Interview with Aart Strootman

February 10th and 11th will see the US Premiere of Aart Strootman’s Requiem Apoidea performed by Sandbox Percussion as part of Kaleidoscope’s 2017-2018 concert series. Aart lives in Rotterdam, his first child was born very recently, and is teaching quite a bit at a conservatory; so we weren’t able to schedule a live interview during his busy life, but through written correspondence, he was able to answer some questions I was dying to ask (i.e., bullroarers).

Irene Kim: Hi Aart! Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about yourself and your amazing work! How did you get started in music? How did you transition from being a guitarist to a composer, or were you always both? What is your favorite thing about being a composer?

Aart Strootman: Listening, mostly listening. My parents aren’t musicians but they showed me every corner of their broad record collection. When I was 8 years old, I wanted to become a double bass player, but since our little village offered neither an instrument nor a teacher, I had to choose guitar. After studying at the conservatorium, I decided to pick up the electric guitar since I became more and more involved in contemporary music. That opened endless opportunities to work together with composers and to search as a guitarist for new sounds. The investigation for new sounds was mostly through dialogue with composers and the result was a shared effort. From there, it was a small step to start writing myself, and now, 10 years later, my musical practice is 50/50 I’d say, half guitarist, half composer.

IK: Let’s talk about your work we’ll hear on the upcoming concerts, Requiem Apoidea. What is this piece about? How did it come into being?

AS: Requiem Apoidea was a piece I wrote after getting more and more upset about the genocide that took over bee populations. Sometimes you simply want to raise your voice. If I had been a writer, I would have written a book; a documentary maker would have made an insightful documentary, but I as a composer gave it shape by writing a piece of music.

IK: There’s a very uncommon instrument (at least in western classical music) in your piece called the bullroarer. Can you tell us about it: where it came from, how you chose the bullroarer, how you make it? (There is a diagram included in the score for a DIY bullroarer. Has anyone else made it successfully?)

AS: Haha, it is the recurring difficulty in playing my music. Before you can do anything, you first need to build or find the instrument. This comes from the dialogues I had with composers, as I described earlier. When someone asked me to write something that really was impossible on the guitar, I started to modify my instruments (simple example: if a composer asks me to play a chord with 7 voices on a 6 string instrument, I’m lost, unless I have a 7-string guitar). This went pretty far and resulted in many experimental instruments. By thinking about the soothing ‘voice’ of the bee I knew I had to come up with an instrument capable of somewhat reproducing it and found the bullroarer. I made a couple of prototypes until I found the right size for the sound I was searching for. It’s not the hardest instrument to build, so others have been able to build it as well, even though I have to admit that I never hesitate to build a set in case a percussion group feels uncomfortable creating their own.

To overcome the fact of designing and building instruments before you can play my music, I’m investigating vector drawings for laser cutters and 3D printers to simply ‘print’ the necessary instrument wherever you are in the world. It will take a while but for my music, that might be the future.

IK: It is so interesting that you would use an instrument from the Paleolithic times in a piece that is lamenting a very contemporary epidemic of bees dying. Was this a conscious choice?

AS: Yes, absolutely. I love the physicality of playing this instrument. Thereby it is a very direct correlation between the acts of performing and the sonic result. In the piece, I deliberately also distort that coherency by amplifying micro-sounds that can only be heard by a good set of microphones and a set of speakers.

IK: What other instruments have you made? How do you make them? Where do you get your materials? 

AS: It’s very, very diverse. From massive harps to bass guitars that go below 18Hz, from ancient lutes to baritone guitars, and from bullroarers to microtonally tuned metals. I love the quest that can arise from either a score or a sonic idea. I never start building something and not surprise myself with the possibilities afterwards. There’s always a plan and a search, although I have to say that sometimes afterwards (especially when including other musicians or composers), the amount of sounds possible is always greater than I would have first thought…

IK: The disappearance of millions of bees is a serious and mysterious indicator that things are not well with the earth. I feel that your piece allows people to reflect on this problem, or in some cases, forces people to face it directly. Are you passionate about the environment? Have you contributed in other ways to environmental causes, bees or otherwise? 

AS: The world is a beautiful place, we have to be kind to it, care for it and enjoy this beauty. The hazard we cause while some simply raise their shoulders is an ignorance I cannot stand. Not all my music is directly related to it, but I’m happy to (hopefully) raise awareness.

IK: What are you working on now?

AS: At the moment I’m designing a small chamber orchestra completely built out of unknown instruments (not redesigned instruments like the bullroarers), but truly newly designed musical machines. Last September, I was honoured with the Gaudeamus Award that resulted in a commission I will present in 2019. There I will present new instruments, new notes, new sounds and a new approach to music in general, which I work on day and night now.

IK: You just had a son! Congratulations!!! How do you feel?

AS: There are 100,000 things I could say here, but to summarize them, I can only say that all the clichés around your first child are simply true. Simply amazing.

IK: Kaleidoscope is about community, bringing all kinds of people and all kinds of music together. Does this coincide with your beliefs in music? If yes, how so?

AS: Absolutely, I can have a childish enthusiasm for music that speaks to me. There is so much to explore in contemporary music! If I can seduce my listeners to share the sparkle I have in my eyes when talking about it, my goals is achieved.

IK: Do you eat honey? If yes, do you have a favorite? If no, why not?

AS: Yes I do, I love these biological sweeteners like dates, honey, berries. To be honest I love sweets in general, a dirty habit indeed…

IK: [I asked Aart to include any additional things he would like to include that I didn’t ask him about. Here are some facts about Aart!]

AS:

-     I’m currently doing a PhD in the practice I described (morphing guitars towards the wishes of composers

-     I teach everything that has to do with contemporary music (theory analysis) at a small conservatory in the Netherlands

-     Cat videos make me cry of laughter

-     As a true Dutchman cheese is my favourite food

-     Baby sloths make me melt

-     I’m a sucker for designer sample sales

Irene Kim