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Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
[full disc details end of file]
Clairière

Ver-Veranderingen (1981)
For Amusement Only (1980)*
At Home – Not at Home (1981)
EMI Classics 5163222 9 [52:01 + 47:12]

Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
With Usura
Struggle for pleasure

Vergessen

EMI Classics 5163302 8 [52:01]

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Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
Maximizing the audience

EMI Classics 5163322 6 [72:15]

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Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
Sonorous Resonances:

If I Can

Instrumental Songs

EMI Classics 5163352 3 [47:49 + 36:09]

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Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
A man of no fortune & with a name to come

EMI Classics 5170102 4 [47:16]

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Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
The Belly Of An Architect

EMI Classics 5163422 3 [37:06]

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Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
Educes me

EMI Classics 5163432 2 [44:47]

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Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
After virtue

EMI Classics 5170112 3 [44:47]

Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS


Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
Motives for writing

EMI Classics 5173212 7 [40:18]

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Experience Classicsonline

 

Welcome to the select and intimate world of Belgian minimalism. Never heard of Belgian minimalism? This is not entirely surprising, since Wim Mertens has long been its lone representative and one-man pioneer. There may be others, but his name is the only one cited in Wikipedia, and is most likely to be the only one which you may have come across in your local record shop, wondered briefly what it was all about, and then passed on to something else. In fact, the chances are you will already have heard something by Wim Mertens, since his music has occasionally been plucked for use in some quite well-known commercials. Talking of being plucked, Mertens’ entire back catalogue is now being re-released from the Usura/les disques du crépuscule label by EMI Classics, and this first batch covers most of his work from the 1980s.

Wim Mertens is both a guitarist and pianist, and also has a good countertenor voice. Having studied Social and Political Science and Musicology, his background is one of depth as well as prolific compositional productivity, some of it based on experiences working in Belgian Radio. Attracted to American Minimal Music – also the title of a book he has written on the subject, Mertens’ style is in fact closer in kinship to that of Michael Nyman, and while the big names in American minimalism were going glam and Nyman was casting his spell of gentle Purcellian eccentricity on Peter Greenaway’s films, Mertens was experimenting with his own voice, and anticipating by about 15 years Nyman’s fall into melodic sentimentality in The Piano with similar sounding tracks such as Tourtour. I can recall these albums being all over the place when I arrived in The Netherlands in 1987, but also recall feeling each record being rather top-heavy with also-ran numbers along with the ‘hits’ and the ‘decent stuff’. I was intrigued to find out if there were some new hidden diamonds among the less well-known records, and if my now more seasoned opinion of Mertens’ work from this period had changed.

Clairière is a compilation of three early releases by Mertens, and opens with Ver-Veranderingen, although his debut album was the electronic experiment For amusement only. With Ver-Veranderingen or ‘Distant Changes’, Mertens is already shown toying with the soprano saxophone, one of his signature sounds. Canonic imitation, rhythmic chasing around and some ostinato arpeggiation are the principal features of this set of tracks, exploring some musical ideas with overdubbing of single instruments or sounds. One has to recall that the 1980s is a very distant period when it comes to electronic techniques in music, and the somewhat primitive synthesizer and drum computer sounds here, and later the thin sonic fingerprint of the ubiquitous Yamaha DX7, are a characteristic of many of these albums. Even the wonder Atari ST computer didn’t turn up until 1985: there is a room called the ‘Atari Kamer’ in the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague to this day, though it is now full of PowerMacs, and MacChicks. Those of us who are ancient enough to remember Space Invader games and the novelty of computers which could speak will experience a frisson of nostalgia in For amusement only, which begins in proto-Kraftwerk style with a lonely voice saying ‘Insert coin’. Other tracks mix in some of the bangs, trills and thrills of computer game sound effects, including the thudding menace of those Invader aliens. None of these tracks did a great deal for me, but again, they represent early attempts, and are representative of a time in which these kinds of boundaries were being challenged by artists like Brian Eno and others. At home – Not at home is musically a little more interesting, introducing some of the chorale-like movement and intriguing stylistic mixes in tracks like that M, which has some Vangelis-like touches, and combines the old and new by throwing a nicely played harp and violin into the bath of electronic tricks. This album is notable for having longer tracks which are allowed time to develop, and the minimalist-pop crossover is clearly audible in tracks like At home and Not at home, which has an Eno, or is it Fripp sound-a-like bass. This is one of those breakthrough records which show much about how Mertens’ later work came about, but in terms of real rewards I wouldn’t put it top of the list.

