“Sometimes time can be something weird and disorientating”
Glen Steenkiste talks in this interview about Het Interstedelijk Harmoniumverbond as a league of harmonium players, all from different cities, who come together and join forces to create music. I have nothing to add to that.
Can you remember what initially made you decide to get a harmonium?
Glen Steenkiste: I think that the decision of buying a harmonium was triggered by several things. When I got my harmonium in 2011 is was deeply into the record A Stone For Angus Maclise by Pelt. The A-side of that record is just one long track with 2 harmoniums, some singing bowls and a gong. It totally blew my mind. I had heard Indian music with harmoniums before and really liked it, but the way Patrick Best and Mikel Dimmick rocked out on these recordings was something that I was very intrigued by. Something I wanted to explore myself, to study and to get to the bottom of it. This interest got fueled by seeing Pelt perform live. It felt like an epiphany.
In the beginning of Silvester Anfang we used a lot of wind organs. They work a bit similar like a harmonium. They have reeds, but instead of bellows they have an electric powered fan that blows the air through the reeds. I always liked the drones you can create with those little toy organs. You just turn it on, tape down a couple of keys and just leave it there. Your house will be filled with a blissful drone until you switch the power off. I used an organ like that a lot during solo shows. But because of the constant flow of air created by the fan I couldn’t control the wind organ very well and it had very poor dynamics. I got the hang of it, but still couldn’t completely get it to sound the way I wanted it to.
It was until I was on tour in England in 2010 with Sylvester Anfang II that I had my first real encounter with a harmonium. In Newcastle we were staying with Phill Begg of Hapsburg Braganza for the night and he had a harmonium in the house. He let me play it and that unlocked a door in my head. This was the instrument I needed. I was hearing what I was making up in my head all those years and was trying to get out of the wind organ. On a lot of recordings of Indian music the harmonium is in the back of the mix and often sounds a bit thin because of that, but when you play it yourself and you’re above the reeds with your ours, it reveals it’s beauty in technicolor sound. Phill told me he got it straight from India through the internet and passed me a note with the website. I slipped the note into my wallet and started thinking about getting a harmonium myself.
A couple of months later I was bored at work and thinking of the harmonium again when Phill’s note popped into mind. I went to the website he wrote down. Within 15 minutes I found an offer I couldn’t refuse and placed the order right away. One month later a harmonium was delivered at my desk at work. The best impulsive buy I ever did. It opened up a whole new world for me. A world of acoustic drone music you can trace back to the most early forms of music. A thing I am still deeply intrigued by and still is a big inspiration for me.
© Kryzstoff Dorion
You made several solo harmonium records and played many solo harmonium concerts, so why did you decide to turn this into a quartet?
I’ve been walking around with this idea for a couple of years. For my records I use a lot of multi tracking and layering. To create those layers in a live setting I used pre-recorded 4-track tapes that I could mix live and a small analog synth. But all those things were becoming a bit to fixed and created some kind of frame that I got tired of. Presenting my tracks with a live band of harmoniums just seemed like the thing to do. Playing together with other people also creates a complete different dynamic than working with tapes and synths. The interplay between people opens new territory for the music. It makes the music come to life much more.
The four harmoniums come from the 4-track I used during shows. It seemed a good idea to translate that to 4 real harmoniums. Besides that, Four Violins by Tony Conrad has been a big influence for me, so maybe it’s subconsciously related to that.
Also the acoustic aspect of playing with just four harmoniums is very important for me. Throughout the years I got really into old folk music. And I’m stunned by the intensity of some of that music. I was also looking for that intensity. I want to explore acoustic sounds in all its details. I have the feeling that sometimes we are so used to processed sounds that we almost forget how beautiful an instrument made from wood and metal can sound when your are in the same room with it.
But it wasn’t until 2017 that the idea became reality when Kraak and Vooruit asked me if I was interested in getting a quartet of harmoniums together, with their support, and present the result at the Eastern Daze festival in Ghent. I had already told Wouter, Niels and Pauwel about my idea in the past and explained them how I saw things, but it was just this thing in my head. I’m very grateful and honoured by their trust for letting me create this.
The three other members of the group are Brecht Ameel (Razen), David Edren (DRS Lines) and Steve Marreyt (Edgar Wappenhalter). I’ve already made music with all three of them in different settings and they are people I feel connected with and was thinking that they would fit into this idea. We all have different backgrounds and interests. But I think we also connect on many levels. Which makes up for a good mix in my opinion.
The band was first called Harmonium Quartet, which you later on changed to Interstedelijk Harmoniumverbond.
Harmonium Quartet was the working title of this group. But we thought that English wasn’t really suitable in this case and we wanted a name that is really saying what this group is. And from that idea we came up with Interstedelijk Harmoniumverbond. A league of harmonium players, all from different cities, who come together and join forces to create music.
Are you the leader?
I don’t see myself as the leader of the band. I’m the initiator of the idea, but I really want the music to be something by the four of us. Like I said before, I want to create a collective sound, a sound that stands for each personality in the band. That doesn’t need a leader I think. Otherwise I could have just stuck to the four track and the synth. Those things don’t talk back and do what you want, but they don’t breath and don’t bring real life into the music.
Do you try to create a collective sound?
We are definitely aiming for a collective sound. We have really worked out a couple of tracks. We went from some loose ideas and improvisations but ended up with “compositions” in which we all have our parts to come to a collective result. Not all is written down and carved in stone. There is freedom within the structure, but we know where we are going and we are going there together.
Are you working on a first record?
We just spent a couple of days in the studio with Jürgen De Blonde to record the tracks we have at the moment. For this one I didn’t want to record it myself on 4- or 8-track, like I’m used to. This time I wanted to do the harmonium justice with the recordings. Not putting it into a cloud of tape hiss, which I still really like, but trying to record it as good and clear as possible. It’s also important for this project to get the recordings down the right way because otherwise you loose a lot of the overtones and texture that is very important. I have worked together with Jürgen in the past and I knew he was the right person to record this. I trust his ears completely. If all goes by plan there should be a record out on KRAAK somewhere next year.
When I first started to listen to drone music, I found it difficult to get back to songs, to pop and rock. I found the format of the song too compressed, overloaded, too much information in not enough time. Is this something that sounds recognizable to you, that you drifted away from the song?
No, not really to be honest. Sometimes you need 3 minutes to tell your story, sometimes you need 30 minutes. It just depends on what you want to tell and what language you choose to tell your story in. Or what you want to hear at a certain moment. I can easily switch between La Monte Young and Otis Redding without blinking an eye. And the best drone music to me is the one that contains a lot of details and textures. So sometimes it contains way more aural information than a 3 minute pop songs, that to me sometimes is more minimal than the maximal cluster clouds by Charlemange Palestine or the multi layered and pitched power drones by Phill Niblock. When I’m working on music I tend to listen more to The Band than to drone music. Switching between the two is inspiring to me. Sometimes a short nice tune can be like a piece of ginger that cleans your palate between all those dense and absorbing sounds.
© Kryzstoff Dorion
Does playing drones creates another awareness of time? You have the impression that, if you deal with another awareness of time in your music, that this also affects the way you deal with time in ‘real life’?
This is something I can relate to and that I have experienced myself. Sometimes time can be something very weird and disorienting. I became much more aware of that by playing longer pieces. Playing long continuous music asks for a specific kind of focus. A focus that is completely different than the present day world, where multitasking and short attention seems to be the standard. In that way it surely affects my ‘real life’ and how I look at things. Sometimes it’s good to let time pass. Some things need their time to unfold and show their beauty. In my world not everything needs to be fast and instant.
Het Interstedelijk Harmoniumverbond will play their first concert at Eastern Daze 5 on Saturday 24 November 2018
All photos © Kryzstoff Dorion
- Joeri Bruyninckx
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