“The way that I experience music is, in a way, very physical; it’s very often about impacts and certain touches.”

Pepijn Streng

Pepijn Streng (b. 1998, Hengelo) is a Dutch composer currently based between the Netherlands and the UK. Pepijn has studied at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with composers such as Richard Ayres, Wim Henderickx, and Sean Clancy; His pieces have been played across the UK and Europe by members of the Fidelio Trio, Koor Neon, and Score Collective Ensemble. Pepijn spoke to PRXLUDES about his work’s relationship with rhythm, time, physicality, and philosophy, as well as his relationship with his compositional process, the conservatoire environment, and the contemporary music industry,

Pepijn Streng, ‘The Summoning of the Old Gods’. Performed by Score Collective Ensemble, conducted by Ben Weishaupt. Bernard Haitinkzaal, Conservatorium van Amsterdam, NL, May 2019.

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Pepijn! I’ve heard about the opera you’ve started to compose; tell me a little about how it was conceived…

Pepijn Streng: The first thing that came out of it was the text of the first scene, the libretto. I came home from a party; I was a bit under [the] influence of alcohol, and I had been doing this “writing thing” — which is super cathartic, I’d recommend it to everyone — where you start writing, and don’t allow yourself to stop. So you just keep on going, and some real feelings will come out, some real honest things. It came out as this series of abstract things related to other concepts: “Must you assail a human in their darkest hours when they are tormented by endless passions? Must you strike and strike again with no sense of mercy? You know that I have long been unable to bear the heavy burden which rests on my shoulders?” I started talking in this very medieval way, it was very funny, actually. I actually wrote it first in Medieval Dutch, and then I translated it into archaic English to the best of my ability.

How did you turn those initial ideas into a fully fledged project?

This thing full of passions became Scene One — “The exorcism of the individual’s inner demons” — and then more arrived. When you have this style, you can keep going in it, text-wise. I was thinking of all these scenes; it wasn’t just one story, it was all of these different scenes. At some point, I started thinking of what would be funny [with] concepts for scenes: the second scene — “The accomplishment of a task which had not before been achieved by this particular individual as a signifier for personal growth” — and then “The meeting of another individual who later will turn out to have been a future acquaintance”… all these things. They’re just ideas that kind of fit together, but they’re different ideas that I think would be nice, or powerful, or have a certain aesthetic to them. Like, if you pronounce them, and think [about] them, you get an aesthetic image; that’s something you can see and [say] “yeah, I can make something out of that”. It’s a structure that builds itself. I think that’s a great way of building a structure, because that’s how it happens in the mind of the listener.

That’s such an interesting way of crafting an opera. It’ll definitely make for something incredibly powerful.

I’m only halfway through the second scene. At this tempo, it’s going to be five years until the whole thing is completed; but if it was, it would be really big. Maybe not like big in a way that’s obvious to outsiders — a huge orchestra, four hours, or something — but big for me, in [a way that] I put so many ideas into this. I think that’s something that’s valuable in itself; an idea comes out of you, so you’re putting so much of yourself into a thing. Even if there’s five people at the premiere, there’s an intrinsic value in that, which is part of the whole beauty of composition.

Tell me a bit about your compositional process. Where do you tend to find inspiration — if anywhere?

Sometimes I wish that it was like Messiaen, he said: “oh, it’s just to propagate the belief in God”. But I don’t have a thing like that. I believe in lots of things, musically, but it’s not typical that I start with a very clear image. It’s usually like a series of random images, and “can I fit these together”?

What do you mean by the term “images”?

It’s mostly musical [images]. The way that I experience music is, in a way, very physical; it’s very often about impacts and certain touches. I’ll think of a big pounding chord, and it’ll [hit you]. Or it’s like a soft texture that gently touches you. So there’s lots of images in that, and I think that’s something very interesting, because I almost always have a physical association with certain music. I mean, that’s almost everyone, of course; we all dance, and if you do enough drugs, your body will become one… -laughs- I think that’s the main thing. It’s an experiential thing. I don’t think that answered the question at all.

How does the experiential aspect of music affect your work? Does it?

I think it does. I have a thing for rhythm; that’s something I’ve had ever since I can remember. I think it has to do with physical processes, in a way; when something hits. When it hits you, when it impacts you, at which moment [it does] makes such a huge difference. With rhythm, a lot of it is about when you can predict it, or not predict it… anticipate it. Do you anticipate that it hits you, or does it come out of nowhere? One of the most memorable experiences I had with music, in that way, was when I was listening to a piece by Lili Boulanger — ‘Du fond de l’abîme’, or sometimes in Latin, ‘De Profundis’ — and there’s a moment in there quite [near] the beginning where it suddenly explodes. I don’t always actively listen to music; I was just reading something, and I was listening to this piece, and out of nowhere it exploded into this huge, intense climax. Very early on in the piece. And it was so unexpected that I had to put down everything that I was reading; I just had to drop it at once, because it was like “holy shit”. The music just got so intense.

