Get ready to hear something new in the cello world. Belgian composer-cellist-producer Stijn Kuppens gave The Cello Museum this special interview, including an exclusive pre-premiere of one of his new videos. (Scroll down to the red subheading to find it.)
Be sure to tune into his live stream performances next week. Enjoy!
Q: How did you end up choosing the cello as your musical voice?
A: I started playing piano when I was 10 years old, and the violin when I was 12. I didn’t “click” with the violin, but in the classroom next door, there was this intriguing teacher who played the cello. He seemed to be more of an artist to me than a teacher, finding his happiness in the cello.
I decided to give it a try, and at age 13 I found the instrument that was natural to me from the first moment. Learning to play cello was natural and easy for me in those first years.
I could lose myself playing the piano alone for hours, but with the cello, I discovered the power of the music while playing in a symphonic youth orchestra. I knew that this instrument would be a soulmate for life.
Q: What cellos do you play and use for performance and recording?
A: My first professional cello was made by Hilaire Darche, a Belgian cello maker, in 1926. I am thankful to this cello for everything that it helped me realize.
But it was only three years ago that I met the cello that felt like my internal cello voice. It’s a French cello from c.1860, with a raw, primitive side, comparable to a soul’s voice with this “grain” that makes it very personal and shows a lot of character.
I think I was only ready for this French cello at that very moment since in many ways it’s a totally different type of cello than the one I was playing at the time – and from the “ideal” cello that I previously had in mind.
This cello is powerful, has a considerable number of wolf tones, and is rather difficult to play. When I play it, I recognize myself in what I hear, and this kinship with the cello makes me incredibly happy.
For the recording of one piece on my upcoming second solo album, instead of using my French cello, I played a five-string cello with a low F-string, made by Belgian luthier Katrien Vandermeersch – a real discovery!
I was fortunate that I had trained myself to be able to play on different cellos for my first album, Inner Cello, anticipating the fact that I would need to perform on unfamiliar cellos while traveling overseas.
Being able to forget which cello you’re playing is worth a lot because it means that you’re entirely focused on the musical content, freeing you from the distraction of minor technical details.
Q: What was the spark that set you off to explore new sounds and create such unique music?
A: My musical life has always been full of surprises. When I was a teenager I decided that I would never become a professional cellist, because I wanted to keep the music pure and unaffected by the outer world.
It was only when I was 22 years old, having just graduated as a sales engineer, that I felt a strong vocation to concentrate on the cello. I made a U-turn, changed my life completely, and entered the conservatory to become a professional cellist.
I was not at all prepared for this, and started at the bottom of the hill, facing the biggest challenge of my life – but it was the best decision I ever made. Through music, I discovered myself and the world, developing patience with myself, and meditating on small details.
Every year since then has been surprising, allowing me to discover new aspects of musical life and giving me the chance to dive deep inside them. I have had the opportunity to work with fantastic ensembles ranging from small chamber orchestras to opera orchestras.
Parallel to this I founded and played in numerous chamber music ensembles, having the opportunity to discover up close not only the string family, but also woodwind, brass, harp, organ, and world instruments. In the background, I collaborated on pop, jazz, world music, and free improvisation projects.
After about 10 years, from time to time I started to create solo pieces for specific occasions out of the normal concert circuit, allowing me to be completely free in my musical language.
After 20 years of being active mostly in the classical concert circuit, I took a radical decision to focus 100% on the composition, recording, and performance of my own music. This U-turn was caused by the unexpected encounter with the cello of my life. Through this instrument, I felt the need stronger than ever to let out my “Inner Cello.”
I wanted to discover the cello again from my own viewpoint, and discover what I would do with this instrument, not following guidelines from somebody else.
In this way, I developed new playing techniques based on my personal approach to the cello. By “new” I mean “new to me,” since I’m very aware that there could be many cellists who discovered the same techniques before me.
But this qualification is not so important. What matters is the way you discover new techniques, and the most magical way is to discover them by yourself. Same with musical ideas and rhythms: relax your mind and listen to your body when discovering which music is hidden inside you.
Having lived the life of an amateur musician until I was 22 years old, and having a lifetime of interest in all kinds of music – music from all times and cultures – I realized that what comes out of me spontaneously is music that represents who I am.
As human beings, we are a blend of everything that has happened to us. As a musician, I aim to let out my “Inner Cello” music, authentic and spontaneous, in a musical language that blends the music I have heard with the music that comes from inside of me, without judging, compromising, or discriminating in styles or genres.
My quest is not to create music in a certain style, but to discover the music that comes out of me. That is what “Inner Cello” is all about.
The second step was to decide if I would share this with the world. I took the time to play my music for the people around me and noticed that my music was also meaningful to others. When I went to the New Directions Cello Festival (NDCF) 2018 in Köln, I found my family of non-classical cellists, and I discovered a community of open-minded cellists to share my “new direction.”
