Harps & Locomotives: An Interview With Ann Eysermans

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A month or so after hearing Ann Eysermans’ magnificent album For Trainspotters Only for the first time, I am still totally enthralled by its sonic combinations and emotive strength. Beyond her skill as a musician and composer, Eysermans interest in trains is a central component of this album. It’s an unlikely combination – the harsh tones of locomotives with flickering harp escapades – yet she makes it work. I’ve never heard anything quite like it and can’t imagine anyone else putting these elements together in such an inviting and listenable manner. It’s one of my favorite albums so far in 2022.

For Trainspotters Only is out now on Cortizona. Ann Eysermans can be reached via her website and more of her music heard on her Bandcamp.

I always start interviews asking about early memories and experiences with music and sound and I am going to ask you about that, but I’m first curious to know about your interest in trains and how that started? Does it go back to when you were a child?

Yes, that is true. When I was about 5 years old, I was allowed to go with my uncle in the driver’s cab of the train, from Antwerp to Ostend. That was a great experience. I have always been fascinated by trains: how they look, how they sound, the specific smells, their functioning, … When I was 20, I worked as a sleeping-car assistant on the international night trains, at the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits. And a few years ago I did a Ph.D. [P-TRAINS (Astrin Phosphora)] (2010-2014) on trains and experimental music. The train is – still – always present in my life!

And what about music then – what are some of your earliest memories when it comes to music and sound that have stuck with you?

Train sounds = music. When I was young, I was already fascinated by these different sounds: from horns, departures, and brakes to the slamming of a train. But I have always found the train sighing, the rumble and roar particularly beautiful. During my teenage years, I started looking for those different types of locomotives, each of which produces its own sound. When I was 18 I had a dictaphone. Then I went to Antwerpen Dam, where many locomotives drove back and forth. I recorded these sounds. Now it would be impossible to just get there…

From old diesels to the charming green train carriages of the NMBS. I did not go to sleep until I heard the last train (a diesel type 62, or with a lot of luck a type 55) stop and depart again around midnight. I was completely enchanted by those sounds.

When did you start learning to play an instrument and what was it that inspired you to do it?

During my childhood, I was always making music, drawing, and painting. Because I already had too many hobbies, I didn’t go to music school until I was 12 years old. In the big orchestra I was immediately fascinated by the bigger instruments: cellos and double basses. Because of their physical appearance, but also because of their function: the bass parts were – in my opinion – the most beautiful in the orchestra. So I started playing the double bass. A few years later I added the harp (also big enough) because I also wanted to play harmonies. Playing the double bass is interesting if you can play in a group with other musicians, but playing alone was quite boring for me.

So you’ve got these concurrent deep interests in music and trains. Can you tell me a little bit about when the idea to make this album started?

During my Ph.D., I explored many possibilities of the relationship between art and trains. When EUROPALIA (Trains & Tracks festival) asked me to do ‘something’ at their festival, it was immediately evident to me what this should/could be: a live concert with locomotives!

I combined my studies from the past (harmony, counterpoint, and fugue) with the nostalgic sounds of the locomotives. This resulted in the vinyl record For Trainspotters Only (at Cortizona), where you can find the Prelude and Fugue for 4 diesel locomotives and harp on the A-side. So these are two very ‘classical’ structures that are merely filled in by the train and harp sounds. The Prelude will also be performed live with 2 diesel locomotives and harp. Quite exciting.

I absolutely love the train recordings on the album. There’s a strange beauty to them, I think. How were you able to record the sounds of diesel locomotives of the Belgian Train World Heritage collection that you used?

For the EUROPALIA project, I have been in contact with the people from Train World Heritage (NMBS). They have – and take care – of these old locomotives, which unfortunately are no longer running on our tracks …

I met the locomotives and then recorded their beautiful sounds. It was a dream come true, really! The drivers and technicians have conjured up every possible sound from those locomotives. I share the passion that these people have for these soulful draught horses! I am very grateful to them.

Graphic score: P & not-P (2012)

I’ve long been fascinated by the rhythmic sounds of trains going over the rails, but your album has made me think about all the other sounds trains make. What are some of your favorite train sounds and what is it about those sounds that are so interesting and wonderful?

At first glance, train sounds seem to be noise. Indeed, the pulsations are particularly interesting in themselves. Techno! But those locomotives can also produce very harmonious sounds: the fans, the engine revving (which sounds most beautiful to me: the build-up, and then the climax: you feel and hear them rumble, they are alive!). They are ‘beauty’ in themselves for me, but with the harp, they become completely complementary, especially for a record/concert.

I’m especially interested in the mix of disparate sounds on For Trainspotters Only! – the way you’ve mixed these almost harsh sounds from the locomotives with the lighter, more effervescent tones of your harp is incredible. It seems like something that is so difficult to make work. Can you talk a little bit about your process and how you went about conceptualizing and composing these pieces as well as recording them?

I have been looking for the perfect structure for this symbiosis of 4 locomotives (HLD 54, HLD 60, HLD 51, and HLD 55) and harp. Prelude and Fugue. The strict rules (within which there is still sufficient freedom).

It comes down to selection: e.g. for the Fugue, which sound do I take for the theme? The starting of the locomotive. This is then transposed into the fifth. The countersubject? Idling and the compressor. Divertimento 1? The air hose. Divertimento 2? The compressor. Dominant pedal? Engine revving + climax. Tonica pedal? Stretto of the different themes (starting up the locomotive). All these sounds were then treated contrapuntally: application of augmentatio and diminutio, and so on. For the Prelude it was different: here you are more free. And yet this composition was ‘structured’: by repetitions, thematic developments, etc.

On the B-side are 6 more free compositions, in which I combine different sounds with the sounds of the locomotives: from music boxes, organs, a station voice reading an unintelligible poem, a harmonium, my own singing voice to brass sections. These dialogues come naturally to me. The smallest vulnerable music box in front of those roaring trains, or the organ that sustains a delay chord – not possible on a piano because the sound immediately fades away – for example: the search for contrasts but also for sounds that fit well together (very subjective of course), are definitely central here. The nostalgic character is definitely there, I think. After all, trains are nostalgia. That’s why it seemed like the ideal opportunity to ‘record’ them on a vinyl record.

What was the biggest challenge with For Trainspotters Only?

The biggest challenge is probably the concert with the 2 locomotives! The concert must take place outside, in front of 500 people. It is a question of choosing the right positions, having a good amplification and above all: a suitable score for the 2 train drivers, who will perform the composition together with me.

What surprised you most during the process of making the album?

What surprised me the most? Still the splendor of those locomotive sounds. And of course also the recording days: getting close to those machines, crawling into the engine room, discovering all the sounds, … That was very special.

Have you done any other works combining your music and love of trains? I know your website mentioned working with tape compositions with train sounds, which sounds quite interesting to me. Is there any place to hear this work?

As already indicated, I have already been able to do a lot of research during my Ph.D. I’ve explored many possible relationships, mostly conceptually: for example, electric wires become staves (and graphic scores). Locomotive numbers become metronome numbers. Departure and arrival times become durations for compositions. I have used train terminologies for conceptual poems. Train tickets become art objects and a game during the final performances of my Ph.D. Train sounds become music. And so on. At that time I also made my first Loc-études: tape compositions with locomotive sounds. I’m afraid they are no longer online (http://p-trains-astrinphosphora.be/) …

What is next for you this year?

I would like to make a new record. An (auditory) duo with my dog Shadoh. The poems, which are part of the whole, have already been written. And I already know the title: The Moonlight Shadoh. And I’m sure a train will pass, too, on that record.

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