Stories of the Sea With Lieven Martens

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Lieven Martens has always been full of surprises, but whatever he’s doing, it is with purpose and intention. His programme music tugs at recessed emotions with delicate intricacies and a desire to explore. At heart, he is a romantic, and those notions come through in his work and approach. Martens is one of a kind.

I’ve known Lieven for a while since his early days helming the underrated Imvated label, but even then, it was clear there was much more to come. With Edições CN, that promise is being realized. His solo and collaborative work also continue to push further into the sea, using sound as a jumping-off point to investigate deeper waters. Short stories, his latest, runs a gamut of emotions with rich sonic tapestries and space for reflection. It’s an absolute delight. 

And still, there’s much more to come (a very recent collaboration with Matthew Sage has me enamored). The oceans may be rising, but I’m certain Lieven Martens will be there to survey the new shoreline. Short stories is out now via Dauw. Lieven can be found via Edições CN (or on an island, if that doesn’t work).

Let’s start with your early and formative memories and experiences with music and sound. It’s a subject I always love to talk about, but I’m especially curious to hear what some of your earliest memories are when it comes to sound and how those experiences have stuck with you?

The roar of a full football stadium around the age of 12. 

Cowbells in the Swiss Alps (my parents would take me on budget holidays in the Swiss Alps every year – with the CM/Ziekenkas, for Belgian readers)

Every year in school, we had to go to a medical checkup. I fondly remember the bleeps of the hearing test. Soft sinus tones panning from left to right – you had to point out which side they were so they could see the ears were in good shape. Oh, so beautiful. It was recorded on reel tape too. So I also remember the tape hiss. So maybe this is the most formative sound in my life?! This might be an epiphany! 

TV and game tunes 

We’ve known each other for over 15 years (well, intermittently!) now. I found my last copy of this Juniper Meadows CDR on Imvated a few months ago, something I’d completely forgotten about – and I’ve often wondered how you first got involved with the ‘noise’ scene back in those days?

I was and am a fan of Foxy Digitalis, so I was happy to put out that release. Reading your website. Listening to stuff you put out. And to your own stuff too, of course. It was all a big inspiration, man! 

By the way, I got to know Henry Kuntz through your label. I loved his Hummingbird Tapes. It’s such a personal label, and his earth series is somehow formative for me too.

Regarding joining the’ noise’ club… I went to gigs organized by Laurent Cartuyvels (Veglia records). He would put on shows in a small room under Recyclart, a Brussels venue. All the “names” would pass through at some point. Through him, I met a ton of characters and saw a lot of concerts. 

A bit later, Spencer asked me to fill in for James with The Skaters for a tour or two. I don’t think he knew the music I was doing back then, but it clicked because we both liked to drink a lot / hang out late. We got along well. I think James was done with touring for a little bit or something. Our combo was a slightly unsuccessful endeavor, though. It was all a bit clueless. But in the best meaning of the word clueless. We kept touring on and on afterward – as separate artists, though. But I guess that made the link with the US stronger. 

By the way, I recommend this. Go on tour clueless! Just break down completely on stage. Build up and become better! To hell with all that mimetic/safe passage stuff.

And, of course, you’ve been involved in running different record labels during that time. How has the experience of running a label influenced and inspired you?

In the beginning, I just started doing it. To be honest, I didn’t have any idea. In those years: in times of being low on funds (classic!), you could just contact a few distros, burn 100 of the cheapest CDRs you could find, Xerox some art, and then sell them to a few stores. Make it to the next month. Spending all the petty cash on parties, concerts, and low-key gear. 

But now I’m making it sound like a trickster … 

It was only with starting Edições CN that I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do. Not that everything was bleak before, but it was more like me playing along. If I look back at it, it seems strange to me and necessary in a way. But strange!  

Since starting ECN, I’ve been dealing exactly with how I see recorded sound: a very open medium that can be much more than just music and a very thought-provoking medium. Unlike a concert or an expo – which are both kinds of coded audience artist exchanges – the sound of a recorded medium is so open. 

This could be about the content. Like “what is music” = so many things (a truck, a car horn, a bird, the human voice, an expensive synth?) When you decide to buy a book but not read it, the only thing that’s left is to look at the cover. Enjoy it from that perspective. However, with a recorded medium, you can sit down and listen. Or listen and do a lot of other stuff. Or listen and start thinking about the content, reading the info, trying to repeat it, etc. It is such a lovely thing. 

Also, in a time when the live presentation gets a bit too much shine, it is so lovely that one can produce a product. Someone brings it home. And then spends a lot of time with it. Pure peace forming. 

Now not to go into old dude mode, but we must remember that the most adventurous music came into existence through women and men thinking about home listening. Like in the 50s, composers sitting around, wondering what they could do with a recorded album. To create art for homes. I mean like a painter. Or a ceramic artist. A writer. A poet. But then with sound. I wanna keep on going with this.

So re: inspiration. Working with a label just makes you think more about recorded sound. And the “why” of it. But also the necessity of it. 

by Christophe Piette

A bit of a different tangent, but can you talk a little about the importance of your friendship and collaborative connections with Spencer Clark?

As mentioned before, he invited me for my first tours. We got along really well and had a deep dialogue about music and arts and drinks and food and more… 

So you’ve got a new solo album out now, Short Stories. It has this really beautiful but kind of solemn or wistful undercurrent, especially in certain sections of the first piece, “Romantic Collection.” Can you tell me a little about where your mindset and feelings were when you were composing this piece?

Thanks for the compliment.

