He may have had a guitar in hand for most of his life, but Aart Strootman knows he doesn’t rock. ‘My approach is the direct opposite of what people expect from an electric guitar’, he told Spitalfields Music in 2017. He plays the guitar, sure, but it might be more accurate to say he workshops it, moulding it into whatever shape and sound palette is required of it.
Strootman’s instrument is a starting point – a collection of strings in flux. He can retool them to better relate to their surroundings, and often his performances come straight out of the garage, guitars crafted by hand before they make their way to the concert hall. By the time he’s done with them, they’re DIY table-tops; they might have eight strings, or maybe it’ll be five. Or they’ll have arching necks, the strings measured out to have an intricate understanding of the material they’re showcasing.
It is Strootman’s complete disregard for standardisation that led him to Terry Riley’s Shri Camel. A rabbit hole of a composition, it is notorious for being nearly impossible to perform, belonging quite stubbornly to the keyboard it was originally composed on. Riley programmed his instrument to conform to just intonation – a tuning system of small musical intervals that runs in opposition to modern Western practice – and proceeded to play flowing, virtuosic music. Performances are unheard of: a cursory search flags up a couple from Riley himself, and little more.
Riley would go on to compose a great number of pieces in accordance with this tonal philosophy, but Shri Camel has become an infamous artefact. You cannot take it away from its original specifics of tuning and timbre; it is defined by the Rileyisms given to it at the time. But Riley wasn’t intending difficulty, nor exclusivity. He was imagining composition as an open field, a place where unorthodox sounds and systems could enrichen the conformities of Western music. It’s hard to play, but it is ultimately an invitation, a musical treasure waiting to be pried open.
Much like Riley, Strootman likes to solve riddles nobody asked him to. With ‘chamber-metal’ band TEMKO, he set about creating new instruments built entirely for the purposes of playing Shri Camel. He constructed specific vibraphones with shortened or lengthened keys, modified guitars, and crafted instruments out of differently tuned physical materials, aiming to capture every last note Riley played, whether intentional or improvised. TEMKO is its own virtuoso act: by painstaking miracle, it delivers a performable facsimile of Shri Camel.
Riley was revered in the contemporary scene long before releasing Shri Camel. A vital figure in the early days of the minimalist movement, his 1964 composition In C was formative – a series of entrancing vignettes and repetitions, its influence is ubiquitous to this day. In 1969, he released A Rainbow In Curved Air, a record of tape music that approached the traditions of Hindustani raga through curious improvisation. This was typical Riley: he utilised specific genres, theoretical techniques and tunings as if he were adlibbing them. Refusing to be confined by formalities, he instructed rock, ambient and electronic music, encouraging a modern era of musical hybrid.
Shri Camel was so deeply embedded in Riley’s synthesizer that it seemed it would stay there forever. The careful manner in which TEMKO have handled the piece, and the precise way in which they have presented it, is proof of Strootman’s love not only for performing music, but for taking care of it. He was once asked by Kaleidoscope what his favourite thing about composing was. ‘Listening’, he answered, summing up a music career spent tailoring.
See Aart Strootman play across a number of performances at hcmf// 2018.
18 November @ 10:00 pm
19 November @ 11:00 am
22 November @ 4:00 pm
As well as Aart Strootman, hcmf// 2018 will see a wave of new music performers, composers and Dutch-based international projects to audiences thanks to the new three-year partnership with Dutch Performing Arts.