In 2019, the founder of NDCF, Chris White, invited me to this groundbreaking festival in Boston. I had the opportunity to share my Inner Cello philosophy in a workshop. It’s just amazing how music can bring people together.
My mission remains twofold:
- to integrate my music in my personal life – for example, to play my music as my children fall asleep
- to share my music and make it accessible for everybody in the world, thanks to the revolution of streaming platforms.
From time to time a magical encounter happens. I think of my online connection with Australian cellist Karella Mitchell, which happened through the experience of listening to my music.
Q: Do you encourage your cello students to create their own music?
A: Having chosen the path of taking full responsibility for the creation of the music that I play, I think that I cannot give any clearer encouragement to my cello students to explore their own “inner cello.” I fully agree with the statement:
“The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.” – Alexandra K.Trenfor
I encourage my cello students to discover the cellist that is inside them. Creating their own music is a possible path to follow, but there are many ways, and one is not better than the other.
Q: What advice do you have for other composer-performers?
A: My advice for other composer-performers is to enjoy every single second that you spend with your music and be grateful for having a combined talent of composing and performing. Follow your own path, don’t compare, don’t judge, and put a lot of love into what you do.
Q: Are there specific stories behind all of your works?
A: There are indeed specific stories behind all of my works, mostly quite extensive. Most of my pieces have a human story behind them that I translated musically into motives, rhythms, and structures. This dimension of my work in particular gives me a lot of meaning and sense to what I do.
The title is often fundamental, wrapping up the whole story in one word. People always enjoy when I share the story behind my pieces with them, but I feel a certain hesitancy about this. While I’m very happy to share the story, I don’t want to just put it on the website, for example. Why? Because I want to allow every listener to hear his, her, or their own story.
In my upcoming live streaming festival, I will give some background about several pieces, but again, it is just another dimension that the listener freely chooses to include or not.
My pieces are often worlds of their own, planets in my musical universe. What I like is the fact that you don’t need to know the story to appreciate my music. That is important to me. But if you like the music, and you are interested in the story behind it, there is a whole new dimension to discover.
Q: You work not only with other musicians but with videographers and photographers – have you worked with other artists as well?
A: Besides working with other musicians in different genres and styles, and other performing artists like dancers, I really like working with visual artists.
Working with videographers, photographers, and designers is part of my music. But recently I started up a collaboration with a sculptor, which has helped me discover a whole new dimension. Through his work, I discovered a physical representation of my Inner Cello world.
To find out more about this collaboration I invite you to follow my live stream festival.
Q: The Heidelberg Variations reflect the art of printing and its development. What inspired you to connect music and this technology/art?
A: Some years ago, I was contacted by the Belgian federation of printers to play at their annual meeting. I proposed to write a new piece as an homage to the printing industry.
In my research I listened to iconic Heidelberg printing presses, discovering the music inside these repetitive machine sounds. Thanks to this inspiration, I developed my first chop motives. The Heidelberg printing press has a long history spanning more than 100 years, evolving over time and becoming increasingly complex and more modern.
I had the idea of representing this history through a musical theme that starts very pure and simple and, like the printing press, evolves into something more and more complex and becomes more and more modern.
When everything is ready, the machine starts printing at full speed, the highlight of the day. Towards the end of the day, deadlines need to be reached, symbolized by the finger tapping on the body of the cello. And then the machines in the workshop are turned off one by one, going back to the silence of the beginning of the day.
There is also an emotional layer in this composition. One of my strongest and earliest supporters was the director of a printing company who passed away a long time ago. On a deeper level, this piece is my homage to him.
Q: What inspired you to create your Dialogues, stacking new voices on top of existing works?
A: The initial inspiration to create Dialogues with my existing music was specific musicians. The Dialogues with violin were inspired by my friend and violinist, Hugh Desmond, and the Dialogues with oboe were inspired by my friend and oboe player, Joris Van den Hauwe. Their playing was the impulse for my musical inspiration.
It was the strangest experience hearing in my head an extra new layer on top of my existing cello solo compositions. By adding the violin or the oboe on top of the existing cello part, it became a new composition. When listening to the cello solo piece, it is difficult to imagine that there is a place for an equally important new voice, but there is! It worked very well!
First I was afraid that I wouldn’t like the solo version anymore, or that I would constantly have the feeling that something was missing. What still strikes me is the fact that the solo version and the dialogue version of all the pieces co-exist, without negatively affecting each other. There are more Dialogues to come, stay tuned!
Q: How do you notate your music for yourself – or do you?
i. I have an ambiguous relationship with music notation. On one hand, I can confirm that music notation is crucial in my musical creation process. But on the other hand, I can confirm that musical notation is by definition incorrect, a-musical, and an extreme simplification of what music really is.