With Usura is also a compilation of two albums. Struggle for pleasure is one of Mertens’ ‘hit’ records, with a number of tracks popping up again on the soundtrack to Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect. The music is characterised by an easy melodic style, accompanied by either rumblingly swift or slow and atmospheric arpeggio or ostinato accompaniments. Mertens’ liking for long sustained notes pops up in Gentleman of leisure, in which the slow melodic lines arch over a rhythmic ostinato bass – the recorder sounds coming together to create something which now sounds quite ethnic. I remember finding out how Mertens had created the weird de-tuning effects in Bresque using a Fostex digital delay machine, slowing the wave effect to a minimum so that the notes rise and fall slowly, changing pitch in the same time as the original, and then multi-tracking the two together. Vergessen has a different feel, being Mertens’ first album which includes pieces conceived and written for ensemble, something which this and his later work shares with the Nyman Band style of performing. The energy of a track like Inergys contrasts with the gentle atmosphere of Circular breathing, which anticipates but bears some comparison with the Harold Budd/Brian Eno album ‘The Pearl’. Grungy synth sounds remain a feature of some of these pieces, and Mildly skeeming sets up an artificial-sounding ostinato bass over which the live instruments can float in a sort of canonic improvisation. This harmonic basis is taken further by 4 mains, an attractively lively piano track which also pops up in belly of the aforementioned Greenaway film. Multiple is also a rather nice minimalist concept, with baroque sounding vibrato-free strings repeating and building different layers on short phrases over a rocking two note bass.

Maximizing the Audience has its origins in a theatrical production by Jan Fabre. Mertens’ music seems ideal for film or theatre, having little in the way of real beginnings and endings, the unfinished feel of the work lending itself to advancing and receding action, fading in and out or just ‘existing’ as an illustration of tableaux or action. Circles begins with a long introduction on bass clarinet, just playing a chord sequence in arpeggio. This extends through the clarinet range, and is joined by slow-moving, almost plainchant-like melody. Lir is one of those simple melodic inventions which could either drift into new-age woolliness or be worked up into a rabble-rousing rock anthem. Here it is held within the confines of a piano duo. The piano sound is not particularly attractively recorded, and the bashed-out opening notes of the title track emphasise this. The Nymanesque effect of the fifths in the repeated bass is reinforced with a soprano voice over the top. Whisper Me provides welcome contrast with the introduction of some pleasant string ensemble writing, but for me at over 18 minutes for three of the five tracks on this album most of the works here outstay their no doubt otherwise highly functional welcome.

The long notes and soprano saxophone return with the opening track of If I Can from Sonorous Resonances. Unison lines and an absolute paring down of material is taken further in Limes, making it something of a tough nut for casual listening. Some tracks, such as The Ship, have a rolling harmonic content, but also have an empty feel caused by the predominant use of open fifth intervals. The lines are fragmented in the shorter work for instrumental trio Tiresias, but by now the static nature of the music is beginning to take its toll. Techniques employed by Mertens’ fellow countryman Karel Goeyvaerts in his ‘Litanies’ – a kind of isolated joining of disparate elements – appears in Stretti. Counting numbers in Dutch, adding some medieval soprano saxophones, a rising piano figure and singing voices later on doesn’t provide the content or sense of development which makes Goeyvaerts’ work so strong, and while not unattractive, the static, rather sketchy nature of the piece is ultimately frustrating. The National radio choir has an a capella role in For Soothsay, which is nice enough but at nearly 13 minutes of the same rather banal thing was just too long to hold my interest. To keep them from falling has an unfortunate cheap-sounding buzzy synthesizer basis, but returns more to more familiar minimalist territory, reminding me of Philip Glass – ‘Einstein on the Beach’. Instrumental Songs is set of pieces for solo soprano saxophone. Writing for a single solo voice is hard enough, and Mertens sticks to his idiom and remains recognisable in the music, as well as in the production. This phases the instrument, presumably to give it a richer feel; much as they did with Kylie Minogue’s voice not so many years later. I am full of admiration for the playing and invention on this recording, but the cumulative effect is rather like being stuck in a lift with a mad busker. I’m afraid I won’t be listening to it much, if at all.

Clever solo performing is a feature of A man of no fortune, and with a name to come, with Wim Mertens playing piano and singing. Mertens’ voice is a fairly light countertenor, and he can create some gorgeously expressive lines over the often minimal/ostinato piano accompaniments. This kind of music sails dangerously close to becoming drippily sentimental, but when you know and understand Mertens’ idiom and style it is easy to see where this kind of performing creativity fits into his work in general. There are more lively numbers among the more atmospheric songs: Hirose opens with a more bouncy feel, and You See has a really rousing piano part, only maintaining its remarkable intensity however for the two minute opening of a piece of nearly 15 minutes duration - one which leaves you begging for a modulation through the long middle section, or anywhere else for that matter. The grand gestures of Naviamente deserve a mention, but by the end of the record everything is beginning to sound a bit samey.

With The Belly of an Architect I had the opportunity to compare the EMI re-release with an original disc, and am happy to report that there is no appreciable difference between the two. There are some minor changes in the design on the booklet cover, but the information inside still tells us that the gorgeously disturbing Glenn Branca tracks were conducted by Paul Daniel with the London Sinfonietta. Branca creates a warm bath of sliding string sounds in Augustus which make for highly charged film music. As previously mentioned, some of the tracks on this disc already appear on the With Usura CD, but there are some spectacular new numbers, like the mechanical, almost player-piano like arpeggios of The Aural Trick. As also previously mentioned, many of Mertens’ pieces sound like film-music tracks anyway, so little extras like Flank by flank and Figs go well enough with the other pieces, if they are ultimately disposable as stand-alone works. Branca’s other contribution, the penultimate character list, is a bit thin, though with plenty of appropriate menace. Over the years I’ve come to see this as a CD single, taking the priceless Augustus, and having the rest along as bonus tracks.

Educes Me, as the booklet photo indicates, has a harp among its principal instruments, here played by Keiko Kusaka and Anne Van Den Troost. This is a gentle set of pieces with melodic expressiveness at its heart. No Plans no Projects has a wonderfully recessed, pianissimo instrumental setting in the beginning, and could almost be a movement from Fauré’s ‘Requiem’. Turning up the volume to hear what is going on will however give cause for regret, as a piercingly ugly synthesizer takes over, which to my mind is a great shame. When the Line grows Thick has some fun bass clarinet figures to start with, and plenty of funky energy throughout. Usura is a short vocal a capella number in two sections, a sort of new-age barbershop. The title track is 15 minutes of two lonely harp players who seem to have only one finger on each hand, and one way of plucking the strings. I do love the harp, and this is no doubt all very profound and meaningful, but aside from appreciating the main theme, some contrapuntal connections and the hocketing effect I fear I left my patience for this kind of thing back in 1987.

After Virtue is another piano solo with occasional voice, each title being a virtue, though missing out Fortitude as one of the cardinal ones. The piano sound has a hefty dose of resonance added to the sound, which may help a bit with the atmosphere but has some drawbacks in pulsing, a nasty left/right seesaw, and cluttering up a little on more intense passages. There are some dramatic moments here, and Mertens’ playing verges on the Keith Jarrett jazz style from time to time. I had hopes that the final track Charity would break into Tom Lehrer’s ‘Pollution’, but it never happened. Others have moaned at me when longing for dissonance or ‘something else’ with albums like this, and while I’m not against a nice dose of diatonic harmony there are times when you just need a bit of spice to go with all that boiled veg. There is plenty of character in the music and in the playing on this album, and indeed one or two suspensions: but as ‘good’ as it is we already know ‘good’ as an accepted boundary, so unless this is intended for stylish background sounds for an all-white restaurant then I don’t see it flying very far.

My favourite album in this mountain of Mertens is the most recent from this set, Motives for Writing, which is a useful double-entendre title for literary folk who like a brain-teaser. The ‘Mertens Band’ sound is closest to Nyman here, with tuba and plenty of winds. The opening of Watch! sounds a bit like your local outdoor marching band, and there are some joyous hocket effects. The Personell Changes opens with and is plagued by that nasty buzzy synth sound which sounds like a petulant child sat in the middle of the band with a cheap Casio – the one whose dad paid for the hire of the hall, but the piece turns into a good song on the whole. Paying for Love is a majestic, dolorous work with arching melodies, unusually on bassoon, over repeated notes in chorale on saxophones – a significant part of the recording being the disciplined breathing of the players. I suspect the function of that strange added-on up-beat ending is to balance the slow conclusion to the other long track on this disc, Words on the Page, but I may be entirely wrong. No Testament is one of those tracks I found myself playing more frequently than is good for me: the infectiousness of its harmonies, the busy winds over the top, a groovy military snare drum and a nice build-up of energy and tension make for a cracking, compact four minutes. Words on the Page is one of those stylistic enigmas which seems able to mix baroque harmonies and a classical sounding wind ensemble sound with a sprinkling of modernism in the improbable restless movement of the strings. The piece continues as a kind of set of variations on a repeated harmonic sequence, the rhythms and melodic patterns scattering improvisatory asymmetrical patterns over and under the passacaglia. Another ground bass concludes the CD in The Whole, an uplifting little piece with piccolo and high clarinet singing out over the richly layered accompaniment, almost in the character of an Irish folk tune.

