my collection of 24 Straight strung piano sonatas (2018). “
Composition is an essential component of my existence. I have learned this through trial and error, as I have had many commissions, and yet also experienced artistic depression. Around my 40th, at the time of the Second Symphony, I really couldn’t cope any more. I started a doctorate to open up my horizons again. I threw myself into polyphony. Not out of frustration, but to try and create a new perspective. That is how I finally found a balance again with the rest of my life. Writing music has to be communicative, communicative to yourself and therefore also to others. If you see the craft as the highest thing, you are going to put a lot of yourself into it. So somewhere you communicate with the audience through yourself.
My oeuvre is very varied. Does that mean that I have no personality? Not at all. Versatility is a quality. I used to have too little technique, but I had all the opportunities, and now I have perhaps too much technique. My toolbox has become very large, so I can afford to make something from the little I have. That is fantastic.”
- 26 February 2022: Masterclass and subsequent concert and discussion (moderator: Olav Grondelaers – Klara) in the Stedelijk Conservatorium Hasselt (all day from 09h00)
- 29 March 2022: Masterclass for pianists in the Academy in Genk
- April 7, 2022: Piet Swerts plays his 24 sonatas in the chapel of Hof88 in Almelo (NL). Dutch premiere. https://www.kamermuziekalmelo.nl/concerten
- May 15, 2022: 24 sonatas in the Abbey of Averbode. https://www.averbodeklassiek.com/
- May 2022: premiere of Big Ben Rhapsody for carillon and orchestra, Cathedral of Mechelen. Info will follow: http://www.pietswerts.be
PHOTOS: Wynold Verweij
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The composer as empirical practical craftsman, not as dogmatic technical ideologue?