Humans love to categorise. Discoveries, inventions, creations: all are sorted into groups and given labels. In music, this takes the form of a labyrinthine network of genres and subgenres, as well as a whole host of different “-isms” to differentiate schools of thought and aesthetic tendencies. In the face of this desire for categorisation, some musicians seek to reject all these labels and carve out their own philosophical niche.

Dutch composer and pianist Joep Beving, however, is a little more sanguine.

“People need to label things, because there’s so much out there, and it’s easy to put things into boxes,” he says, simultaneously stopping short of putting his own music in a box.

Wikipedia identifies Beving’s music as “modern classical”, but this is not a term he personally sanctions: “I never pretend to be part of the classical canon and the academic tradition. There’s just not that approach. I’m more of an ambient musician, and I use pop techniques to construct songs.”

Listening to his music, the descriptor “ambient” does make intuitive sense, and his clear presentation of delicate and subtle melodies belies a pop sensibility, but these labels are a little misleading.

Speaking to InReview via Zoom from Boston while on tour, Beving quickly moves beyond labelling into a more detailed discussion of his approach to music.

“I’m not looking to overly stimulate the intellect,” he explains. “It’s always been about a more impressionist approach: finding the right colours, making the right blend and painting a picture that is not too literal.”

Hearing Beving talk about his work is fascinating. He is comfortable talking about music as both an art and a craft – happy to not only speak broadly about his philosophy and artistry, but to also detail the specifics of his performance practice and compositional process.

This will be of particular interest to his Australian audiences, for whom he will soon be performing in Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. All these concerts form part of the musician’s tour in support of his most recent album, Hermetism (released in 2022 by Deutsche Grammophon), which is accompanied by a live-controlled light installation created by Amsterdam-based multidisciplinary specialist Boris Acket.

Pianist Joep Beving. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Turning the well-worn solo piano recital format into an audio-visual affair is quite unconventional, and Beving is eager to explain his concept, in both conceptual and practical terms. He reveals that the process of creating the installation began simply with the question: “How can we change the idea of a piano recital?”

He clarifies that he does not just mean “sticking something new onto it”, but again stops short of boxing himself in: “The word is immersive, but it’s been overly used.”

Initial planning sessions for the installation, which was originally intended only for a single concert in Amsterdam, elicited more detailed questions, he says: “What’s the purpose of our music? What are the ideas behind the album, and how can we build on them in creating a beautiful experience?”

The conversation then turns to practical concerns.

“We start the show with a very small light source, so everyone focuses on that, and then the music kind of grows out of it.”

All the light sources that accompany Beving on stage as the concert unfolds are operated manually, in order to maintain fluidity and unity with the music, and to shape the concert as a single, integrated ensemble performance.

If this sounds somewhat vague, it is entirely intentional.

“It’s dangerous to over-explain what it does, because you spoil the fun of discovering it yourself, but I also don’t want to raise expectations too high,” he says. “Going to a recital is, for an individual, a chance to be enchanted, but also to feel things, and to lift the spirit.”

Indeed, the visceral experience of a recital is of paramount importance to Beving. He views the Hermetism audio-visual combination as “very much like a meditation”, not just for the audience, but also for himself. While he relishes the “excitement of timing and synchronicity” that comes with combining the lighting with the music, he also notes that he spent a long time struggling with the vulnerability of performing as a pianist.

Pushing past this was only possible through letting go of “the more cognitive things that are happening while you do a concert”. He seeks to “become one with the instrument”, in order to “create all these little new stories that, without the light installation, are not there”.

This unity with the instrument is also part of Beving’s compositional process. He never formally learned classical compositional techniques, and was forced to give up his place in the conservatoire after a repetitive strain injury to his wrist. However, while working a day job as an advertising manager, he developed a system in tune with his philosophy and performance practice.

Improvisation is a key part of this – Beving acknowledges jazz pianists Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett as major influences. Indeed, he explains that most of his pieces begin with a search for “interesting harmonies, or interesting chord progressions, or maybe even just an interval within a given context that feels like it needs more light”.

From here, Beving allows each composition to develop organically, with “very little rational involvement or cognitive involvement, really trying to have the narrative dominate where it’s going”. He feels that, if he gets stuck, “that’s a sign that the composition is going in the wrong direction”.

He developed this process in the aftermath of burnout that he experienced in 2014, working his day job.

“One of the few things I could do was sit behind a piano and find ways to ground myself, and to find some form of essence.”

With the success of his subsequent debut album Solipsism (self-released in 2015), this quickly turned into “a spiritual investigation” through his next two albums, Prehension (2017) and Henosis (2019), which form a trilogy of sorts.

Then, Hermetism, originally conceived as a complete change of direction, instead became a product of the “pause of the pandemic”, which hit Beving while on tour in Los Angeles in 2020, and left him looking back towards his roots.

“I wanted to go back to an era in which I thought things were looking more optimistic, so that’s kind of how the more romantic, fin-de-siècle vibe got into the album,” he muses.

Now, finally able to take the album and its lights on tour, Beving is eager to return to Australia. Always humble, he notes that “it’s really bizarre to fly to the other side of the world and have an audience waiting for you”. Most importantly, though, in Australia, “there doesn’t seem to be a threshold between the audience and the performer. It’s very easy to perform for an Australian audience, because they’re so receptive.”

Joep Beving will start his Australian tour by presenting Hermetism at Her Majesty’s Theatre on July 18 as part of the Illuminate Adelaide program, before performances at the Brisbane Powerhouse (July 20), Sydney Opera House (July 22), Canberra Theatre Centre (July 24) and Melbourne Recital Centre (July 26). All dates here.

Edmund Black, a pianist and recent graduate from the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide, is the 5th recipient of the Helpmann Academy InReview Mentorship. He is working with Graham Strahle to write a series of articles for publication in InReview.

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