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Maarten Beirens Interview

Posted on 21 September 2018. © Copyright 2004-2023 Composition:Today

Christian Morris talks with Maarten Beirens, artistic director of the Transit Festival, part of Festival 20/21 held in the Flemish city of Leuven.

Maarten Beirens
You’ve been at the festival since 2015?

Let me try to do the maths...I think so. This is my fourth edition.

Could you tell us a little bit about the history of the festival?

It started in the late 90s. It was founded by Mark Delaere who is Professor of Musicology here in Leuven. He had been running a new music festival that he had been organising from within the Musicology Department using students who were doing everything in house, ticketing and whatever. So not a professional organisation that really stretched the possibilities of what a musicology department could actually do. But the impulse was already there. That festival had a different name - it was Nieuwe Stemmen, New Voices. It had the aim of bringing together music as a practice as composers are dealing with it now and musicology. Bridging the gap between scholarly study of music on one hand and the music world as an active creative thing on the other.

It sounds like the original concept was a little bit like the Transit part of the Festival now?


But it was also later called Novecento?

I'll come to that...So in the late 90s, he decided that there were possibilities to create a professional festival as one of the Flanders Festivals, Festival van Vlaanderen (there are eight of them) and he took an opportunity to make a Leuven-based festival. Not only Leuven-based but also including some of the surrounding minor towns. He chose as his focus music that would initially alternate each year between ancient music, Renaissance predominantly, and the other year twentieth-century music and a set of concerts that would cover the classical and romantic repertoire. So you had all three domains: ancient music, repertoire and new music. Then gradually they dropped the Renaissance music because there were other festivals that were already specialising in that. So the decision was made to keep a bit of repertoire and lots of twentieth-century music. Then, in 2000, he created Transit as a kind of focus point for new music. Initially the first Transit editions were kind of thematic, the very first one was devoted to early serialism, especially the forgotten side, composers like Michel Fano or Barraqué, people who were doing very interesting things but didn't get the limelight the way some of their colleagues did. And the angle for Mark Delaere there was of course the person of Karel Goeyvaerts, whose archive is here at Leuven University and who was a central figure in new music around 1950. But that's a different story...

So the very first editions of Transit were mostly focused on the composer or on some kind of aesthetic - there was one Xenakis-centric year, there was one around minimalism and Louis Andriessen and there one around Michael Finnissy. So these were the first Transits and then, in 2006, the entire framework of the Festival was redesigned in a way that dropped all repertoire from before 1900, instead focusing only on two things: twentieth-century repertoire on the one hand and twenty-first century new music. And that's where Transit got its specific function of being a twenty-first century music festival and all the rest, the repertoire part, got named Novecento and was to be devoted to music of the large twentieth century?

When Pieter Berge and myself took over in 2015, we rebranded the festival from "Festival van Vlaanderen Vlaams-Brabant"to "Festival 20/21" which comprised the two established series: Transit and Novecento. What happened this year is that we dropped the "Novecento" name and kept Festival 20/21 as overall name (Transit is a festival within a festival, as you like) which now also serves as the 'flag' under which we offer repertoire from the long 20th century

Why the name changed from Novecento to 20/21? Was it because in 2018 the long twentieth century was now too long?

Mainly it has to do with this distinction between established repertoire and experimental, developing or new music - music that is happening now. There may be pieces from the early 2000s that we start considering now as already kind of classics. Do you want to present those in Transit, or do you want to present them elsewhere? So if you have a festival with a name that says this is 'twentieth century', Novecento, how can you actually explain that you are also programming twenty-first century music there? So we tried to create a space for ourselves to treat some quite recent works as repertoire and say, ok, let's do it that way and say Novecento, a name we now no longer use, is Festival 20/21. A kind of basic festival that will cover things that we consider as something like classics.

You mentioned there were themes in some of the earlier festivals. Does the festival continue to take this approach?

Well, the first thing is that we're dividing the programming duties, so Pieter Bergé is in charge of programming Festival 20/21. I am in charge of programming Transit. That's the basic division of labour. So that's already different from the period up until 2015 when Mark Delaere was the only artistic director, programming the entire range of the Festival. So there is already this kind of variety in programming and in choosing angles. For me personally that's a situation which is very interesting and very rewarding - to have this kind of artistic dialogue within the team and to have a broader possibility of inspiration and ideas. The things that Pieter can come up with that I have not been thinking about and the other way around. So that's how it works practically. In terms of themes, not so much. There are many festivals that really do themes and we've always decided not to do it because it can be interesting - a lever to make certain things happen - but at the same time it's also restricting you. And I've too often seen festivals bring forward a theme with a big booklet explaining all the curatorial decisions behind the theme and then trying to explain why all those different concerts somehow, despite all the appearances, do fit into the theme. That's a point where it becomes artificial. Or where you might be persuaded to start programming in a way that you're choosing works not on their merit alone but on the way they fit in to the theme. That's something that we would like to avoid. The main criteria for selecting works in both Festival 20/21 and Transit is quality or, at least the promise of quality - you believe in the composer who you commission. But what we do notice, even in spite of this, is that there are always certain connections between different concerts or certain things and you think, ok, there could be a very good partner programme in a different concert.

Such as, in this year’s festival, the performance of Die Schöne Müllerin and Daan Janssens’ Eine Schöne Müllerin?

That's a perfect example. That is specifically designed to be that way, of course, this year. And it's also kind of exceptional for Festival 20/21 in the sense that it does offer nineteenth-century repertoire, Schubert, but in such a way that we are doing something from the tradition and immediately juxtaposing it with a way of looking at it, not from tradition, but from a composer who is writing the piece as we speak.

