The Sounds of Catastrophe With Frederik Croene

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Frederik Croene’s journey is an interesting one. Even though he only began writing his own music in 2014, in his early 40s, Croene has an enticing discography. His latest, Solastalgia, explores the impending climate disaster through an emotional sonic lens. Piano arrangements and melodies circle in a surprising dance, opening our ears and minds in new ways. Within the aural spaces Croene creates, we are free to sit with and investigate our own feelings on the dread ahead.

Solastalgia is out now on Cortizona. Listen and purchase HERE.

I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

There was one cassette, a set of cheap Richard Clayderman rip-off piano pieces, I remember listening to endlessly in my pre-teenage years. It is deep in my veins and very kitschy and sentimental, the soft sound of that piano, the 70’s wooly bass guitar, and mellow strings. Then suddenly, there was a Mozart record. I remember sitting there wide-eyed, devouring every note, discussing the music critically with an imaginary friend in my head. The next paradigm shift was a cassette with Bartok’s piano concertos. I must’ve been twelve. I remember standing in my room, looking in disbelief at the cassette player, thinking, ‘oh right, now I have to rethink everything I know about music.’

That also happened a bit later with the Beatles’ blue album, especially with Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy. This last one (and their earlier releases) is still a musical gas station for any project I try to set up without the piano in the main role. 

Did you always want to be a musician or composer?

I never thought about it, actually. I just wanted to feel sounds, melodies, and rhythms, as much as possible. And no, I never had any other profession in mind.

What was the first impetus to start playing piano? Were you ever interested in another instrument first, or have you always been drawn to the piano?

There was an old battered piano at home and no music school in the neighborhood. Nearby a blind organist offered private lessons. I stayed with him until I played all the scores he had in braille, then he told me he couldn’t teach me anymore, so I kept playing and improvising by myself before entering the conservatory when I was 18.

My first job was being an organist at the local church, driving the priest crazy with my improvisations. Then it suddenly dawned on me that I could earn a living by playing music.  

And what made you want to start writing your own works?

I only started writing down notes in 2014, in my early 40’s. In conservatories, I was molded into a classical repertoire pianist, which is an anti-creative trap. You work for years to achieve a virtuoso technique by playing the iron ‘masterpieces.’ You feel ridiculous when trying to ‘compose’ your own pieces in the shadow of those masters. So parallel to improvised collaborations with artists like Esther Venrooy and Timo Van Luijk, I invented my ‘Le Piano Démécanisé’ concept, dismantling pianos and making music with them. I refused electronics or objects not coming from driftwood of broken-down pianos. Gradually I evolved towards fixing more and more sounds until I couldn’t avoid writing them down anymore. My first written-down compositions were still with an annex of electronics (a sampler attached to the pitches of the piano) or even flanked by a computer at an automated piano (Mars II, a scenic work for which I have been asked by artist Karl Van Welden, also the creator of my last two album sleeves). In 2019 then, finally, I sat down and overcame my doubts and hesitations to write out the four pieces of Cul de Sac, the first LP of a trilogy I have in mind (Solastalgia being the second part).

Let’s talk about your new album, Solastalgia. It’s an interesting way to communicate and form connections regarding climate change and the overwhelming fear I get when I allow myself to really sit and think about what’s coming. You mention this in the album’s liner notes about trying to find new ways to communicate and connect with others over these feelings many of us have, whether we want to think about them or admit them. What prompted this idea to use music as a medium to communicate these ideas and feelings in this way?

Well, playing the piano is the only tool I have. I’ve tried discussing, talking, and yelling in desperation, but it doesn’t work. A few years ago, I read a lot about the catastrophes that are coming or are already manifesting themselves. But we all experience catastrophe in everyday life. It is really everywhere, in the air, in the water, in our food, in the tiny patches of flora we try to conserve, the horrifying disappearance of animals… We all know that subconsciously but we have no idea what to do with the consequential anxieties. The thing that gives me direction in life is the realization that when I play the piano, I sense that listeners are feeling similar things as I feel. So if we feel something together, the weight is less, right?

Also, it’s an album that’s taken some time to get my head around – and I’m still not sure I’ve done that. But even on my first listen, these pieces connected with me unconsciously. It’s music swimming in emotion, and there’s so much packed into each piece. Can you talk a little bit about the first stirrings of these pieces and when you started to write them? What kind of mindset did you have?  

