Q&A with multitalented Dutch artist René van Commenée, creating music, (sound) art objects, theatrical performances, and pyro technical spectacles

"Art, whether it’s music, visual, dance, film; any form is important in our lives. Early humans made art already; look at the wall paintings found in caves, or the flutes that were found. I don’t think we can survive without art. There are many people who think they can, a subject more and more heard in society now rightwing politics are becoming stronger and stronger. They think it is a hobby and there should be no more funding from society there."

René van Commenée: Keep Your Lane

René van Commenée is a visual Sound Artist from The Netherlands who is active creating music, (sound) art objects, theatrical performances, soundtracks for theatre, pyro technical spectacles, television and film. Under the project name Mr. Averell he creates text-based recordings and performances. Talking Elephant Records will be released the new 13-tracks album by David Jackson and René van Commenée titled ‘Keep Your Lane’ which is due for release in February 2024. Album's single ‘Gateway’ was inspired by the mood invoked by a Christmas single ‘All You Wish Yourself’ by Kaprekar’s Constant, a band that David has worked with regularly. David had written a little march Coda (never used by the band) which he revisited during preparations for the full album. When he sent this to Rene he created a completely new piece. René's artworks were exhibited in galleries and museums in The Netherlands and abroad. In collaboration with Dutch sound designer and master engineer Martijn Alsters he created a huge Sound Forest for the international agricultural fair ‘De Floriade’ which was playing 24/7 for 7 months.

(René van Commenée / Photo © by Maarten Scherpenzee)

Together with his longtime companion Lieven Slabbinck he created quite some spectacles including a huge mechanical pyro orchestra for the city of Antwerp. As a composer René wrote an ensemble concert based on a self written story for the official opening of a ‘Natura 2000’ area in Belgium. The concert took place on three stages in the water holding the ensemble of classical music, tap dancer and a storyteller. Besides these “festival artworks”, René works as a musician and producer. He has released several solo CD’s and collaborated on projects of other internationally acclaimed musicians, composers like Judge Smith, Mike Garson, John Ellis, Hossam Ramzy, Sandip Bhattacharya, Willem Tanke. With David Jackson he has a longtime relationship in creating and performing music which resulted in the internationally acclaimed live-album ‘Batteries Included’. They both worked on several albums from Judge Smith and the German band ‘Unsere Zeit’. Always interested in Non-Western music he made a serious study of the Indian Tabla & Egyptian Riq. For a long time, René has been a Music Production & Technology teacher at several Art Schools and Training Centres.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: René van Commenée & Stevie Horton (Iconic Music & Media)

How has the Music and Visual Art influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

That’s what we call an opening question, phew! Musical and Visual Art has been very important in my live from a very early age. I remember very well that at the age of about four, I DJ’ed violin concerts for the family. My parents had a gypsy record of a violin player and I wanted to listen to this over and over and I mimed being the musician. When I was a bit older, I started copying the front cover as a pencil drawing and I must have done this a hundred times. Although I didn’t grow up in an ‘artist’s family’ from my mother’s side, there is a creative connection. The famous Dutch & Paris painter Wim Oepts was her uncle. I have a nephew from my mother’s side of the family who is a painter too. Without realising, we both had works at the same art shows in Amsterdam a few times and surprisingly we met each other at the opening. I too was very lucky that my ‘grandmother’, the 2nd godmother (third mother) of my father, was a very creative woman. She painted, she played the piano, she sang and always wore artistic clothes and glasses. She lived just around the corner in Amsterdam and I just loved being there, so I went almost daily after school. She taught me drawing, painting and playing the piano and also encouraged me to look at artworks. I remember her as a vital person in my development and for the fact that art in any form became such a vital element in my own life. If you’re used to listening and watching art so closely and able to adapt what you see and hear with full concentration, it affects the way you look around you. I am very glad that I am still able to look at the world in wonder and I mean this in the positive way! Isn’t it a miracle how trees and plants grow — how honeybees are a huge and perfect collective organism! And also, how has it become possible that I can type this on a computer and send it to you! My car starts by the push of a button or turn on a key and while I am sitting just a few centimetres above the road it ‘flies’ me around from A to B in no time at all! It is sad that we have too much human generated light in the nighttime nowadays, but if you are in a dark place watch the sky and be amazed about the million stars and planets out there!