“With rhythm, a lot of it is about when you can predict it, or not predict it… anticipate it. Do you anticipate that it hits you, or does it come out of nowhere?” Pepijn Streng, in conversation with PRXLUDES

I completely understand. How did that experience of passive listening to active listening relate to your process when it comes to time and rhythm?

What physical state do you expect when the music hits you? That’s a huge factor in the music. It’s about rhythm, it’s also about intensity. I had a teacher — Wim Henderickx — who has said [that] everything must be intense. He’s very intense, but in a very fun way. At one point, we were talking about rhythms, and we were banging on the tables. We were talking about two voices interrupting each other, and he was like “we’re having a pleasant conversation, but what if you start talking- And then I suddenly interrupt you and start yelling?!” -laughs- And then I went like “but what if I interrupt you, and start yelling over you?”, and we were both yelling over each other. That’s the kind of thing you can expect.

That’s absolutely brilliant, exactly what you want in a composition tutor. -laughs-

In a way, there’s also been an ethical discussion over this, as well: is it ethical for music to have such huge physical effects on you? The whole thing of violence in music. Susan McClary said that Beethoven’s Ninth — the first movement — has one of the most horrifically violent passages in music. Which is very interesting… It’s true, in a way, but then again, for me, I voluntarily subject myself to it, and I can stop it whenever I want. It’s almost like BDSM, or something. -laughs-

That’s so interesting; I’ve never thought of violence in music as an ethics question. In a concert setting, you might know what the program is, but you don’t consent to it. She does have a point.

She definitely does. There’s a huge thing about this [with] Wagner; Wagner’s music has a huge effect on many people, including me if I’m honest. I listen to the Tristan [und Isolde] overture, and feel it, you know. But there’s the moral question: are you being swayed [by it]?

It’s about “can you separate the art from the artist” — which is a huge conundrum I don’t have an answer for.

I think it’s fine to play Wagner, especially since he’s dead. If he was alive, and we would be giving him money, it would be different. It would be a whole different discussion. But he’s dead. I think it’s interesting to be aware of music and the way it can effect you without your control, necessarily. In a way, it’s also the beauty of it; it can deliberately take you out of your comfort zone. It can be something beautiful too.

There’s a huge can of worms when it comes to beauty, as well.

I think beauty is such a difficult thing, because it’s been interpreted in so many different ways. It can mean like “pretty”, but I think beautiful can be something very different. I might look at somebody’s face and think they are super attractive, you know — but when I look at the face of Christopher Walken, I have a huge aesthetic appreciation… I think Christopher Walken’s face is a work of art, but I don’t think he’s a very attractive man, you know… -laughs-

Pepijn Streng, ‘Hommage’, for cello and piano. Performed by Fidelio Trio, London, UK, April 2021.

I guess there’s a difference between pure aesthetic appreciation and something deeper… The sublime, maybe.

I guess sublime is what we were talking about before, right? This physical effect beyond your control. I think that’s part of the sublime.

Like, surrendering yourself to the power of something, or surrendering yourself to the power of a piece of art you’ve experienced or a piece of music?

It’s interesting. It’s a very risky thing, I think, because it’s hard to pull off. In my piece ‘Hommage’, I was really inspired by this Messiaen piece; I almost copied it. I have no shame in admitting that, because it’s so obvious. But if you listen to that… the cello melody is one thing, but [in] the piano chords, every piano chord is the exact right chord at the exact right moment, and [they] all accumulate into this mesmerising experience. If you want to do that, you have to challenge yourself to rise to that standard, and have the right chord constantly at the right moment.

I totally get that. I feel like having Messiaen as a foundation means you have a way to try and attain those heights, you can build on it to create something bigger…

Yeah. I mean, the word “pastiche”… it’s always [that] you know it’s not the real thing, but you take away the actual sublime part of it — what the composer wanted to do — and only look at the technical and theoretical aspects of it, and you abstract those and write something with those same qualities. I think that’s not good enough.

Isn’t pastiche just originality without the recontextualisation?

But is it originality? If it’s not recontextualised — or not enough — is it still original?

