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Interview with Bart Vandewege

The name Bart Vandewege will ring a bell with many early music lovers. Here he talks to AMUZ about his love of Renaissance polyphony, the unique place that the Iberian Peninsula occupies in that repertoire, and he looks back on his experience in the world of early music.

AMUZ: You have been a singer with many ensembles over the last few decades, including Collegium Vocale, La Petite Bande, Huelgas Ensemble, Vox Luminis, Bach Collegium Japan and Amsterdam Baroque Choir, to name just a few. Baroque music and Renaissance polyphony are two constants throughout your career. The latter is the very heart of our festival, Laus Polyphoniae. How did your love of Renaissance music begin?

I was already absolutely fascinated by polyphony when I was studying at the conservatory. And I don’t just mean a period in music history; it has more to do with horizontal lines in music, something I discovered and studied in counterpoint classes. I often think horizontally when I am composing as well: it is a challenge to allow different instruments and voices to do their own thing within a larger whole. That makes me very grateful to the great masters of the Low Countries – and those in the south – for the magnificent examples they have handed down to us. As a singer, I have the privilege of being able to explore a substantial part of this wonderful repertoire, and better still, to do so in the company of the best ensembles. That makes it difficult not to fall in love with this music.

AMUZ: You have also founded your own vocal ensemble, La Hispanoflamenca, which is devoted to 16th and 17th century polyphony from the Low Countries and Iberian Peninsula. What moved you to create your own ensemble?

I wanted La Hispanoflamenca to present a repertoire that other ensembles do not perform. Not to draw attention to itself, but because of the love I have for all this gorgeous music that has unfortunately been completely forgotten. For example, I found several boxes full of forgotten polyphony in a music shop on the Ramblas in Barcelona, where I lived at the time. It included music by a certain Pedro Ruimonte, a composer from Zaragoza who worked in Brussels for twenty years at the court of Albrecht and Isabella. When I discovered that he had composed a number of four to six-part lamentations that were published by Phalesius in Antwerp, I was gripped. I fell for the man immediately. The printed music in question has been lost, but two years after my discovery, I got hold of the original manuscript. Actually that is where La Hispanoflamenca really began. It is also thanks to Ruimonte’s music that I sing with Vox Luminis now as well. Lionel Meunier asked me about the score for these lamentations, which I had previously reconstructed because part of the soprano part had been lost. I sent him the material and a few days later he asked ‘whether I had decided or not’. It turned out that I had only half-read his message: the intention was that I would come and sing the lamentations as well. So I am very grateful to Pedro Ruimonte!

AMUZ: And why did you choose this specific repertoire for your ensemble?

As a Flemish person living in Madrid, I am always reading about composers, painters, printers and so on who came to this region centuries ago. So that link between northern and southern Europe was the starting point for La Hispanoflamenca right from the outset, and I also wanted to reflect that in the singers’ voices. The high parts are usually sung by Spanish voices because their rounded – or more rounded – colour blends perfectly, but the lower voices are usually singers from the north.

AMUZ: What makes polyphony, especially Renaissance polyphony, special to you?

The feeling that time seems to be standing still, with all the voices apparently having their own freedom within a larger whole. That is certainly the case in live performances: brilliant polyphony, performed well with suitable acoustics in beautiful visual surroundings is like a balm.
I would even go as far as to call it healing music, in a world where many things seem to be moving in worrying directions. The power of simplicity can be very disarming at times when everything seems to be getting a bit much or downright overwhelming.

AMUZ: Which composers in the genre move you most? Why?

Josquin is and remains the one and only, of course. But then there are Morales, Guerrero, the rediscovered Ruimonte – after our recordings other ensembles started singing his music, which I obviously think is a very good thing – and there are also a fair few illustrious Portuguese composers close to my heart. The Portuguese composed in a completely outdated style, but all these centuries later, of course, that doesn’t bother us. It is difficult to make a list like this, though, in the knowledge that some composers may never be performed again because their work is lost, forgotten, unloved or simply impossible to find in the archives. My most important criteria for being able to enjoy this music to the full are simplicity, daring, a balance of voices and love of text phrasing. And a cantus firmus that is well ‘fleshed out’ by the other voices; I’ve got a weakness for that.

AMUZ: At the exceptional online edition of Laus Polyphoniae this year, our festival audience can reexperience the performance of ‘Un nuevo dolor me mata’: an anonymous madrigal from the Chansonnier Masson 56. That manuscript contains no fewer than 130 Spanish songs and villancicos. How do you even start making a selection?

It’s a matter of reading, singing and analysing a lot of music and then selecting the pieces that appeal to you most. But that is when the puzzle starts, because you need to find a structure that is appealing but also feasible. That always means you have to scrap a few gems from the programme: otherwise it would be too long. Those are the choices that hurt. But I’d rather leave an audience a little bit hungry than have them feeling too full.

AMUZ: What are your criteria for selecting music when you are putting a programme together?