We live in dark difficult times, but I can tell you that this artistic way of being alive is very helpful for staying positive and for getting some relief.

"I think every artist wants to emotionally affect people. This can be in more than one way; I want to touch them deep within but also hope they just enjoy it and it makes them happy; and to drag them out of their daily routine and to take a moment to forget the cruel world outside." (Photo: René van Commenée is a visual Sound Artist from The Netherlands who is active creating music, sound art objects, theatrical performances, soundtracks for theatre, pyro technical spectacles, television and film)

How do you describe your artwork and music philosophy? Where does your creative drive come from?

Interesting question! For both my visual artwork and my music (and my audio artwork, which is a cumulation of the two disciplines), I think freedom is the necessary basis for creation. Freedom is necessary in a few forms to create art, whether its is audio or visual: freedom to make what you want without any restrictions: and in practice the freedom not to be disturbed by anything from real life such as daily routines like shopping — or having to pay your taxes, etc.

I like to start with a blank canvas and just start without even a basic idea. Most interesting about the creation of art is that the work responds to you and it becomes a conversation — you act and react. If you put a line on a piece of paper the line will respond to you and if you’re open to this, the line will tell you the next step. What I say here applies to visual art and music.

In the case of ‘Keep your Lane’, the new album with maestro David Jackson, it worked in the same way. David sent me an (old) ideas in a very basic recorded way, I responded on that by adding some things and/or changing some tracks. After sending it off to David again, he responded to that in return and slowly a piece of art was growing. And it was the same the other way around when I sent a basic piece of my own to David. At a certain stage in the process we ended up with an enormous file which included a huge amount of audio tracks. Then my task was to sort it all out, balance it or even recreate a new piece of music from it. All of this is only possible when you sit down, open yourself up to “receive” the music being played and let it talk to you. Mind you, it does take some years of experience to do this: what you are starting to hear is the cacophony of all recorded tracks and you need to be able to zoom in to certain parts and filter out the rest. The way I produce is a kind of real-time mixing to start with; while listening to what we’ve done, I start ‘playing with the mixing desk’ to hear what is developing. This way I hear what the music is telling me and which moments are important and which parts must play a key role in the piece. Then I start the real mixing process and slowly go in deeper and deeper ending up with ‘micro editing’ — which means I start working in the detail of microns of seconds. My experience is that this way of working gives a deep layered array of expression which makes it interesting to listen to the work repeatedly and always discovering new things. And while my creative drive comes from an urge to create, I really can’t without this process, my creative drive IS to make work that you can listen to over and over — or keep looking at again and again.

"To be honest I don’t miss anything. There are still very good composers and musicians out there. I believe that the artists with a unique signature, you know ‘the one of a kinds’ from the 1960s and 1970s like Hammill, Beefheart, Bowie, Fripp, Jackson (!!), Bush, etc., etc., — they might vanish but new unique artists will always come up." (René van Commenée & David Jackson / Photo © by  Dik Nicolai / All Rights Reserved)

Currently you’ve one release with David Jackson. How did that relationship come about?

As a young teenager I loved music, it was the thing I lived for and with some friends we tried to discover as many artists and bands as possible. Like my best friend Peter at that time, I had an older brother who brought in records from his friends. Many of these bands were Prog Rock (or Symphonic Rock as we called it in The Netherlands) and it aroused my interest very much. Being too young to have enough money to buy most of these albums (with great artwork too!) We copied the records to audio cassette and played them over and over on small audio-cassette players (and MONO most of the time!). This way I heard Pink Floyd’s ‘Atom Heart Mother’: I was 8 or 9 years old at that time! Believe me: I was stunned and stopped listening to children’s songs immediately (apart from listening out of politeness when my grandmother gave me a children’s choir album). But this particular event, listening in secret to the Pink Floyd album which we had stolen from my friend’s brother room, was essential to everything that happened later.

I was just began playing the drums at that time (after I had failed to learn the piano because of being too lazy to learn music scores). Progressive Rock was not only interesting music, but the musicianship was also amazing, and I wanted to learn exactly that.

Growing older I separated out the artists and bands I liked the most and one of those was that unique British band with a Dutch name ‘Van der Graaf Generator’. (And I am still teaching them how to pronounce that properly!)

Well, I don’t need to explain that one of the icons of the band was David Jackson. I don’t remember the exact occasion it was that we met — with him as the well-known amazing double horns player — and I as a young music lover. He seemed to be very kind and reachable, so years later I thought: “let’s do exactly that, I try to reach him!” The reason was that I had not heard of him playing for quite a while (and only as brilliant guest appearances on Hammill’s albums), so I thought of trying to get him to The Netherlands to play a solo concert. It then transpired that he was teaching for a living for a while and had even been a lorry driver! Hence the ‘silence’. I wrote him; he called me; it clicked; he came with his lovely wife Sue to Utrecht and right there the magic started. He then discovered that I played drums and percussion (professionally), so he asked me to join him! I refused, so he persuaded me to join in just part of the show then, so I couldn’t refuse. A duo was born!

"Musical and Visual Art has been very important in my live from a very early age. I remember very well that at the age of about four, I DJ’ed violin concerts for the family. My parents had a gypsy record of a violin player and I wanted to listen to this over and over and I mimed being the musician. When I was a bit older, I started copying the front cover as a pencil drawing and I must have done this a hundred times." (René van Commenée & David Jackson / Photo © by  Dik Nicolai / All Rights Reserved)

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album Keep Your Lane?

In the first place it is interesting to work with David and not the least important part is: it’s fun to work with him! We regularly have extended telephone conversations and there’s always a good laugh! I believe we understand each other very well and both want to make the best work possible — but we never ever forget that it should be fun to make music too. We want to delight both the listener and ourselves at the same time.

For me personally the most interesting moment during the process of ‘Keep Your Lane’ was when David told me he wanted to create a re-recording of the iconic ‘Pioneers over c’. Was I was interested to do this! Ha! Of course, I was! It is something very special when you are asked to be involved with a piece of music from the time when you were a young fan of those exact same musicians who wrote and originally performed it. ‘Pioneers’ is one of those great VdGG works I loved listening too over and over when I was young, but I didn’t remember it very clearly. I decided I wanted to start with the re-creation as fresh as possible. It was necessary to re-listen to the piece, because it is complex and we needed to get the timings right. Luckily, we were able to do this quite quickly, so I could avoid listening to the original too much. Working on the piece was a great adventure and when I suggested that we needed a really good bass player for this track and proposed to ask Colin Edwin, David heartily agreed. DJ was able to get in touch with him because he knew Colin from his additions to the wonderful ‘Twinscapes album’. We were both excited that Colin agreed and jumped on board. It all worked so well that we decided to do another piece with the three of us which became ‘Pinball Potter’ — an homage to Nic Potter, the late and great bass player of VdGG and a wonderful friend to us both.

A nice anecdote: in ‘Pioneers’ we’ve recorded a part with a cool jazz feel, I recorded piano there and decided an acoustic bass was needed there too. It took me quite a while to find out, practise and record this myself and I was very proud on the result. But when we had Colin willing to do the track’s bass lines it would have been silly to keep my part in the jazz section, so I needed to get rid of it. A very painful moment! But now we have a professional doing a superb job there, so I can live with it, ha ha.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?                    (Photo: René van Commenée / All Rights Reserved)

To be honest I don’t miss anything. There are still very good composers and musicians out there. I believe that the artists with a unique signature, you know ‘the one of a kinds’ from the 1960s and 1970s like Hammill, Beefheart, Bowie, Fripp, Jackson (!!), Bush, etc., etc., — they might vanish but new unique artists will always come up. The only problem here is that since everybody can now easily produce music and drop it onto the Worlds Enormous Wide Web and companies just don’t support these artists anymore — they choose the big money — so it is now more and more difficult to grab attention.

