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CD Feature/ Maarten van der Vleuten: "Een onvermoede Bocht"; "Kurt's Zimmer"; "High Intolerance towards Low Energies"

img  Tobias

When, in 2007, an online magazine interviewed Ignace Schretlen about his upcoming collaboration with Maarten van der Vleuten, the Dutch Poet had nothing but praise to bestow on his compatriot. What impressed him most, Schretlen said, was van der Vleuten's uncompromising tendency to invest a lot of time and passion in projects without thinking twice about their commercial viability. It goes without saying that this kind of approach almost by default implies a creative existence outside of the mainstream canon and far away from medial hypes. While other acts are busy honing and displaying their supposed „realness“, after all, van der Vleuten is actually „living it“. In almost a quarter century of producing and churning out records, he has found a way of staying true to his ideals while silently participating in almost all major developments that have shaped and transformed the landscape of electronic music in the 1980s and 90s. And if a particular idea caught his imagination, he would allow nothing to stand in his way.

„Een onvermoede bocht“ („An unexpected bend“), the aforementioned handshake with Schretlen which has now finally been released on Signum Recordings after several delays, is a good example for this philosophy, marking the physical manifestation of van der Vleuten's long-standing desire of combining the worlds of poetry and music. Even as Schretlen was still penning his pieces, van der Vleuten was taping intuitive improvisations to the sounds the words would stir up in his head. With the author's background in a former career as a surgeon, topics range from the bewilderment of anaesthesia, unexpected calls in the middle of the night, childhood memories of his father, the bitter loss of loved ones and, as in the title poem, the proximity of dream („a flood“) and death („the ocean“). Van der Vleuten counters this diversity and intimacy with an equally eclectic and private sonic galaxy, navigating between tender analogue Synthesizer fantasies („Vader“), microtonally crackling dronescapes („Zijn Verhaal“) and cosmic sequencer pulsations („almost 10-minute „Het Wiel van Armando“).

Even though each track is essentially a spontaneous impression, every note is carefully placed here. As van der Vleuten recently revealed in an interview for Dutch broadcaster VPRO's „Cafe Sonore“, he was taught to compose quickly while working on a project in the late 1980s which saw him musically comment on up-to-date news reports on the radio. A story would break on Monday and leave him with a day and a half to score, record, edit and master an entire piece before handing it to the courier just on time before the Wednesday transmission. You can sense this duality of immediacy and precision on „Een onvermoede bocht“, which feeds from a close connection between the lyrics, which Schretlen himself delivers with a brittle tone and exact metrum, and the accompanying music.

Just as Schretlen adds preciously little ornamentation and avoids superflous dramaturgy in his rendition (strangers to the Dutch language will find his aspirated Tilburg-accent to be comforting and melodic), the arrangements almost exclusivey begin with an integral reading of a particular poem, during which sound seeps in and then quickly takes over. What, to some, may seem repetitive is the logical consequence of a thorough understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of poetry: It is most often not the actual words that matter but the silence that follows them. Van der Vleuten's music extends into this space by offering an acoustic interpretation of this intense and hyper-aware quietude. The result is an even deeper sensation and a more detailed grasp of a poem's implications: Just like drinking Vodka with raspberry syrup and Tobasco (a Polish speciality) leaves a taste of sweetness on your tongue, a spicy sensation in your throat and a delightful warmth in your belly, the audio-literary cocktail of „Een onvermoede bocht“ delights the ear, the heart and the mind alike.

The remarkable attention and care which has gone onto the packaging („Een onvermoede bocht“ comes as a combination of a book and a CD in a specially designed cardboard box including a printed medical spoon) goes some way in explaining how important the „Gesamtkunstwerk“-aspect of his trade is to van der Vleuten. Which is why it should come as no surprise that he was only to happy to participate in an installation project initiated by visual artist Karin van Pinxteren. For „Kurt's Zimmer“, Pinxteren sought for inspiration in the work of German author Kurt Tucholsky, who was admired for his intellectual sharpness, wit and political humour and whom she particularly revered for his insightful analysis of human interaction.

Through a combination of undiluted nostalgia (the installation consists of a hybrid between a stylised merry-go-round and a plain black room with a wooden floor) and a brutally honest perspective on history (Tucholsky's work was quickly banned by the Nazis after grabbing power and „Kurt's Zimmer“ was consequentially displayed at the conjunction of Dutch concentration camp Vught and a high-security prison), Pinxteren asks questions through psychological visual queues and the irresistible force of memory. Van der Vleuten, meanwhile, supported her aims by composing a Waltz, both disarmingly naive and intriguingly dark, which would play for 2:40 minutes every ten minutes, before lapsing into a break of quietude.

Again, the interaction between music and silence is essential, as is the idea of sound as occupying a similar space as poetry and images: „To me all music, if it really wants to be of meaning, should contradict the time it was written in“, German composer Johanes Schöllhorn said, „because we are, after all, imaginative beings capable of empathising with other times, states of being and utopias.“ This, too, appears to be van der Vleuten's perspective, whose music is escapist in a private way: It leads us straight into our inner self.

All the same, it has taken quit a bit of time for him to discover his true musical identity. In striking contrast to these art-oriented projects, there is also a second side to his personality with a strong love for the dancefloor. Since 1986, this side has made itself heard through several club hits and ambient projects under pseudonyms like Major Malfunction, Zimt and In Existence, some of which have by now attained the status of underground classics. There was certainly no contradiction at work here, though, as van der Vleuten released cuts selectively and on a variety of self-created imprints in order to avoid having to water down his vision. And yet, it would take until late last year and the release of „high intolerance towards low energies“ that he would officially attach his civilian name to a project.

It is not hard to see why he chose this record as his „coming-out“. With its myriads of layers and highly detailed production, „Intolerance“ sounds like the kind of work which was thought over and refined to perfection for years. On four tracks (two for each side of the Vinyl), van der Vleuten creates a dense web of tense musical lines held together by reoccuring themes and subtle transformations. Inspired by the contrast between the intense peace and sinister side of religion conveyed by former monastery „Regina Coeli“ and an outside world dominated by an endless influx of increasingly obtrusive input and information, mutated chants and threatening backwards sounds clash with microscopic crackles, percussion and sonorous synthetic choirs on top of a rhythmically undulating ground bass pad.

Breaks between pieces are fluent and hardly ever particularly incisive – one probably has to think of these tracks as constituting an interrelated suite. Rather delineating a mysteriously expanding and inflating state than a collection of individual tracks, the album appears to stand still in a moment of complete concentration, as though a thousand thoughts were flooding the brain within fractions of a second. Which is probably also why a lot of ideas and motives are closely and yet discreetly connected here: The generous use of delay, for example, seems to mirror the ornamental medieval vocal techniques of his samples.

Even though „High Intolerance towards Low Energies“ is a confounding and intensely physical experience for most of its duration, it comes to rest in closing finale „Limbus Infantium“, which soothes the gaping wounds with lyrical melodicism. It has made all the difference in the world in terms of public reception: While „Een onvermoede Bocht“ en „Kurts Zimmer“ have largely failed to attract the imagination of the media, „Intolerance“, with its hints at Dark Ambient, Noise, Electronica and Cinematic Soundscapes, has received a warm welcome in the most diverse publications. Maarten van der Vleuten will not have wasted too much time on their respective sales figures, however. Commercial viability, after all, is the last thing on his mind when composing.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Maarten van der Vleuten
Homepage: Tonefloat Records

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