Aart Strootman, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I was always thrilled seeing the piano teacher of my brother play boogie-woogie as a demonstration of what he was technically capable of. I must have been six and could only smile hearing that forceful, joyful music. In attempts of copying him I created my own music without any knowhow of music, music notation, piano technique etc. Only many years later I picked up the guitar after seeing the Rosenberg Trio playing in the style of Django Reinhardt, to me it had the same persuading energy and joy. After finishing my studies classical guitar I dove into musicology and music theory that opened the route to writing music myself. Reading and analysing pieces by Grisey, Xenakis and Scelsi made me crave to explore these sounds with a pen in my hand instead of a guitar.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far? 

I think every frustration can be turned into a source of inspiration. I can recall the days I was working a lot on contemporary music with the classical guitar, it always frustrated me that the instrument was too soft, and I had to play 50% louder to ‘compete’ with musicians that played instruments much louder than mine. It was a joy for me to pick up a jazz guitar in the evening and show my face during jazz sessions in the nearby jazz club. Only many years later during some intensive cooperations with composers I made the right choice: introducing the electric guitar in my work as a classically trained musicians. With amplifiers I was audible (sometimes even too loud, woohoo) and I could chain effect pedals to enhance the tone towards the wishes of the composer (or the piece). This sparked so many great collaborations.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The people behind the group or instrument(s). An integral part of commissions is the question “who is going to play this music”. Knowing the character and technical preferences of someone can change the music drastically. This is the biggest pleasure of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras: getting to know them, and reciprocally them getting to know me via my music. Compositions are amazing social vehicles.

Of which works are you most proud?

One of the works that will be performed during Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival this year is the work I made for Kluster5 as part of my Gaudeamus nomination last year. It is a personal orchestration of a touching YouTube video I encountered: the meeting of a young girl and a fantastic jazz musician suffering from Alzheimer’s. In the following videos you can see the material.


Whole piece:

The piece is based upon this YouTube film:

Why I’m still proud of it is because I’m happy that this composition made it possible for many more people to hear this music. To a certain extent I rescued it from the dusty corners of Youtube and put it on a stage.

How do you work?

Every piece starts with mulling over the options. The instruments, the musician/s, the language, the potential, the inspirations. This can go on for quite a while and then all of a sudden the piece can be there – incredibly fast. I can lock myself up and work on it for 14 hours straight, because so much has already cooked through. That does not mean nothing can change anymore. While writing, in the process of writing everything is still flexible (form, content, shape) but it can make sense quickly because I took the time to overthink it beforehand. It’s like medieval construction workers building a church: of course there is the geometry of the drawing, the design is utterly perfect. But while building the house you have to find the stone that fits and then the material sometimes decides for you. In the alignment of the idea (crystalline) and fact (fluid) the piece comes to existence.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I genuinely dislike quotes like ‘follow your heart’ because they reduce an important concept to a meaningless knockdown argument. Aspiring musicians should first of all go with the flow, do many projects and experience different music and environments. After a while there must have been one or two that kept you awake for some more hours, because you wanted to study / read / practice it more. After a while you’re so consumed with it that you cannot stop talking about it, to everyone around you. That’s the moment to seize that emotion and turn it into an engine for creative output. Enthusiasm cannot be underestimated. Writing a PhD on a subject you don’t like is doomed to fail. Conveying music you’re not enthusiastic about to an audience isn’t necessarily doomed to fail, but you are a liar – and living a life lying is not sustainable.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Besides finishing my promotion I hope to have a practice in composition and performing where I am responsible for all instruments that are needed. I want to rethink instruments as a vehicle between composers and musicians. Offering them via open source as vector drawings so they can be easily manufactured everywhere around the world.

What is your most treasured possession?

My notebook. Not the physical book nor the content but the ability to write down thoughts and ideas and turning them into action – that is a great gift.

What is your present state of mind?

Thankful. Two questions back I answered the question where I want to be in 10 years and dared to answer that with a lot of ambition. Ten years ago I did the same and even though I made many turns and loops on the avenue I imagined back then it somehow worked out. That is only partly because of perseverance and hard work – there are many beautiful, hard working people around me that support me. That makes me above anything else thankful.


Aart Strootman’s ‘Shambling Emerge’ receives its UK premiere at this year’s Hudderfield Contemporary Music Festival. Further information here


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