And then there is AI… each period has its developments; we must wait and see what this means for us creators, I don’t have a clue yet. When drum machines came, people thought drummers would be out of work, but it never happened, drum machines became a different instrument, AI will probably too.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Ha Ha! Easy answer I am afraid — that we should be paid a decent percentage for our hard work. Nothing has been changed since they discovered the commercial potential of rock & pop music in the 1970s. Let’s be clear: Talking Elephant Records is the fairest Record Company to get a deal with, so I am more than happy with them, but nowadays the shares from streaming businesses are extremely unbalanced. And I think many companies dealing with the copyrights aren’t quite fair either. I still have a big dispute with mine and the way they acted with a huge project I did is amazingly unfair. Can you believe it: 24/7 played music over 7 month’s and not one penny for the composer! All the money from the ‘smaller’ ones goes to the extremely popular ones; and they already earn so much!

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

I wasn’t a very happy teenager (who is?) and wanted to leave school and home on a young age. I met a great painter (again named Peter!), a very nice and inspiring figure who offered me a room to live in his house. I did and lived a few years there which was a crucial time for the rest of my live. I watched him painting his huge Magic Realism Paintings, listened to his records mainly from the Canterbury Scene and talked and talked about Art & Music. He persuaded me to record my own music which I made possible by using Sound on Sound Technique on Tape recorders and make my own visual art. We did things with photography; we created the most amazing food and well, of course, there were some drugs around. This whole period set the pace in the right direction of what I wanted to do with my life and was so called ‘life changing’.

"For both my visual artwork and my music (and my audio artwork, which is a cumulation of the two disciplines), I think freedom is the necessary basis for creation. Freedom is necessary in a few forms to create art, whether its is audio or visual: freedom to make what you want without any restrictions: and in practice the freedom not to be disturbed by anything from real life such as daily routines like shopping — or having to pay your taxes, etc." (Photo: René van Commenée / All Rights Reserved)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Art, whether it’s music, visual, dance, film; any form is important in our lives. Early humans made art already; look at the wall paintings found in caves, or the flutes that were found. I don’t think we can survive without art. There are many people who think they can, a subject more and more heard in society now rightwing politics are becoming stronger and stronger. They think it is a hobby and there should be no more funding from society there. But try imagining a society without art: this also means no music on the radio whilst doing your job! No films on your TV screen! No photographs of your family on the wall! I recently read that there are societies who don’t have a word for art because it simply is incorporated in their lives! I must research more about this, very interesting!

To answer your 2nd question; I think every artist wants to emotionally affect people. This can be in more than one way; I want to touch them deep within but also hope they just enjoy it and it makes them happy; and to drag them out of their daily routine and to take a moment to forget the cruel world outside. At the same time, with my Mr. Averell projects for instance, I try to find new ways of music which stimulate the listener to expand their thoughts and give them the opportunity to take the time to learn what the music is telling them and learn to listen to things they never heard before. Art can take time to be appreciated and to be loved. Love at first site is not always the best!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music/art paths?

LISTENING! And again: LISTENING! Technical virtuosity isn’t the most important thing to create good music. If for instance a piece of music asks for one cymbal hit, then this is what the percussionist should do. Clearly, the more technical skills you have the better; the best musicians are the ones who are technically excellent — but they are virtuosos too in listening — and do respect silence. For 12 years I was very serious and dedicated in studying North Indian Classical Music on the Indian Tabla. This was an absolute eye opener in understanding the art of music and rhythm in particular. And even though I don’t really play the Indian Tabla anymore (if you want to do this right, it should be the only thing you do live), but it is still the foundation of the way I think and work in music — and maybe even in my Visual Art.

TELL A STORY!

To keep it with drummers/percussionists, a few examples from musicians who are amazingly good in this and my personal hero’s: Joe Morello, Ferenc Nemeth, Joey Baron, Bill Bruford, Giovanni Hidalgo, Sandip Bhattacharya to name a few.

As stated earlier in this interview it works the same way for me — as I’m telling stories in my mixing and production work.

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(Photo: René van Commenée / All Rights Reserved)

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