Short stories is music “not as worked on compositions.” Short “flashes.” Stripped from unnecessary window dressing. “The Romantic Collection” is various music I’ve recorded over the past years and then set to scenes I saw during a recent trip to Réunion Island. I am interested in the dichotomy of traveling. The farther you go, the closer you come back home (because the earth is round)….

I’m also taken away by the different sections of this piece, as though they’re separate islands connected to each other through dimensional portals. Still, this component of it really plays to one of my favorite aspects of your work, and that’s how so much of it feels narrative but open-ended in that every listener may find a different story to tell in these sonic works. I wonder, though, for you, how important is the narrative aspect to composing?

Important. But indeed, the narrative is just one side of the story. You know how you can explain things in tons of ways. That is also how music works. And ideas. But as I mentioned above, the consumer is free to enjoy it however they want. 

A few years ago, I noticed that how I built up music is very in the style of an archipelago. Different building blocks. Elements are duplicated in separate parts, in slight variations. Also, every movement over the various elements impacts other movements in different elements. 

Also, how other people’s inspiration is in here. Anecdotes… That is the island, too: it is under the influence of other islands. 

A wave breaking on one cliff means water going away from another place. Currents. Energy movement. I think this energy… Is it a narrative, a technique…? It’s an energy, and that’s important.

The description of “Madrigal” is so enchanting, too. I listen to this inquisitive, almost whimsical piece of music and imagine the countless conversations these figures could have had over the years. Still, perhaps most importantly, it makes me think about how much inspiration is all around us, waiting to be found and explored. How did your interest in creating and composing work like this – this programme music – first begin?

During COVID, I was meeting friends in the city park at night for a drink or two. We would sit there. Distancing in the night, you know/having conversations. And around every bench in the park, in the pitch darkness, groups would do the same. Mumbling conversations. The city park looks very lush in the summer. And certainly, at night, it gets a sort of eerie vibe. Almost like deceiving … A Herzog jungle… Or the green forests in Logan’s Run… 

That was the first time “a conversation in the dark” crossed my mind. All these little groups. Silently mumbling. Making sense of it all. Groups from all parts of society, too. No communication between groups… It was full-on “every man is an island” style.

Second, I am so drawn to the driveway at the house in front of my parents’ house. It’s classic Flemish shenanigans with lots of brick, gravel, and cheap stuff. As you know, putting cement over everything is basically our hobby. People over here love their front yards but also want to get them as clean as possible. To avoid gossip and extra efforts. It looks grotesque. 

So in the front of the house across my parents’ house, there are two statues in a gravel-strewn driveway, and in the daytime, they look just how there are: kinda bleak… But at night, with the shadows of the streetlights, it suddenly looks like they are fussing about in the darkness. Like they suddenly take a different position. Gossip, lamentations, whatnot. Magic realism, but real. 

And that became the piece. 

The transition between day and night is pure romance. 

Photo by Wietske Van Gils

You also have a couple of Charles Ives samples on Short Stories, and he’s a composer I think of often in connection with your work. What is it about him and his work that you connect with?

In 2011 my girlfriend and I decided to go live on remote islands for half a year. There I made Canto Arquipélago. For that half year, I took almost only MP3s of Charles Ives with me. Since I read about him but didn’t understand anything about it, it became a bit of an obsession for a while. I read everything I could find. Analyzing his music – sounds that are hyper idiosyncratic anyway … etc. I wanted to “get it!” I was like, “Wow, even John Coltrane is referring to this guy as the main dude, so why shouldn’t I get him then?” 

Art that you don’t understand… That is so interesting! 

But Ives is old stuff. And throughout the years, there were many other women and men. But for some reason, Ives remains very close to my heart. And by now, he is well documented too. So you can follow a lot of leads out there. He had so many ideas… for instance Central Park in the dark, which is basically a field recording for orchestra. Imitating the wind, bars around, people, rustling trees… In there his own doubts… It has been done repeatedly (like all program music), but he somehow shines out so much of the other stuff. Endless examples. 

What are your favorite sounds in the world?

Uncorking a bottle of wine!!!! 

The crackling sound of coral reefs, maybe? 

But I love things to remain hidden. Uncovering every secret and every wish is so materialistic in the end. So I think: my favorite sound is the one I read about but never heard. Or just hear about it from a friend through a friend. It’s like white boys going to a shaman in the Amazon. It’s our endless wish to colonize and use (materialism, duh) everything out there. Wear out the globe. Instagram style. Shopping mal ecology/spiritualism. 

But also: sitting in a greenhouse with the daughter of the oldest grape cultivator in Hoeilaart. Cutting the small grapes from the stems. Only the sound of scissors and small grapes dropping on the wooden floor. Beautiful. It goes on for hours. Check it out on the Serrisme CD. 

This is obviously very new, but what else are you working on for this year with your music and the label?

I have recordings of a carillon piece I composed. Only the other week, I started to like it (I couldn’t listen to them for about a year… I have that feeling a lot … I need to estrange myself from my own stuff to like it). I think I would make the carillonneur happy, who worked hard on this piece, to finally do something with the recording… 

There’s also a piece called DUST about the happenings around volcanoes… That is coming out someday. Since it is constantly evolving/changing. And “the cow herder,” a song I made for a farmer I met inside a volcanic crater… 

I want to do concerts again too. When corona hit, for a bit, I was like, “Finally, now I can just record and produce music, don’t need to move anymore, haha” … But now I feel the need to play live again. So I’ll do that in the fall too. There are American shows in there too. 

The label: 

Church organ music by a great woman.

A woman from Brussels who is doing fantastic personal field recordings and piano music.

A Mexican woman who lives in Brussels and makes personal and ambitious music.

Etc. I don’t want to put pressure on them already, so I won’t mention their names yet. 

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon.