Monday, June 22, 2015

Talking to Belgian organist, singer and choral conductor Arnout Malfliet

On June 8th 2015 I met with Belgian musician Arnout Malfliet at Hotel Monteconero, Province of Ancona, Italy.

PH: Arnout Malfliet, where were you born?

Arnout Malfliet: I was born in Halle, which is south of Brussels. Halle is unique in that it is a tiny Flemish region located between Brussels, which is almost entirely French, and Wallonia, which is also predominantly French. I grew up in Haller, with the tension between Flemish and French people.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

AM: Not in particular. My mother should have learned the piano, as was expected of girls then, but she did not.  My father played the piano a little, but also played the organ at church to substitute for the permanent organist. Once when there was no one to play for the Mass I did…I was ten or eleven years old. I liked it very much but did not take lessons on it. As a little boy I also sang in the Christmas Mass in the church.

PH: What was your early musical training?

AF: When I was very young, my father took me to enroll at the local music academy, but the principle there said I would need to know how to read and count in order to learn music; then, at age 6, barely able to read and write, I was able to start studies at the music academy, where the first instrument I played was the modern flute. I did not choose the instrument; the principle simply said that the flute teacher was nice, so I began the flute. The only flute music I had heard was the bird motive from Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and thought I would like to play this melody. In Belgium one can learn an instrument for eight years, then taking the exam to receive the government medal. That is what I did, but I felt this was not my instrument. I played flute till I was 13 or 14 and received the government medal. For some reason, my parents could not come to hear me play at the exam. I was so sad that I threw the music, the flute and the medal into the river at Haller! My father was furious. I had to go back to the river to look for them. I did manage to find the flute. However, my father still insisted I play an instrument, so I then started with piano lessons.  A year or two after that I began playing the organ and that was really an instrument I liked.  I was not very good at school; neither did I like it and I decided to leave at age 15.

PH: How did your father react to that?

AM: He said I would have to go to work, so I became apprenticed to a harpsichord maker. I worked for him for four years. To qualify as a harpsichord maker, I had to build an entire harpsichord, starting from the wood itself.  I was given six months to do it all by myself, I completed it and qualified.

PH: So did you continue to build harpsichords?

AM: No. At that time, I had thoughts about becoming a monk, so after my qualifying as a harpsichord builder at age 20, I joined an order - the Salvatorians - where I stayed for eight or nine years. When I was 28, I had to decide whether to remain as  a monk forever or not.  My decision was to leave.

PH: How did the time you spent as a Salvatorian monk tie in with your music?

AM: I studied organ. The Salvatorians are a German order and we had to do our novitiate in Passau, Germany.  Passau has the largest cathedral organ in the world and, within a few weeks of being there, I was able to take lessons with the cathedral organist Walther Schuster, and could practise in the evenings when people were not in the cathedral. There are actually five organs in that cathedral, all of which can be activated by one large manual: there is the very large organ, with six manuals and some 300 registers, then an Italian organ, a French organ, a ceiling organ and a three-manual choir organ at the front of the cathedral. I played for some of the services there and, because a lot of people come to Passau to hear this organ, there were daily noon organ concerts in the summer, in which Schuster’s better students played. I played in one of them. When we played for services, we had to accompany singers placed at the front of the cathedral a hundred meters away, with the problem of two to three seconds reverberation time if one chose to play on the very large organ, which I avoided in that situation!

PH: Do you still play the organ?

AM: Yes. I am the organist at the Filosofenfontein Dominican chapel, which is close to my home near Leuven. We had a small positif organ there but a few years ago we bought a very nice second-hand pipe organ in Holland. It has only one manual but we are interested to get a second. But what I really like most is singing.

PH: So let’s talk about your singing.

AM: As I mentioned before, as a little boy I sang in the church choir.  When my voice started changing at age 12 or 13 my father announced that I was not to sing at all until my voice had totally changed. I was really very sad, but my father stood firm on that. Then, at the age of 16 or 17 I was able to rejoin the church choir. In Passau, I sang in the church choir with the novitiates. After that I went back to Belgium to study Philosophy and Theology at the Catholic University of Leuven. There I sang in the university choir and discovered my love of ensemble singing. Then, following one year of mandatory service in the Belgian army in Germany, I returned to Belgium to complete my four years of Theology studies.

PH: Do you see yourself as a soloist?

AM: I am not really a solo singer and, if I do sing solo, it is in Baroque cantatas and oratorios.  I am not a Verdi singer; my voice is an ensemble voice.

PH: What about vocal training?

AM: Well, there was almost nothing; mostly, a few lessons here and there with reputable private teachers. When I was a monk I could not study voice at a conservatory because the order did not allow it. Actually, one reason I left the order was that the university choir was changing directors and I wanted to go for the job, a post always filled by a non-conservatory student; my chances were good. With the order not approving of it, I felt limited by these constrictions.

PH: Did you then work as a performer?

AM:  After completing my university studies, I became engaged, we married and then there were children. With a family to support, I began to teach religious studies at a secondary school. On one hand I liked it, but, on the other, I felt it was not what I really wanted to be doing. In the early ‘90s, I had an opportunity to sing in Brussels Cathedral. Erik van Nevel was maestro di cappella there and he suggested I come and sing in the cathedral choir. So I sang there as well as continuing my job teaching religion. I continued in the choir for a few years after van Nevel left, but it was not the same, and I started to do less singing. Then, a few years ago, I said to my wife that I was tired of teaching and really wanted to focus on my singing career. She was very supportive of this and continues to be so.

PH: Would you like to talk about the groups in which you direct or sing?

