Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The 11th CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is Dr Robert CASTEELS! Dr Robert CASTEELS is a renowned composer, conductor, educator, pianist, educator and researcher. He believes that these roles are fundamentally interrelated in the kaleidoscope of activities that is music-making.
Interviewer: GU Wei
Tell us about your musical background and how you first got into composition.
I do not stem from a family of professional musicians and I resisted very much becoming a composer. During my youth, I never realized how much arts immersed my environment. Our parents entertained painters, collected paintings and carpets, took their five sons to museums and theatre performances, not particularly to concerts. My mother is a fine amateur pianist. She proposed to send me for music lessons when she heard me tinkering on the piano. She had the intelligence not to teach me, as parents are often the worst teachers for their own offspring. My interest grew exponentially. I had the luck to have, one after the other, the finest teachers. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies at the Conservatory of Brussels, I went for additional private analysis lessons with a then-famous-in-Belgium retired composition teacher, because I felt I needed more in-depth analysis skills in support of my aim to become a conductor. I resisted his advice to compose. I also left the composition course of the Conservatory after three months. I could not tahan the restrictions: after years of strict harmony study, then of Stalinian counterpoint, then of suffocating fugue, I arrived to the sanctum sanctorum, still to be told what esthetical rules to adhere to. So much contemporary music whirl around my ears that it inhibited my own desire to create. I asked myself: “who am I to compose when a lifetime does not suffice to learn all the masterpieces”. I accepted to write a piece for violin solo for a violinist friend I was accompanying at the piano. She needed an encore piece for her recital. I wrote on the condition that she would not reveal the name of the composer to the audience. To my genuine surprise, the encore was a success. My opus 1 was born. I showed the score to my private analysis teacher, apologizing that my piece reveals some Bartók influences. I have never forgotten his answer: “everybody is the son of somebody. Good on you if your artistic father is Bartók”. Apart from the years during which I needed all the time to study tons of the conducting scores, I have not stopped anymore composing. Composing is the privilege to tell your own stories using sound.
You seem to have divided your compositions into three ‘periods’. Could you briefly describe these and what caused your musical language to evolve over the years?
From time to time, it is good at times to pause, look back and reflect. Dividing my compositions into periods is a result of this afterthought. Nothing was planned. My compositional journey went from atonality to spectral to poly-modal. Last year I discovered that I could write a whole piece on one major triad. My musical language had to evolve because I came to live in a radically different environment. I discovered non-European music.
You have a vast oeuvre that includes a lot of interdisciplinary works. Could you share with us your motivations for these and any advice for composers who are seeking to venture into cross-disciplinary collaborations?
Answer is simple: aversion to boredom and insatiable curiosity. I can listen to somebody talking about a subject that totally disinterests me, as long as he is passionate about his subject. Cross-disciplinary collaboration is not an escape route. It is slower and more expensive. I am firmly convinced that everything is connected. Everything is in everything. Collaborating with other disciplines is logical, organic, invigorating, but not without obstacles. You must put a mute your music PhD language, read in between the lines and reach over to your cross-disciplinary fellow artist. You must be prepared to lose control and to let go. However, multidisciplinary journeys lead to surprising adventures that refreshingly bring you back to purely music projects.
Tell us about your upcoming concert ‘Like Nothing Else’ on 4 Nov 21 (Th) 4 PM & 8 PM. What is it about, how did it conceive and what can the audience expect?
Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky and Prokofiev were my teenager’s heroes. Studying the tuning systems of the gamelan when I arrived in Singapore in 1994 increased my understanding of Debussy’s oeuvre. At the risk of sounding pompous, I argue that Claude-Achille Debussy is the greatest French composer of all times because of the originality of his inspiration and the sheer magnitude of his intellect. His music truly sounds like nothing else, hence the title of a concert I gave on September 30 and soon restage on November 4. The concert comprises a series of Debussy art songs, mainly on poems by Paul Verlaine, a great French poet, a few Debussy piano pieces, as well as a strange contemporary atonal piece by Liszt. During the concert like nothing else I give short and fun verbal contextualization. The concert ends with the premiere of Acqua nel Riflesso, a new piece I wrote for two pianos, spoken and sung voices, dance and real-time transformation of sounds masterly done by Lynette Quek. I started writing for piano four hands until it dawned upon me that Covid-19 regulations confine one pianist to the top half octave and the other to the bottom half octave! The piece morphed into two pianos, with consequently a massive cadenza that obliged me to practice several hours a day for a month, the composer resisting the temptation of the performer to simplify! Acqua nel Riflesso revolves around two poems by Giuseppe Ungaretti, the great symbolist Italian poet contemporary of Debussy, Giuseppe Ungaretti. I discreetly intertwine quotations from Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and from The Irremediable, a piece I wrote in 1999 for vibraphone, grand piano, gamelan-tuned piano and keyboard. I used to think that quoting oneself in a music composition is pretty self-indulgent, until I realized that over time you build an internal sonic dictionary. Inevitably, one day your train of sonic thoughts needs to reuse a particular chord. I hope that our concert entitled like nothing else will transport its audience in a parallel state of enlightened mental weightlessness. 🙂
Interested in 'Like Nothing Else'? Get your tickets here!