I worked for ten years at the VRT compiling classical music programmes, and in that job I learned to distance myself from my personal favourites and to listen to pieces of music as if I had never heard them before. When I was compiling night-time programmes as well at a certain point, I sometimes got up at half past five to experience my own programmes as a listener. Then you clearly hear that what seems like a good idea on paper doesn’t always guarantee a memorable programme that sounds good. The same applies to festivals like Laus Polyphoniae: you often put together thematic programmes that run a similar risk of wanting to present something that is really interesting in musicological terms but that actually works better as an illustration at a conference than a concert experience. Balance, variety, contrast, variations in instrumentation, compatibility with the keys you have chosen… they are all important factors to take into account. Sometimes polyphony can be quite hermetic, though. A work by Josquin in three sections that lasts 12 minutes might turn a concert audience right off, especially if the acoustics are not ideal for that repertoire. That is something else you need to consider.

AMUZ: What our audience might not know is that you do a lot more than sing and lead your own ensemble. You are also a music producer, recording director and composer.

As a freelancer, my field of activity encompasses singing, conducting, composing and supervising recordings. All those things follow on from each other. I had a very broad musical education, which I think is a very healthy thing in a society as specialised as ours. Even in the 16th century, by the way, you couldn’t just find work as a choir singer unless you could present several compositions of your own that proved you had mastered the basic rules of counterpoint. Baroque composers often played several instruments, wrote lyrics and so on. If I were to lecture in an architecture course, I would also start by acquainting my students with all the different building materials, such as stone, wood, glass and metal. I’d let them touch and feel the materials, get them to make cement, because how else can you understand what you are doing?
My versatility also means I don’t have to tour all year round. I teach courses in choir, orchestra or musical interpretation at various Spanish universities now and then, and sound engineering classes at a professional school for animated film. Besides working as a guest director, I compose a lot: oddly enough I have mainly written instrumental music in the past, usually for the theatre, dance and film, but now I’m catching up with my vocal music. And I have also been in charge of the artistic supervision of recordings for several years. I really enjoy this variety, and I’m always learning, which is essential for me.

AMUZ: The Covid-19 crisis that started in Europe this March has turned our lives upside-down over the past months. Some people experienced it as a gift from the gods that the rat race stopped for a while, and others took the opportunity to reinvent themselves. How has it been for you?

For me the lockdown came at just about the worst possible moment. All the passion concerts with Collegium Vocale were cancelled. Worse still, this is our anniversary year! Even the report that Canvas was going to do on Collegium Vocale has been cancelled. As one of the last singing members of Collegium Vocale, and with my youngest Spanish-Belgian daughter about to sing in the ripieni of the St Matthew Passion, we had an interesting story that we were supposed to tell in the report. After three fantastic days of shooting here at home in Madrid, that material will unfortunately never be broadcast…
But I did make good use of this period by studying and composing, and I also took a lot of photographs and did plenty of filming. For me images are sound in a different form, by the way – I went to both art school and music school when I was younger.
After all these years, I have built up a kind of ‘winter store’ of musical notes and images that I can draw on for various projects. Unfortunately the future is still uncertain for us at this point. The performing arts are suffering badly under the current measures. I can’t believe that many countries have allowed discos to re-open whilst treating concert halls and theatres as high-risk zones. As a freelance musician, I had to wait four months to get minimal unemployment benefits, for the first time in my life. Because I live in Spain, so I am not a border worker, I was constantly sent back and forth from pillar to post. I also had trouble with the concept of a ‘border worker’, since we have been travelling around the world non-stop for years. In France we were paid about 70% of what we would have earned there; in Belgium we only got about 30%. That pulls you up short after years of work – hard work – with the best ensembles in the country. At times like this it is apparently better to be a footballer than a cultural ambassador. All the streamed culture that lifted the spirits of so many people during the lockdown, and is still doing so now, only exists thanks to artists like us. If many of these makers end up in dire straits, you might hope for a bit of appreciation, don’t you think?
But between the endless paperwork and countless telephone calls, I’ve been sanding, painting, varnishing and cleaning up. It was high time for that as well.

AMUZ: If there is something for us to learn from this crisis, what would it be for you?

Humility and flexibility. We live with the idea that we have got almost everything under control. But this time it’s different. And there’s something else I did already know, which is that seven concerts in a row in five different countries is not actually very healthy. Certainly not in the long term. But that is the way the concert schedules panned out, and as a freelancer there isn’t much you can do to change them. It’s usually all or nothing. Perhaps that’s an area where we could try to find a new balance?
Perhaps this is also the end of La Hispanoflamenca for good. In the last big crisis in 2008, Spain redrew its cultural landscape when all the smaller banks with their own socio-cultural programme (that they were obliged to have, incidentally) were sold to the big banks. A whole series of festivals were wiped off the map back then.
Or maybe this could be a new beginning. La Hispanoflamenca, but not as we know it. We’ve got concrete plans in the pipeline! We’re not going to let a virus decide everything for us, now, are we?