AM: Yes. I have been conducting OrSeCante for 25 years.  In early French, the ensemble’s name translates as “Now we have to sing”. Being a theologist, I choose a lot of religious music for the group’s repertoire.  I like to make religious and theological connections to our repertoire: we sing a lot of requiems in November and material related to the Passion at Easter. The first work I did with the group was a Passion by Markus Beber – small pieces for SATB choir – with baritone Bart Demuyt singing the role of the Evangelist; he is now a very big name in music in Belgium. We have performed a few big works – Händel’s “Messiah”, the Monteverdi “Vespers”, Charpentier’s “Messe de minuit”, etc. Next year we are going to perform Händel’s “Israel in Egypt”, a very nice piece for choir, the music illustrating what happens in the text almost visually. It is such a shame this work is not known as well as “Messiah” only had three or four time performances in London in Händel’s time. “OrSeCanto” is made up of good amateurs. In “OrSeCante” we do not perform very early music, but we do sing polyphonic works. I sing in an ensemble called “Graindelavoix”; there we do very early music – Byzantine music and even songs of Henry III, who was the Duke of Brabant (Belgium). Byörn Schmelzer is the artistic director of this group.  I also have my own group called “Vocem Flentium” (Weeping Voices) which started two years ago. It was formed as a chamber music group at the LUCA School of Arts; we chose early music as our repertoire. This year we are doing works of Lassus for five voices. We will sing his “Lamentations” for our exam next week. As mentioned earlier, I have also sung in the cathedral choir. By 1994 I was singing with “Currende”, directed by Erik van Nevel. I had to limit my time with “Currende” when our children came along, but am now back to a full schedule with “Currende”. I have learned a lot from Erik as he really makes a deep study into any work he conducts. His work on mean tone tuning and other kinds of tuning has been most enlightening for me. From him one learns to shape a phrase, to sing “horizontally”, riding on the vowels and shortening consonants and to also to hear the tranquility of mean tone tuning versus the nervousness sounding in equal temperament tuning due to its many compromises. Well, J.S.Bach is guilty of the move to equal temperament tuning!! But Bach was an innovator. I think he would play on synthesizers and electric guitars were he were living today.  

PH: This leads us to your current studies.

AM: Having sung in ensembles for several years, including the “Laudantes” Consort, “ Ex Tempore” (with Florian Heyerick) and the Flemish Radio Choir, I said to my wife in 2011 that I would like to make singing my main focus. By 2012 I decided I needed to know more about singing before proceeding with this career and began studies at the LUCAS School of Arts, which is in Leuven. (This school began as a conservatory for church musicians - choral conductors and organists - but is now a general conservatory. As there are too many conservatories in Belgium, this school will in time have its own specializations and it will not be early music. Brussels will remain the place for that.) I chose choir direction as my major, this course also including vocal studies. So I am learning a lot about singing practice and singing techniques. That is what I am doing now.

PH: What appeals to you in the kind of singing you do?

AM: As I mentioned before, I really like the “horizontal” approach to singing. I also like to put programs together, integrating more material, such as Gregorian chant, into the performance of a work. In this way, the listener will recognize the chant when hearing it as part of the polyphony. And polyphony is fulfilling: the physical space becomes filled with sound, you can feel it in your veins and, when singing it, you are not able to think of anything else. Also, the texts are so powerful: when I sing “Da pacem Domine” (Give peace, Lord) I so fervently pray for peace. Next week with “Vocem Flentium” we will be singing the Lassus “Lamentations”; every Lamentation ends with “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum” (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God). This is a magnificent vision in sound! It is what brings us all together. In my opinion, we could sing this music in a mosque, a synagogue or a church because we have to come together and that is what I really think music is about. Here, at this workshop, people have come from different places, they do not know each other and, with this music, they are creating harmony. Life is about making harmony and not being divided. (I have a dislike of games played “against” a partner!)

PH: This brings us to your beliefs and philosophy.

AM: Yes. We must not just focus on these texts; we must create harmony. We should “put water in our wine”, i.e. always compromise and understand each other. I think music seeks harmony. Of course, musical performance must be correct, but it encompasses a meta-harmony, bringing everything and everyone together. I need my Christian religion; it gives structure to my life: Christmas in winter, Easter in spring, at the Feast of Pentecost the sun comes out and then autumn is melancholy – a time of mourning. This connection with nature gives me a very warm feeling.

PH: Going back to the question of repertoire, why do you not engage in music written later than the Baroque?

AM: These works are very big. I think I am too shy for that. I prefer the intimate musical setting and also harmony. If you create tension in polyphonic music you know there will be moments when everything joins in harmony. That is what music is for me. I do not like to create tension that does not resolve in harmony. You have to give peace to people and that happens constantly in early music: you begin softly and end with the same peacefulness. In that setting you can be who you really are.

PH: What are your future plans?

AM: I want to continue singing in ensembles. I am okay with solo singing in oratorios and Baroque music, but I really want to remain an ensemble singer. Another big dream of mine is to see “Vocem Flentium” (founded only two years ago) grow and develop and that we will give concerts and performances everywhere. With my religious background, I feel I can give the music we sing with “Vocem Flentium” more depth, an extra dimension, more so than somebody who has only studied music.

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

AM: I am interested to see what will become of my children and I especially like spending time with my wife. My family is really very important to me. My wife and I both like to take walks in nature.  We also live on the edge of a forest!  I very much enjoy nature and think about music when I am walking. Nature and walking also connect with harmony. Growing plants  look for compromise and seek light, which we are all seeking.

PH: Arnout, many thanks. This has been most interesting and insightful.

1 comment: