By Joke Dame
‘The moment you are in a hall and you are profoundly moved is often inexplicable. It has to do with high quality or an ingenious invention. On such a moment you feel: this is it, this is why we, all of us, are making music.' Says Mayke Nas. When it comes to her own work, she would like to perform a meaningful act. Something has to happen. Having a nice moment on an evening is maybe fun, but that is not good enough.
Foreign countries are discovering Mayke Nas. The Dutch composer could be heard in the United States in july, and her music travels to Belgium, Australia, Italy and China this fall. She can't complain about lack of attention in her own country either. Her work is played regularly, is commissioned by important ensembles and receives mostly positive response from musicians and audiences. Mayke Nas: 'I could probably derive great self-confidence from all the reactions to my music. But most of the time I don't really know how to deal with compliments. On the other hand, if I wouldn't get them, those taps on the shoulder and commissions that flow from appreciation, I might not be a composer.'
On the one hand, on the other hand - that kind of ambivalent thinking characterizes de 36-year old Mayke Nas. Is she insecure? Not really. She is a searcher, more interested in the questions than in the answers, but with each new piece she endeavours to create something meaningful, something that opens a musical door and brings her to places she hasn't been before.
And she looks at herself critically.
She only knows in hindsight, after rehearsals or a performance, if what she has made is worthwhile. ‘During the process of composition you sometimes get a kind of a fever. You think: this could be só mágically beautiful. That is the spark I am looking for and if it is absent for too long during composing, I get seriously worried. But you never know. The paper in front of you remaines silent. I always look for new things, because my curiousity compels me to look in every corner and I am distracted easily. That is maybe why I write mostly short pieces. Besides, I can only listen to myself for a short amount of time.’
If you are looking for new things you lose the possibility
to gain a sense of security from former experiences, knows Nas, who rather takes the risks of having to call an ensemble with: ‘sorry, this is not working out well,’ than to repeat tried and tested successes. 'You have to trust that your instincts and
your imagination keep you on the right track. You also have to rely on the opportunity of explaining all kinds of things to the musicians during a rehearsal, because a score is a clumsy tool, no matter how precise I try to notate everything with these little balls and lines.
I always find rehearsals very important to communicate a few things to the players. Through which, maybe, they can come to see and understand that spark with which I made the piece, and which they then can convey to the audience.’
Don't ask Mayke for her biography. Sure, the facts can be found on her website - studied piano and composition with amongst others Martijn Padding, Daan Manneke, Alexandre Hrisanide and Bart van de Roer - but she hesitates supplying people with this type of raw data. Nas: ‘I understand that people would like to get an itinerary of the route that someone has covered so far, but the route of these facts doesn't speak to me. If you read programmes, you see that everyone has these nice lists of studied with such and such, followed masterclasses with such and such, won important prizes, received commissions of important ensembles etc. That on it's own doesn't say anything. Alternative CV's often show a lot more. Like Luc Ferrari who provided wishful thinking-biographies where you could find things like ‘wished he was born there and there, but he had to make do with this and that; his mother was a ... or maybe she did something completely different.’ Well, thát says everything about him. Richard Ayres offers a menu of choices for his biography: regular, long, short or imagined, that also provides so much insight; much more than the so called facts. I am still looking for a CV that characterizes me.
A CV is a signboard that shows what yóu find important, the things yóu want to pride yourself on, so it can take on a lot of different shapes. So far I have been a very good citizen and have spread very respectable biographies.
Her present list of facts ends with the mentioning of the fluxus-inspired piece Anyone can do it for six completely unprepaired players, not necessarily gifted with any musical talent. ‘ That is something I already enjoy. It does say something about me. That I want to live in a world where people can do crazy stuff like that.’
Irony and humour are never far away in the compositions of Mayke Nas. But not as a defence mechanism, the composer emphasizes, it has to do with a pleasant confusion. ‘I love to play with something that could be blood-curdlingly serious, which could even scare you, but in the same time could make you giggle nervously. The joke doesn't need to be noticed by people who want to listen to a purely serious piece of music. But I like it when there is an undercurrent with a wink or if there is a moment that could possibly jeopardize everything. That only makes a piece stronger. It is great if people recognize that wink, if they start having doubts if it is all meant seriously. Sometimes there is actual laughter in the hall, but it is not my goal to tell a joke. I am driven by a longing for a fantastic soundsculpture, to put it romantically. I can so fall in love with sounds and so be touched by them that I often run up to players straight after a concert to ask how they did that. I just háve to know. I am firstly fascinated by sounds. On the other hand, as soon as I get a commission from an ensemble, I also picture the musicians on stage and that aspect also increasingly finds its way into the score. I want to play with what the audience sees as well as hears from the musicians. Often I know where the piece will be performed for the first time, so I can imagine how it will work then and there and base decisions on it.’
She writes for the occasion? ‘That is not a conscious strategy, but the idea of writing for eternity is an odd concept for me. Of course I find it wonderful that now, after a few years, some of my compositions are still standing and are being played regularly. That they not only survived the première, but also their specific time and the occasion for which I wrote it. But above all it has to happen for the commissioning ensemble, the concertseries, the hall or the festival. That is what it needs to be at its best for. If it can get a new life after that, is not a consideration during composing.’
Mayke Nas has made several pieces in which text plays a role, en je noemt het liefde (and you call it love) on a text by Ilja Leonard Pfeiffer for example. Yet she does little with vocal music and that is puzzling. After all, she is really fond of words? ‘It is not a deliberate exclusion, but I find it difficult to listen to text and music at the same time. That is one of my big hurdles in opera. Also that it is often sung so affectedly that you can't hear a word that's being said. No matter what language it is in. I know little examples in which the content of the text is conveyed and there is still room for listening to the music. There are pieces in which the text is pronounced intelligibly, but to really consume its meaning is something else. I visited the 'Night of Poetry' in which poets read their poems on stage and that already requires a great deal of effort. Normally if you read poetry, you can go back and forth generously. You jump back a bit and return to where you were, and once you see the whole picture, you read the whole thing over from start to finish again. You don't get that opportunity when someone reads it to you. Then you have to go with hís tempo, hís intonation, hís way of frasing and timing pauses. That is quite challenging for me, although there are always two or three moments that you can completely absorb in someone's declamation, which is lovely. But if it would be done singing, no... Women are multitasking, but that I can't manage.’