The first piece has a melody that has haunted me for over 8 years. I honestly don’t know where it comes from. I have a deeply personal relationship with it and had to do something with it. If I analyze it, I find remnants of a Brahms Intermezzo. Janacek’s Sonata is in there, but maybe also the kitschy piano music I talked about. Also, the second and third pieces are ancient materials I have improvised upon for as long as I can remember. Traces of Morricone, Bach, Shostakovich, and Chopin, of course. It is basic piano techniques, positioning different ways of playing against each other. That is how the pieces generate meaning, putting different sentiments (styles) on top of each other. Making music on a piano has this unique feature of playing melodies and accompaniment together. I tend to let also give the latter a soloist role. It is never humbly in the corner like with a lot of post-classical music. It gets angry or pushes against its own constrictions. It is the commie in me.

In the last piece, the compositional structures are politically driven, I remark when practicing. You might look at it as my personal road map for activism. It starts with one voice against a rhythmic pattern, and this voice gradually splits itself into different voices spread over the keyboard. The voices and patterns shrink and grow against each other, get stuck in repetition, start over again, etc. In the end, my hands try to control shattered melodies and patterns scattered over all registers. But a feeling of senselessness starts to creep in. The theme of Sisyphus is a major one in most of my late works. 

I can now speak relaxed about these pieces, but it was very painful when I was trying to write them. I needed to learn how to proceed, how to handle the material, and how to judge. I felt responsible for the ideas and kept intuitively adjusting until the recording deadline. When I am now taking up the role of repertoire pianist and start practicing for a Solastalgia recital, comprehension of what I was trying to do is oozing out of my fingers, which is truly satisfying. 

You’ve released Solastalgia on vinyl and digital formats. While it’s evident that the real drivers of climate catastrophe are on a systemic and, especially, multinational corporate level (and it seems if there’s any inkling of hope, any programs to try and slow climate catastrophe will have to be on that level and in those arenas, rather than the current approach so many governments are taking by pointing the onus on individuals) – anyway, so I obviously don’t believe pressing 400 copies of this record is what’s driving climate change. But there’s obviously a broader connection or conversation around the music industry’s culpability, especially thinking about massive corporations and artists with an enormous carbon footprint being one piece of the problematic puzzle. I’d just be curious to hear your thoughts on those connections and how musicians and artists can make any kind of difference? I don’t know that there are even environmentally-friendly formats these days, but the scale is a huge factor in the damage done.

Difficult topic. I talked about that with Philippe Cortens of the Cortizona label. Being a 21st-century human means being compromised into the conspiracy to make the planet uglier. Maybe even more so if you publish vinyl records. I truly wish that one day I would just be a concert-playing pianist. I want to believe that people sitting close to me while I play the piano is the core of my art. But not today. Possibilities to play recitals are too rare. I need an LP-release moment to shake that tree. So, I don’t have any illusions. I use dirty little capitalist strategies to be able to tell my stories. I don’t want this answer to sound cynical in the modern, decadent sense. I want it to sound cynical in the ancient meaning of the word cynicism. Like when Nietzsche tried to speak about the impossibilities of leading a moral life, way before the climate change notion: honesty can be more important than morality. But yeah, it won’t save the planet.

Anyway, it’s a fantastic album and such an interesting way to approach all of this and think about it. Where do you want to go next with this idea?

My previous solo piano album, Cul de Sac, was all about the feeling of being stuck at the end of the road, realizing you cannot get out of the situation, panicking, crying for help, shouting in desperation, and weeping in self-pity. Solastalgia is calmer, about communicating more or less civilized about it, trying to articulate how to live in this mess. The next solo album will have to formulate answers? I don’t dare to think about it yet; all these explanations I give you can only be formulated after an album is made. But I do feel that somehow, there should be a third movement, a conclusion, like with all good jokes, right?

To finish up, what are some of your favorite sounds in the world?

Nowadays, my favorite sounds come from Kevin Martin, his records as The Bug. I feel a very deep connection with his music. For him, as for me, making music is vital; it keeps you physically and mentally more or less healthy. Obsessed with only a few rhythms he has been working with for more than 20 years, he delves deeper and deeper into the possibilities of sound. In this, he is my most recent teacher. I hope to come to a point where he also teaches me about how to play the piano; maybe for my next album, I’ll succeed in integrating his approach into my playing. That is a goal.

And lastly, what will be next for you regarding performance, recordings, or anything else?

I have these No Context Pieces, where I play live on a midi keyboard triggering samples cut from my other records. It is meant to sound funny, a counterweight to my piano oeuvre, and I want to prepare them for a release. 

I recorded some tracks with pedal steel guitarist Filip Wauters in the summer on a church organ. A rare combination, but it sounds very natural and evident. 

After the Solastalgia tour, I will work full-time on Counterforces, a radical feminist project with writer Dominique De Groen and three singers (IKRAAAN, Lore Binon, and Amina Osmanu). I want to make a 50-minute-long piano score with a weird soundtrack on which the singers will do their thing. 

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.