It seems like the people answering these questions shouldn’t be the people answering these questions. Art critics aren’t the ones making the art…

We can talk about music critics… It’s not like all composers are inherently better, you know? Lots of composers have their own biases — everyone has their own biases, and that’s fine — but that also shows in the way they interact with other composers. Like composition competitions, for example… I only participated in one, and I lost — so that’s why I’m so salty — it doesn’t matter if the jury [are] composers or not. Because so often, [with] the composers who are in the jury, it will still be [about] if it fits their personal preference or taste. If it’s the kind of music they want to hear. And in that way… I don’t think there’s a difference between composers and other people. But a composition contest will have this sort of prestige; if you win a contest, you can put that on your CV and stuff. But all it is is [that] your music appeals to the tastes of the people who were in the jury at that time.

I don’t know if I told you the story of the competition I participated in. It was a competition of pieces for percussion. I had a piece that was basically a big drum solo; it was very fun for me to write, and the guy was so good. He was such a great drummer. And another guy from my class participated in the same competition. It was him on stage playing snare rolls, and there was a backing track with all kinds of different instruments that would fade in and out… and Noam Chomsky quotes.

That’s amazing, please say he won.

No, no, he didn’t win. I think he could’ve won, it was a great piece. But the piece that won was thirty minutes [long]; the [composer] had found eighty different patterns on the same four notes, and was doing all of them. It was thirty minutes on the same four chromatically adjacent notes. When the winners were announced, they [said] “he did the maximal with the minimal”… -laughs- Like, why is that your standard? When they talked about my piece — the big drum solo — they were like “yeah it’s nice, but it’s too much of a piece a drummer can use to show off”. Erm… do you know who Franz Liszt is?

True, but is that necessarily a bad thing?

Sometimes, composers look at pieces as a very abstract thing, as it exists on paper. But there’s no objective reason to see that, and not think of it as the whole performance; as someone who is using their body and all of their physical capabilities to do that right in front of you. For me, that’s a really important part. There’s a recording of some Prokofiev sonata — the Seventh — with Sokolov, and when he’s playing it, it’s not only virtuosic but just like, very violent. And this is part of it.

The show, or the virtuoso, becomes part of the piece.

You say “becomes part of the piece”, but that is how pieces used to be, you know? Before computers, and record players. You had to physically perform it in order to make it sound, so the physical part was always part of the music. It used to be a thing with piano music; people would buy it and play it for themselves. The only way you [could] hear a piece is if you, yourself, physically make it happen.

It’s interesting to think about the realisation of performance throughout history — especially considering how hard it is for a lot of composers to get a foot in the door, nowadays.

I remember, I had [a] music history class where the teacher was talking about “now” and “the future” of orchestral music. I had this one teacher who’s super influential in the Dutch orchestral scene. The people who got played by orchestras — the Dutch Radio Philharmonic — they have all been his students. And I brought that up in this lesson, and the history teacher wasn’t like a teacher anymore, he [suddenly] got real… He was like “the longer I’ve been in music, the more I’ve realised that this is how things go”, and you should always keep in contact with your former teachers and everyone you meet at the conservatoire, as this is where you get these opportunities, and these chances. [But] it depends on where you want to end up, as well. Do you want to be played by the big symphony orchestras, or do you want to be playing somewhere else, in some completely different place? It’s this way of some powerful people who decide things… I don’t know.

It’s sad that this kind of nepotism culture is still a thing.

I was once at [a] cello lesson and this other person was before me. We were chatting and she had written a piece for choir and orchestra, and it was due to be performed; that’s huge. Like, how do you arrange that? She was like “my dad’s in an orchestra and he knew people”… I’ve seen people who grew up with musician parents, and they were brought up with classical music, learned it from a young age. And then they went to [a] conservatoire and, of course, they were accepted because they had this upbringing. And then you get into the system, you get to know people that are in the industry. That’s the main reason why people go to conservatoires.

Pepijn Streng, ‘On the Boulevard in Ghost Town’. Performed by Score Collective Ensemble, conducted by Ed Spanjaard. Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam, NL, January 2019.

So, going on from that, tell me a bit about your own background. How did you get involved with composition?

I did have composition lessons from a young age; I also have a bit of privilege in that. My parents weren’t professional musicians, but they recognised that I wanted to compose, and would help pay someone to instruct me in that. I had this tutor, when I was thirteen — and he told me that everything you learn in terms of skills you learn at a conservatoire, you can learn from a private tutor for less money. But you go to a conservatoire to meet people, and make connections. That’s one side of it; there’s also the other side of it, that you meet other composers and get discussion and dialogue going. That’s super valuable.

I went to [Conservatorium van] Amsterdam, and they had this course they called “non-western music”; they called it [that] but it was mostly just South Indian and Carnatic rhythm. I learned “right, that’s a big thing here, [so] I’ll get into that too”. That’s the benefit of an environment [where] you can learn about those things, too. I didn’t know about that before, you know — I didn’t have that interest before. But then I found out about it, then I learned about it.

It’s interesting you mention exposure to ‘non-western’ rhythm at a conservatoire level. How have your works played with rhythm?

[‘Hommage’], for example, is very much about rhythm. I did intensify Messiaen’s rhythm, I did add to the piece. In the Messiaen, the piano is playing 16ths, but each 16th is at 44bpm; [but] because of that, every chord change contributes to the rhythm. So you get this rhythm on a super-slow scale. I made it more complex by using this rhythmic unit of 2+7; in that way, each unit becomes a beat in its own, and it’s almost slower than the 4/4. You get this rhythm on a huge scale.

Well, because it keeps going, right?

Yeah, but this rhythm — the 2+7 — is only one dimension. The real rhythm is in the harmony, then: how long do you play one chord before you go on to the next chord? This is really interesting; sometimes I hear pieces by students — or even people like Bruckner — where they have patterns [in which] the harmony changes exactly every bar. So you know exactly [when] — “oh, now there’s gonna be a new chord, wonder what the new chord is…” — I just think, why aren’t you playing with this? Put an extra beat in one bar, it’s gonna have such an impact.

I get you. Even just changing a small parameter has such a huge impact.

For example, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony is a piece where every phrase is either four, or eight, or sixteen bars… like, I know exactly when you’re gonna do something. Sometimes the material itself is only three and a half bars, but because he puts this framework on it of 4/4, 4/4, 4/4, there’s just a half bar where nothing happens before he starts again. It’s such a weird thing. [With] someone like Mozart, that’s a huge strength — when one phrase ends, the next begins — something new happens [the moment] you expect the end of the first phrase. I mean, it’s not, by itself, the whole thing that can sustain a piece, but I appreciate that he cuts out the waiting, and starts a phrase halfway [through] a bar. But then again, there’s something really fun about playing with that as well.

Lots of pieces — especially capital-C Classical pieces — have this internal hierarchy of their elements. That’s what form is, in a way; every bit of material has its place, and it knows exactly its place and it doesn’t overstep. But then — this is something that I really like to do — [you can] take one bit and [make] it really emancipated, empowering it by giving it way more time than it would otherwise get. I have this piece called ‘On the Boulevard in Ghost Town’, where at some point, right in the middle of a movement, I have the double bass solo for three straight minutes. It was for a huge ensemble, as well, so they were all just sitting there while the bass was going. -laughs- There’s something really empowering about that.

I feel like the ensemble would either love or hate that, and I’m not sure which.

It’s a bit of a social thing, too; when you’re in a conversation, and you’re like “oh god, I’m talking too long”, but you deliberately overstep that. Or when you’re together with someone, and sometimes you don’t talk for a while, and there’s a silence, and it’s an awkward silence. But then you’re like “no, it’s not an awkward silence, because I will decide [that] it’s not awkward, and will keep on being silent”. There’s such a power in that.

There is such a power. It depends on who’s choosing if the silence happens.

But the awkwardness lies in the disruption of the expected order. When you have a conversation with lots of neurotypical people, there’s this expectation of “I talk for my normal amount of time, and you have to respond and talk for your normal amount of time”. You can’t keep talking forever about your interests, even if you want to. But if you don’t know what to say, it’s also awkward. So that awkwardness is what people feel in the disruption of [the] expected order of things. Sometimes I don’t know what to say, and I’ll just be silent.

-at this point, there’s a significant period of silence for around 30 seconds-

…Okay, I give up! -laughs- It’s interesting to play with that element of duration and silence, though. I remember there’s a piano sonata you’ve composed that deals with those elements?

Yeah. ‘Het land rust onder de hemel’ — the land rests underneath the sky, or the heavens, I guess. While I was listening to the [first] performance, I was so tense. I felt so tense with [the piece] constantly going, it felt to me like [it was] going for way too long, but in that good way, you know; upsetting the expected amount of time that you would give something. [It] can be a really powerful thing. Even if you have the score, it won’t save you; you’ll read it and you’ll be like “oh god, it goes on forever”…

This is something that’s happened a lot in various peoples’ work. The famous example is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth; the third movement ends super triumphantly, and people are like “ah, that’s the end, that’s the finale” — and then he comes [in] with this fourth movement that’s super sad and tragic. It’s quite normal that people will applaud after the third movement, and then suddenly this fourth movement comes in and it’s super depressing.

That’s kinda great, though. The subversion of expectations…

You have this intensity, but the intensity you expect from the end of a piece, but it keeps going. It feels like breaking the laws of physics, even though you’re not.

Pepijn Streng – ‘Het land rust onder de hemel’. Performed by Fatou Sourang at The LAB, Birmingham, UK, December 2019.


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Zygmund de Somogyi is a composer, performer, and writer based in London, and artistic director of contemporary music magazine PRXLUDES.