There are a number of British links with the festival: a co-commission with Huddersfield, the presence of several British composers. How were these links forged?

It is not a conscious decision, it's not a matter of focusing on British music and British composers. Some of these things will have arrived in one way, and some in another way. There are different explanations, I think, for each case but one indeed is the collaboration with the Huddersfield Festival, but that's a collaboration that works in both directions in a sense. For instance, when they publish their programme you will see that Huddersfield this year will offer a programme with Hyoid that we premiered here last year, which we developed with Hyoid and Jennifer Walshe, an Irish composer. And the other way around, we're doing their James Dillon project that premiered there last year. So that there is this way of joining forces round commissioning works and around creating projects. We're a small festival internationally. We don't have the reach of several, for instance, German festivals. We have to make do with what we have and forging these kinds of connections with other festivals such as Huddersfield, such as November Music in the Netherlands is actually a very good formula because it allows you to do things that you wouldn't be able to pull off all by yourself. So commissioning James Dillon for us would be too expensive if we had to do it just by ourselves. But joining with Huddersfield, with November Music, with Sound Festival Scotland, then you can actually make stuff happen. So that's one thing that partly may explain the presence of some British composers though obviously James Dillon would be on my list of composers I would like to commission anyway.

Perhaps it unfair of me to ask this question, but are there any highlights, any concerts you are particularly looking forward to?

Let me return to the previous question first because some of the other things have to do with personal connections you have with composers. Michael Finnissy is an example in point there, because he has a long-established relationship with the festival from one of the earliest editions and for a couple of years held the special chair in new music here at the Department of Musicology in Leuven. This was given to composers, first to Karel Goeyvaerts who died within a few months after receiving his appointment, then for more than seven years by Henri Pousseur and then Michael Finnissy and Louis Andriessen. So there is this kind of personal connection with the Festival, with us in person. One of my first tasks as an assistant at the University here at Leuven was to book hotel rooms for Louis Andriessen and Michael Finnissy. So I know all the hotels in Leuven from that period! So that's a kind of established connection and if there is an opportunity, someone approaches you and says 'Look, Michael Finnissy said you might be interested in this work we tried to develop with him for two bass clarinets' etc. etc, we say 'Mmm. Why not?!'

The personal connection is always important…

Not only with composers but also with the ensembles. Perhaps the first people you start talking with when you are starting to design projects are the performers. They will have to do it and figuring out together with them what may work and what may not work, what fits with their performance tradition is a crucial thing. It's like matchmaking! You make connections with composers, with repertoire, with people that would like to perform them, people you would like to bring to the Festival. And you see where all these things can actually come together and make sense.

Tell us a little about Robert Adlington's armchair sessions, where the theme of 'democracy' in new music will be discussed. Can anyone take part or is it more a panel with the audience watching?

It's inside the Stuk Cafe. There is a little stage with armchairs and microphones. A kind of panel discussion in an informal way. That's one of the things that I started to do from my very first Transit Edition. To say, okay, let's still have these panel talk moments but let's not do it in a separate room but let's make it low threshold, accessible to everyone. People going to the bar at Stuk having Belgian beer, listening or not listening, as they choose, whilst the people on the stage are discussing.

And the theme?

This year, Robert approached me because he is doing a research project on this very topic, not just democracy in general but the way democracy is implemented into musical practice. And that also goes back to his research interest in music from 1960s leftist composers who were establishing different models of forging an alliance between politics and new music. And he tries to project that into what is happening in current musical practice. So for him it is also a research thing - to get in touch with musicians and composers and see how they are dealing with decision processes within their artistic work. The idea of collaborating or not collaborating, the way of engaging the audience. And there are several projects that may be interesting or several practices among the people who are invited to Transit who may be interesting for him. On the other hand, he had this Huddersfield-based - this time the University of Huddersfield, not the Festival - possibility to explore it from artistic angles. So Bryn Harrison, who is a composition teacher at Huddersfield, is writing a new piece based on a type of equality among musicians that involves the musical translation of certain processes that we may conceive of as democratic. So that's the starting point for the entire armchair sessions. Basically we just agree that Robert will host the two events on Saturday and Sunday and we will talk to musicians and composers who are available there and discuss in an open way what democracy means to them.

What plans do you have for the future of the festival?

As I see it, the formula of the Festival is quite clear and well-established so, in terms of the future, it will basically be more of the same, within the confines of what we can do. Which means also, in terms of space, and also in terms of technical support etc. There are certain limitations. Leuven has no real concert hall. There are plans for building one but these are, at this stage, still plans. Once again it's a democracy thing...The final decision will only be taken after the local election of October, of course, because it's a new city government. But there are certain restrictions in terms of using multimedia, setting-up time you need for doing technical check-ups etc. etc. And I've also noticed that for Transit especially we are sometimes really pushing the boundaries of what we can comfortably achieve. Timing is really tight -we are doing 9 concerts in three days, so building the stage, doing a sound-check, timing for that is limited because you need to clear the stage for one of the next concerts. So once it becomes kind of visual performance-like, multimedia-like, the challenges are increasing. So that's maybe the thing that we will need to consider for the future. But otherwise the formula will stay the same: twentieth-century repertoire with its rich set of possibilities in Festival 20/21 and, on the other hand, Transit as a kind of laboratory where all the exciting things that are happening in new music now can deserve a spot.

Festival 20/21 runs from 24th September-25th October
Transit runs from 12th-14th October.

More information and tickets can be found at the official festival website:

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2023

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