Despite my carping here and there, I’ve enjoyed surveying these newly re-released recordings. For sure, the production is more often pop-album standard than classical. Some of the piano recording fares worst, in some cases from some rather ragged analogue tape wow, tinny sound or an unfortunate bloom of artificial resonance – the qualities of which weren’t up to much in the 1980s. Synthesizers also left much to be desired in this period, and the combination of these against ‘live’ instruments only serves to throw their limitations into greater light. The technical drawbacks aside, much of Mertens’ work in this period still has an unfinished quality – some pieces sounding a little like an excerpt which can be faded in and out at will. The ideas are good and often ahead of their time, often holding a strange fascination. The proportions are however sometimes hard to grasp, with some pieces, and some entire albums seeming to wander rather aimlessly, revelling in nice or not-so nice sounds, but seeming to leave the listener out of the equation somewhat. The short playing times reflect vinyl origins, but are often about as much as you will want at one sitting. Motives for Writing shows the way for more fulfilling later albums such as Shot and Echo, so I for one will be looking forward to seeing which records EMI add to their catalogue next.

Dominy Clements
Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
Clairière

CD 1
Ver-Veranderingen (1981)

So that
Limes
The ship
Tiresias
Contentu melodiae
2 and 3 = 1
't Klopt
Gleaner
Tsjueh
Wording
For Amusement Only (1980)*

Insert coin
Deluxe
8 Ball
Mystik
Fireball
Invader
Dog-in
Gorf
CD 2
At Home – Not at Home (1981)

Coloured by turning
That strange attractor
Dense points
That M
At home
Not at home
Wim Mertens & musicians apart from * = electronics.
EMI Classics 5163222 9 [52:01 + 47:12]
Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
With Usura
Struggle for pleasure

Tourtour
Struggle for pleasure
Salernes
Close cover
Bresque
Gentleman of leisure
Vergessen

Inergys
Circular breathing
Mildly skeeming
4 Mains
Multiple 12
Inergys (reprise)
Original recordings 1982
EMI Classics 516330 2 8 [52:01]
Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
Maximizing the audience

Circles
Lir
Maximizing the audience
The fosse
Whisper me
Wim Mertens & musicians
Original recordings 1984
EMI Classics 5163322 6 [72:15]
Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
Sonorous Resonances: If I can / Instrumental songs

CD 1
If I Can

So that
Limes
The ship
Tiresias
Stretti
For soothsay
To keep them from falling
CD 2
Instrumental Songs

Mimicry
Exitium
Confutatio
Pernicies
Condemnatio
Non datur
Pranzo
Wim Mertens & musicians (If I can)
Dirk Descheemaeker – soprano saxophone solo
Original recordings, Studio 4, Place Flagey, Brussels 1985 (Instrumental Songs)
EMI Classics 5163352 3 [47:49 + 36:09]

 

Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
A man of no fortune & with a name to come

Casting no shadow
A tiels leis
Hirose
You see
Multiple 12
Naviamente
Wim Mertens – piano, voice
Recorded 13 & 14 March 1986
EMI Classics 5170102 4 [47:16]
Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
The Belly Of An Architect

Augustus
Birds for the mind
The aural trick
Struggle for pleasure
4 Mains
Close cover
Time passing
Tourtour
And with them
Andrea Doria / Galba / Caracalla / Hadrian
Augustus (2)
All works Wim Mertens apart from Augustus, Augustus 2 and Andrea Doria / Galba / Caracalla / Hadrian by Glenn BRANCA (b. 1948)
Glenn Branca’s work performed by The London Sinfonietta,
Other tracks Wim Mertens & musicians.
Original release 1987
EMI Classics 5163422 3 [37:06]
Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
Educes me

A visiting card
The fosse
No plans, no projects
When the lines grow thick
Usura
Educes me
Wim Mertens & musicians
Original recording and release 1987
EMI Classics 5163432 2 [44:47]
Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
After virtue

Justice
Prudence
Temperance
Courage
Humility
Faith
Hope
Charity
Wim Mertens – piano, voice
Original recording 1987
EMI Classics 5170112 3 [44:47]
Wim MERTENS (b.1953)
Motives for writing

Watch!
The personnel changes
Paying for love
No testament
Words on the page
The whole
Wim Mertens & musicians
Original recording 1989
EMI Classics 5173212 7 [40:18]
   











 




 


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