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SERGE VERSTOCKT about his artistic vision

Between creating and being created A conversation with composer Serge Verstockt, artistic director at ChampdAction

“I used to think that I could change the world, but now I feel as though the world is changing me.” These are the words with which Serge Verstockt seeks to determine his identity as a composer today. More hesitant and less assertive, perhaps, in a quest for the crossroads between creating and being created; between telling and being told. Swerving has become an art. Verstockt's thoughts tumble around one another like clusters: this is the report of a look back in three themes, a composer's portrait with four faces.

Three themes that are dear to Verstockt's heart


“Without fingers I can't think”, the words are borrowed from Igor Stravinsky. As Serge Verstockt read them, he underlined them with a red pencil, copied them in his notebook and put a bold exclamation mark next to them. He can't do it either: thinking without the body. The inevitable presence of the body, its communicative power, the dialogue of the body and the technology that surrounds it and finally the world in which the body lives: they are some of Verstockt's favourite trains of thought, themes that keep on surfacing.


“The body of the human being adapts to new technologies,” he explains. “But how does technology adapt to man? We have learnt to type because at one point in time there was a typewriter. However, when you write something with pen and paper and look down at your handwriting you'll find a form of communication with many more layers, much more complex and more profound than just the meaning of the word you have written. Writing is a gesture: how these letters make their way to the paper, the form that is given to them, the measure of force with which you press the pen to the sheet. We relinquish this complexity because of technology. The question you have to ask yourself when doing so is the following: what does technology gives us in return?”


The body of the musician and the layered meanings that body is able to summon eventually, after a brief outing in electronic music at the dawn of Verstockt's career, became a clearly indispensable ingredient: “We think and communicate with our bodies. We listen with our bodies. That is probably the reason why, halfway through the 90s, I stopped exclusively composing electronic music. Despite how interesting its construction was – you would hear something referring to nature, such as waves or the wind bristling through the trees, or to mathematical laws or the cosmos but never would it refer to a human communication model – it became meaningless to me fairly quickly. Meaningless because the human being wasn't a part of it.”



It almost seems to be a nostalgic premise, that distinct love for the body. That is, however, not the case, as Verstockt made the reverse motion at the same time: in his work, the human body is always present in relation to the achievements of technology – an endless source of inspiration that evolves just as quickly as technological possibilities do: robots interact with live-directed impulses, space and time are scrambled by algorithms, virtuality …

This fascination for technology often has a historical dimension as well: “I keep being amazed by moments in history where something changes in the relationship between man and technology. At the moment, I'm working on a project inspired by the pianola. The technology of the weaving loom developed by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, an automatic loom with punch cards, was first applied to pianos in 1910 and suddenly – seemingly out of the blue – an entire culture surrounded this 'virtual' instrument.

Millions of music rolls by big names like Debussy and Rachmaninov were sold across the globe. Isn't that just super futuristic? You could say that such inventions took away musicians' jobs, just like the jobs of weavers were threatened by the invention of the automatic loom. For the very first time, the physical musician became superfluous. On the other hand, these techniques had an immensely emancipating and democratizing function: thanks to the piano rolls, the music of black musicians became widespread on Broadway and in white bars for the first time – at a time when black musicians weren't exactly welcome there yet.”


Verstockt likes to paraphrase the words of philosopher Marshall McLuhan on this point: “each technological advancement is an extension of human possibility, yet every time this extension comes with an amputation. Technology is not the villain, as nostalgics would claim, yet it is an interesting concept to consider. What does it offer us? What does it take away from us? What are we amputating, and what are we not? And, at the very least, be aware that something is being amputated.”


The unstoppable development of technology is increasingly threatening to the position of the musician in the musical process, Verstockt claims: “the position of the musician, the physical musician, will undoubtedly be further transformed, muted even. Why would you study the most intensely difficult finger exercises for years, when a pianola can do it all for you? Or – think of a symphonic orchestra: from a technological viewpoint that is an anachronism, plain and simple. In no other domain of society does a similar model have any chance at economical survival whatsoever. Should we put people in factories in the same way today, it would be clear as day to anyone that we'd be wasting manpower. This evolution has taken place in all spheres of society: if art is a reflection of society, then surely that is something deserving of questioning? At the very least. At the same time, you have to ask the reverse question: has technology really liberated us, as we once thought it would?”



Somewhere along the road, Verstockt discovered that formal composing in itself was no longer an option for him. The world crept in, formed his music – rather than his music forming the world. “I used to live by the idea that we were 'creating' the world. This distinct modernism is something I've lost along the way. To me, an artist today is someone who opens up to what the world is becoming and who's not afraid to criticize it. This realization was a long process that eventually helped me to take another stance toward the niche of contemporary music: the scene seems to be secluded to a handful of festivals and the academic world – all very well and interesting, but I've noticed that that's not meant for me.”

“The movement in which you withdraw yourself purely in forms, in something that is seperate from the world, felt increasingly unnatural. Merely composing formally: I noticed at a certain point that that was something I no longer wanted to do, nor was I able to. That was a very conflicting experience. Which stance do you assume as an artist and what does it mean when you do so? On top of that I had a very strong sense that I already knew the ways of formalism: we know what formalism is, it has been defined, we know the routes a composer has to take to arrive at a formal composition. That becomes limiting in the long run. To break away from that, you need the world.”

“Political music is always something difficult. Especially when it becomes too explicit: then it loses a lot of its value, or it can no longer be considered art. At the same time, you're not escaping the world you live in. That's something you feel in the entire world of art, by the way. Globalization plays a massive part in this: the world is everywhere, it enters our thoughts through all conceivable devices. It has become impossible to think you're the only one in the world working on a certain idea. That is a completely new context and artists are continuously trying to find out how they will reinvent themselves in this new context.”

In that sense, the Lovesong project makes Verstockt a very happy man. Participants from what must by now be just about the entire world sing or perform love songs recorded by tiny heart-shaped devices. The hearts are displayed in an installation and are listened to by a different person every time. “The question is no longer: is that a piece and who wrote it? No, it's a project that is owned by everyone. Lovesong creates a new community, a network of people that have been connected thanks to those little hearts – even if it was just a short moment in which the listener pressed their ear close to someone else's song. It's a very individual network, independent from the massive network that we know as the internet. It's so close to direct communication that people sometimes ask me if this should really be considered a work of art. That question doesn't interest me at all: it creates an experience, that's what counts. It's also another case of a dialogue with technology and the broader economical framework: a mass product from China becomes the bearer of very personal, intense and locally anchored stories.”


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