Art

Ben Bertrand

Being classically trained does not mean you have to stay true to the classical movement; you can become a respected musician in other areas as well. If someone proves this right, it’s definitely Ryuichi Sakamoto, and even closer to home, it might be Ben Bertrand. Although still very involved in contemporary classical music, he started experimenting with effect pedals soon after his graduation. We wandered the Bijloke corridors to reminisce about his past at the KASK & Conservatorium and to talk about his signature instrument: the bass clarinet.

Interview by Dennis Meersman
Photos by Tiny Geeroms, shot at KASK & Conservatorium

What did you study at KASK & Conservatorium?
I’ve studied Master in Bass Clarinet in English. KASK & Conservatorium is the only Belgian school where you can graduate in this master. I got my Bachelor degree at the conservatory of Liège.

How did your studies here affect your musical career?
Some pieces I got to know really opened my eyes; I discovered some of my favourite composers because of this school. One of my teachers made me play music of Morton Feldman. It was a shock, really. Difficult to play because of the speed and complexity, but very beautiful when you can manage the different rhythms at the same time. It was a very technical training and because of that, I now find it easier to master different aesthetics.

I discovered some of my favourite composers because of this school

What are you the most grateful for after you graduated?
The chamber music teacher gave me a lot of confidence in the stuff I was doing. He said: ‘You’re a fucking great musician, just go for it.’ I never had that in Liège. I always loved the mentality about music more in Flanders. In Wallonia, most people think of it more negatively. What will happen if you don’t do well enough and stuff like that. Here at KASK & Conservatorium, I didn’t feel ashamed if things didn’t work out. There was this mentality of just trying, failing, and trying again.

You play the bass clarinet. An unconventional instrument, no?
Not really, it’s an orchestra instrument. It was invented by Adolphe Sax and exists for about 150 years. In the beginning it was used for the underlying bass lines rather than the melodies. Contemporary musicians have been using the instrument differently in contemporary music. As a teenager, I played my father’s regular clarinet and when I went to the academy, a teacher lent me his bass clarinet. It was pretty much love at first sight!

Sometimes I see to three to five concerts on one evening, moving from one place to another just to listen to music

Were you familiar with electronic music during your classical studies?
I’ve been listening to lots of music for a long time and I’ve always gone to a lot of concerts. Sometimes I see to three to five concerts on one evening, moving from one place to another just to listen to music. I’ve loved Sakamoto’s music for a long time.

What made you start using effects on your instrument?
When I was studying, I started using the loop station a lot to play with different voices. When I graduated from KASK & Conservatorium in 2015, I bought some effect pedals and microphones. Mostly because if you use the loop station for a sound over and over, at the end of the day it gets all muddy and blurry. It just sounds better when you can manipulate the sound and make a whole orchestration out of just one instrument.

Your first album, NGC 199 came out last year. What does the title mean?
Everything is about space. The song titles are about the galaxy. I had quite a nice evening coming up with those names [laughs]. But actually, it’s my second album. The first one is from 2017, it was released only on Spotify and Bandcamp. NGC 1999 was the first physical release. Era/Area, was released on a very small label but things took off from there. Les Ateliers Claus got to know me and got me some gigs, for instance at Le Guess Who.

The song titles are about the galaxy. I had quite a nice evening coming up with those names

How did the album come about?
It all came very naturally to me. You try to find strategies to write the music. You work all day, every day, for hours and hours. Time is key to music, it’s a long process. For this one it was a bit easier because I used the same strategy as the previous. But for the next one I’m working on a new strategy, because I want to keep things interesting for myself. You need to change the recipe from time to time.

You will be performing with Nemø Ensemble. What can we expect?
We play contemporary music, mostly music that’s five to ten years old. There are quite a lot of pieces involved and I’m playing three or four of them. Wim Pelgrims, who is a drummer, is the artistic director of the Ensemble. You will enter the place and the audience will be split up, so they will go from one place to another. Nobody will see the same concert because there will be two slaloming paths to follow with five concerts for each path.

Nemø means Nobody. It refers to the collective rather than the individuals playing

What does Nemø stand for?
Nemø means Nobody. It refers to the collective rather than the individuals playing. We want to take away the focus on the individuality of the artist.
I played chamber music with some of the musicians when I was studying. We had a good feeling about each other, the chemistry felt right. It’s the second production we do and we’ve been rehearsing and working together for almost a year and a half.

Do you currently have other projects running?
I’m also playing together with Otto Lindholm, who helped me quite a lot with electronics. He is a double bass player from Brussels. We’re playing Gavin Bryars’ piece ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’. This is music written for a quartet, but we took the skeleton of the music and transformed it for bass clarinet and double bass with electronics.

 

Subbacultcha and KASK & Conservatorium are teaming up for a series of artist portraits,
featuring some of the interesting profiles of the alumni.

KASK & Conservatorium are organising an Open Day
on 28 April from 10:00 til 17:00

schoolofartsgent.be

Nemø Ensemble (with Benjamin Bertrand)
is playing at Zwarte Zaal on 03 May.
More info here!