In the first instance, I think music notation should be a way of remembering musical ideas and structuring a composition. There is a very big difference between music notation for your own use, where you try to write down the music you can hear in your head, and music notation to be played by somebody else, where that person tries to translate the notation into music.
I’m not at the point of writing down my music accurately enough for others to understand what I mean through reading my scores.
ii. My most important tool to remember a musical idea, make it possible to go over, and to build a composition and finalize it, is music notation, whether it is on paper or on the computer. I rarely use audio or video during the composition process.
From the moment that I have a new musical or instrumental idea, I try to write it down in as much detail as possible in order to not lose the “finesse” of it.
iii. Each composition goes through many stages, sometimes more than 50, before I present it to the public. I keep on refining, changing, and adding until nothing more asks for change. From that point on, the composition will live its own life through recordings and performances.
Once a piece is finished, I learn it by heart as soon as possible and internalize it in my memory and in my body.
The score will have a practical use during recordings and will then be archived. I don’t use scores anymore during live performances. I feel that scores build a wall between the musician and the public, not only due to their physical presence but also because of the visual concentration the artist focuses on them.
For me, music notation is a practical and essential part of the composing process, but not of the performance.
iv. Since I am personally developing new playing techniques and looking for new sounds and sound effects, occasionally I need to invent new means of notation, sometimes inspired by the notation used in contemporary classical music.
v. Despite the importance of music notation in my composition process, I see possible dangers as a consequence of the use of scores. Our music notation system is by definition an extreme simplification of a much more subtle musical idea. We are so used to this that we don’t even see the huge discrepancy between what is on the paper and how it is translated into sound.
Music notation, more and more often created with software and its integrated playback function, influences the expectations of composers and performers when transforming a score into music.
In new compositions, we must avoid unnatural standardization, rhythmical quantizing, and perfection, and keep finesse, nature, subtle nuance, irregularity, instability, imperfection, and friction.
Q: How did you notate the parts for violin and oboe in your Dialogues?
A: The violin parts were written for a live performance, and appear to be written in standard classical notation. However, the amount of extra information I needed to provide during rehearsals was impressive, even though I tried to be as accurate as possible in the printed music.
A certain freedom of interpretation needs to be applied if the composer is not present. But when a composer is present, it is essential to let him or her complete the score if the notation cannot convey the musical ideas precisely.
The fact is that as a composer if you write a group of 16th notes, you rarely think of regular 16th notes in your head. What you write down is the closest simplification, but in reality, you have a more complicated rhythm in your head.
Q: How has the pandemic affected your compositional work? Will some of these continue in your work after the pandemic is over?
A: The pandemic has had a surreal effect on the world. Disaster scenarios that we knew only from movies, became reality and forced the whole world into a whole new way of living.
In my case the forced isolation gave me the opportunity to form a deeper connection with my children and for us to spend more time together as a family. It also allowed me to finish the composition and recording of my second solo album, consisting of eight new solo pieces.
This combination of doing something very meaningful in my family life as well as in my professional musical life has been a fundamental experience, which I don’t ever want to lose.
Q: What new projects do you have that we can look forward to in the future?
A: I’m very excited to be working on the integration of sculpture in my live performance. This will give a new visual dimension to my work. Musically I’m starting up a collaboration with a fantastic jazz drummer. There are also more dance clips to come and I’m exploring new paths with a live electronic artist.
Exclusive Video Pre-Premiere for The Cello Museum
Stijn has kindly given Cello Museum visitors this exclusive pre-premiere of one of his new videos: Chaconne Theobroma.
Stijn says of this new work:
“Videographer David Jacobs captures today’s zeitgeist in his video language. With his background in breakdance, he was the ideal videographer for me to work with.
“I’m very honored to have Laetitia dancing to my music and bringing it such a special extra dimension. Having David filming her dance art, brings a third collaborator since I would describe him as a dancing videographer.
“The spirit of the video is about the joy of life, the joy of dancing, being free in your mind, and facing life with positive energy.” – Stijn Kuppens
Performances 4, 5, 6, and 7 March 2021
Be sure to tune in as Stijn shares and talks about his music on his upcoming LIVE STREAM FESTIVAL Inner Cello Dialogues. You will hear some previously released pieces as well as some premieres and new releases. You will also see more visual materials and learn more about his collaboration with a sculptor.
LIVE STREAM FESTIVAL Inner Cello Dialogues
Your Turn: Here’s How to Follow and Support the Work of Stijn Kuppens
Be sure to subscribe to Stijn’s newsletter and social media channels and let him know your thoughts about his work. He tells us to:
“Listen to my music and share your experience with me. Music is all about connecting with yourself and with other people.” – Stijn Kuppens
Many thanks to Stijn Kuppens for his inspiring interview and for giving The Cello Museum visitors an exclusive pre-premiere of his “Chaconne Theobroma”!
Thanks to Chris White, the founder of the New Directions Cello Festival, for allowing us to use two of his photos.