Interview:Pieter Nooten

  • Words: Thomas Blake

Pieter Nooten is not a complete musical hermit. He does not live in some kind of techno-cave, making dystopian electronica from the digitised drip of stalactites and the rustle of bats’ wings. His darkwave days are over. These days, the music of the 18th century is among his most loved.

Nooten’s latest album ‘Haven’, may have been composed and recorded entirely on his Mac Book Pro, but it contains none of the icy detachment you may expect from modern, minimal electronic music. It’s a wonderful, open record, full of contrasting textures and hidden depths. Spindle dropped him a line to find out how he accomplished it:       

You’ve said before that music from centuries ago inspires you more than contemporary music. Is this still the case, and if so, is there a particular period of musical history that influenced the compositions on the new record? What composers/musicians are you listening to at the moment?

To be honest, that is all taken a bit out of context. I admit that I am a great admirer of baroque music and the music of Bach in particular, which to me exists on a totally different and profound plane of its own and cannot be compared to anything before or after. But no, of course I do listen to contemporary music. I love what is coming out of Iceland (Sigur Ros, Mum) and what labels like Erased Tapes are trying to accomplish. Fact is that if I want to listen to traditionalist music, I prefer the very old above the not so old. I have nothing with the typical Anglo-American rock idiom, its tired old clichés and the musicians who desperately cling to its achievements from the 60s or the 70s. Pop music is quite a new phenomenon in the history of music and should innovate, not ruminate. For Haven I totally isolated myself from everything and everyone. I wanted to compose the music that was in my head and in my heart (sorry for sounding a bit pretentious), without any distractions or influences. During Haven I only listened to Bach and the occasional minimalist. The first because the perfection, geniality and complexity is so elusive and accomplished compared to my own musical capabilities (read: restrictions) and the latter because of its soothing simplicity and accessibility.

Composing and performing entirely on a computer must give you complete control over the end product. How long did it take to get everything sounding right? Would it have taken longer with a bunch of musicians in a studio?

First of all, I would love to be able to record with a bunch of musicians but budgets nowadays won’t allow me. I just cannot begin to imagine how some of my music would sound if played by real musicians. But it is also a double edged sword. Being able to compose and mix on a computer and a laptop in particular gives total freedom. Especially for someone like me, who loves to work in seclusion, it is a more than perfect situation. I can hook it up to a midi keyboard if I need to play a chord structure. Then I can take the laptop and spend time editing or programming anywhere, anytime. I have been experimenting and perfecting things in the weirdest locations, from travelling to lying in bed, being almost asleep. So, this album is as deep and profound a product of my own imagination and capabilities, limitations as well as liberations, as possible. When you play with other musicians you are exchanging ideas, influencing each other, subconsciously affecting the final result. That as you can imagine was far from the case here.

Do you see this way of working as a constraint, and is there a sense in which constraints can be artistically liberating, or can force you into choosing interesting and productive directions you wouldn’t otherwise have pursued?

Well, like I said, being able to experiment with audio within the confinements of your own safe haven is an absolutely liberation indeed. I am a total autodidact and had to find a lot of audio effects out by myself. This occasionally resulted in accidental gems which I would not have encountered if I had been working with a partner or musicians.

Are there any plans to recreate the music of Haven on stage? If you were to tour the album, would you use musicians or would it just be you and the Mac?

I would love to! I have been playing a few small shows and they were wonderful. Again, budgetary restrictions keep me from hiring even a few musicians, but I have live set ups ready with either just me on midi keyboard, controllers and laptop, or with a live v.j. and a cello player. It is all very intimate and fragile so absolutely not suited for rock temples or live clubs.

In the past you have sang, and used other singers on your records. When you write a piece of music do you have a clear idea at the very beginning that it will be an instrumental or a vocal piece? Have you written anything for vocal performance recently or are you concentrating solely on musical composition these days? And while we’re on the subject, how open are you to future collaborative projects?

To be honest I feel much more comfortable not having to deal with the vocal issue anymore. I believe I have left that stage. I myself am NOT a gifted singer and having other people interpret my music was interesting and inspiring but also took the initial feel from my compositions to totally different realms all together. It resulted in albums that were a bit ambiguous and uncertain in style and quality. The vocal tracks were wonderful in their own right, but they did not fit in the whole concept of the album. I am totally to blame for that myself. The vocal contributions were wonderful. But I wasn’t able –apparently- to create a coherent sound to match the final product.

You’ve worked with Anka Wolbert on original material since you both left [1980s darkwave pioneers] Clan of Xymox, but would you ever consider revisiting or reworking any of the music you wrote for Xymox, perhaps for live performance?

I truly believe in progression. Art needs to evolve, not look back or get stuck in epigonism. I need to learn from the past and admire the achievements but will not dwell on them and certainly not copy them without innovation. I have nothing with traditionalists or reactionary copyists, in any art form. Also, I have serious doubts about older pop musicians who tragically cling to hipsterness. At some point you need to let go and move on to more mature objectives. It doesn’t mean you need to ‘grow up’ but please, leave being hip to the young and beautiful. Also, I don’t think I will ever re-work a Xymox track for live performance. I am not in that band anymore and I am stubbornly moving on into different and new territories, which is so much more interesting.

Have you any idea what form your next musical project might take, or are you already working on something new?

All is open… But I would love to collaborate with other musicians and composers a bit more this time. This voluntary seclusion from the public and society was interesting and ennobling but now I need to open up to the world again or else I will end up a total recluse.

Keep up with Pieter’s latest news and releases here.