interview

Composer Joep Beving: 'I do not consider myself a classical musician'

Joep Beving: “What interests me is to keep digging until I reach the absolute fundamentals.”© Rahi Rezvani

Spotify playlists like “Calming Vibes” and “Peaceful Piano” brought Joep Beving's music to millions of listeners looking for peace of mind. On his latest album he continues his quest for quiescence, this time guided by seven philosophical principles. Soon to be discovered at Bozar.

“The All is Mind; the Universe is Mental.” That is the first of seven Hermetic principles. These seven laws, laid out by the philosopher and occultist William Walker Atkinson, are seen as a blueprint by many New Age circles. But more importantly, they also served as a guiding principle for composer Joep Beving's new album, appropriately named Hermetism. Without explicitly talking about these principles, they kept popping up as anchor points throughout our conversation over Zoom. Take this first fundamental. The universe has indeed been turned up-side-down these past two years.

“And I hope I've been able to express that in the music,” says Beving. “There is a certain kind of tragedy in the compositions, which is rooted in this absurd period of lockdown that we have all lived through together. It forced us to take a step back, to slow down and to reconsider our destructive way of life – long overdue, if you ask me. But after two years, it's clear that instead of more balance, there is only more inequality, the polarization has only become more prominent. I hope people hear that sadness in these new pieces.”

“Everything is dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites.” The duality Beving talks about, smoothly segues into another guiding principle for Hermetics. To Beving, this reads as a mission to dig into the darker side of his self, to try and find harmony within. “I see Hermetism as a quest for balance. The world is full of contradictions. Yes, there is this darkness in me. But then I try to treat it in a lighthearted way. The sound springing from that search gives me an innate feeling of harmony. I'd say it's an almost feminine way of counterbalancing the toxic masculinity that guides our world.” And just like that, another principle checked: “Gender is in everything.”

'As above, so below; as below, so above'
Just before embarking on the Hermetism project, Beving brought his acclaimed trilogy of albums – Henosis, Prehension, and the breakthrough album Solipsism – to a close. But rather than conceiving this new album as a fresh start, he sees Hermetism more as a reflection on what came before. Once again, entirely in line with Hermeticism's “principle of correspondence”, which claims that there is always a relationship between our planes of being. It is a return to the emotional force of piano, where the sonic qualities of the instrument are heightened by an ASMR-like proximity to the sound.

“It's not that it was a conscious choice, but I was working on loads of other projects that required a lot of studio time which gave me access to a piano. I felt myself veering towards the sonorities of the keys once again and felt fulfilled when working on this sort of music. Consider it a return to the beginning, but with the knowledge I have acquired over these past seven years.”

Indeed, the first singles off Hermetism sound like a prolongation of his previous work – the serene, meditative lyricism that catapulted his career and turned him into the poster boy for the neoclassical subgenre. “It's not as if I actively go looking for that tranquility. There's definitely a part of me that likes to play intense, atonal music. But time and time again, I notice that these compositions I write, provide me with footing in these challenging times, and radiate a sort of hope I need in all this gravity. It's not like there's a grand idea behind it. The correlation with classical music feels quite odd in fact as I never played classical music. My background is more in jazz than anything else.”

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© Rahi Rezvani 2022 1a

“Every cause has its effect; every effect has its cause,” the sixth principle dictates and the reason for Beving's association with classical music is not too far-fetched. He is signed on the world's most prominent classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, when executive Christian Badzura heard his music played in a smoky Berlin speakeasy. “We just immediately clicked, and honestly, I didn't give the fact that they were a classical label a lot of thought. I made it immediately clear that I do not consider myself a classical musician, and I never pretended to be one, I might add. Like I said, I just make music that I like to listen to and it's obviously a blessing that a lot of people clearly feel the same way. Is it a bonus that people start listening more to classical music with my albums as a sort of gateway? Of course! I started listening to a lot more classical music myself these past six years.”

From the Berlin bar, Beving has conquered the world's largest stages but remarkably, his shows are notoriously hard to pin down. He plays at jazz festivals and club concerts. Sydney Opera House or Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Last time he was in Brussels he played at the Ancienne Belgique, this time his stage is Bozar's Henry Le Boeuf Hall. “I must admit I feel more at ease at Paradiso or the AB. If I'm being completely honest with you, the first time I played at the Concertgebouw, I felt almost sacrilegious. It's a huge threshold for me to get over, each time again. I try not to think too much about the world-famous orchestras or soloists who have performed there before me. So maybe you shouldn't have told me that Bozar is such a cultural temple.” (Laughs)

“But at the same time, I can understand why my music should be programmed there. It's certainly a sign of the times that venues like these are broadening their scope. The Concert­gebouw doesn't only programme 'serious music' and I imagine that's the same for Bozar. Then there's the undeniable acoustic qualities of these concert halls which let my creations flourish. I had the immense pleasure of performing at the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid, famed for its chamber music hall. Environments like these give me the opportunity to recreate the togetherness that manifests on my recordings, but in a live performance. The shaping of sound is a quintessential part of my music and it's precisely in these so-called institutions that you can experience that live in the best possible way.”

The principle of simplicity
No, this last one is no part of the Hermetic philosophy. However, the remark that this subgenre of pop is “too simplistic to be considered classical” is one of the most prominent critiques of neoclassical music. “But the art is in finding the essence,” replies Beving. “Simplicity only occurs when you turn easiness into a platitude. What interests me is to keep digging until I reach the absolute fundamentals. Without wanting to refute the craft or the intellect that pours into music making, for me this essence is usually a sort of feeling I try to express. In 'Nocturnal', for example, I had this idea of a 20th century musician in Paris playing with the windows open, music pouring into the streets of the Ville Lumière. When you scratch at the surface you uncover this feeling of romanticized nostalgia. That is the core I try to bring out in the piece.”

“Once I find this core, the only thing I can do is to make sure that I sail close to the wind. It is not for me to say whether I succeed at that or not, that is for the listeners to decide. My ultimate goal is to create some harmony between people, but from having made my previous albums, I am realistic about that endeavour too. I'll never be able to make everybody happy. There will always be those who think my music lacks complexity, who look for other things in music. I can only count on – and keep questioning – my own judgement.”

Just like that, our time is up. A Zoom surcharged with philosophical subjects ends on a metaphysical self-examination. It is clear now that even though Joep Beving's music might sound meditative, his albums and concerts are the kind of mindfulness exercise that makes you question yourself. In the end, there are but two Hermetic laws we didn't touch on: the principle of rhythm, and the principle of vibration. But then again, aren't those always there in music?

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