Lieven Martens, Idylls







(Background Tape For)

Le Tombeau De Robert

Louis Stevenson 17’45’’

This composition is the background tape

for what is actually a piano concerto for Robert

Louis Stevenson. It is the concerto’s orchestra,

where electronic sounds, field recordings and

found objects act as strings, wind instruments

and percussion. Chiming with a performer

on grand piano — excluded here — playing

sparse notes and chords, mostly in C Whole

Tone. Alternatively — and lately I deem this to

be the preferred way — this piece can also be

performed with putting small amplifiers inside

a grand piano to diffuse (an edited version of)

the background tape. The piano then acts both

sound-wise and visually as an idyllic historical

paradigm and the recorded sound, with careful

fine-tuning and preparation, causes the piano

snares to resonate in similar tones.

R.L.S., an established Scottish writer of

mystery and adventure tales, had incessant

health problems. After many fruitless treatments

his physician finally advised him to

set sail for Polynesia where he could live in

a climate more beneficial for his wellbeing, in

contrast to the harsh Scottish weather. R.L.S.

always had a certain longing for these remote

and exotic realms anyway, so after a few years

of traveling through a quantity of islands (Tahiti,

Hawai’i, Marquesas, Taumotus, et al…), him

and his entourage settled on Samoa. They built

a house at the foot of Mount Vaea, just outside

Apia and christened it Villa Vailima.

While travelling through these various

islands and eventually living in Samoa, while

absorbing local life and sores, Stevenson’s writings

revolved idiosyncratically into some sort

of occidental Pasifika. His stories and essays

now displayed an avant post-modernism,

influenced by native ways of storytelling and

local mythology. Tusitala (R.L.S.’ Samoan nickname,

meaning “Writer Of Tales”), while touching

the mango’s peel, suddenly made school

as a primordial exoticist.

R.L.S. died in 1894 and was buried on top

of Mount Vaea. His manor Villa Vailima, after

a century of many proprietors and in the end of

abandonment, was eventually bought and transformed

into a thriving museum by two former

missionaries who were also former backers of

a few harsh American Republican presidential

campaigns. The latter being a detail R.L.S. probably

wouldn’t regret, given his own conservatism.

A conservatism that could be the germ of

his aversion for an alien change implemented

on the South Sea Islands.

I met a German expat in a small fishing village

on the Gulf Stream. She was complaining about

how lazy the locals were. Most of these locals

were hardened and damaged by salt and wind;

some had their eyes impaired by the never-fading

sunrays amplified through a crystal clear ocean.

These locals had a history of poverty, yet were

currently enjoying an ambitionless yet self-sufficient

life of artisanal fishing, moderate construction

working and the herding of livestock. They

would buy the few things they couldn’t produce

themselves over at the island’s supermarket.

The expat lived in a small community on the

cliffs, where one would talk newspeak, rebuilt old

deserted houses into ecotourism cottages, while

pitying the local populace for their abundant use

of plastic bags in said supermarket. The expat

left her motherland out of discontent with human

interaction yonder.

Once I met a Finish guy in a tiny fishing

village, who built a solar energy powered

“Robinson Crusoe” shed on a patch of land he

acquired from a sailor. The latter didn’t foresee

the tidal wave of d.e.v.e.l.o.p.m.e.n.t. (a term

coined by EpelI Hau’ofa), thus severely undersold

his valuable land to the Nordic man. This

blond man, displaying a scarlet face due to a

relentless local sun and equal amounts of alcoholic

beverages, regularly held residency in the

local bar desperately seeking friendship with

transiting tourists. Although he wasn’t particularly

contributing to this micro-society, the

locals accepted mister Finland as a sort of

beached whale — something the Nordics are

famous for, for whales — one with a foul smell

and about to explode, but still being a pawn of

nature that had to be acknowledged. I deemed

the guy somehow tolerable in small dosages.

And once I was on an isle called — loosely

translated — Thanks. A few hours after mooring

this place, I pretty much wanted to leave

already, since the amount of jocular locals

coexisting with confused castaways surpassed

a tolerable level. Yet unfortunately I had to wait

for the next ferryboat arriving in just about eight

days. It was so unnecessary to go there, that

small volcanic cone dotted with pine trees and

unappealing villages. Exactly one island dweller,

a swindling cab driver boasting an American

accent, wanted to communicate with me. “Boy,

did we had fun…” I was completely checked on

an unnecessary lust for pioneering of the privileged

and hip young artist, and in the end… surprisingly

enjoying this. Since I think Thanks is an

amazingly perfect place. A place where people

are having an easy time to understand the outside

world, because there is no outside world.

Nevertheless, we are now about to climb

Mount Vaea and evoke the pilgrim’s stereotype.

And there under the wide and starry sky, there’s

the sound of waves and wind, and of a flowing

brook, and of people treading over paths and

through the wooden hallways of a palagi house.

And there’s Samoan language, electronic tones,

a simple timpani intermezzo, a pickup truck,

a small aircraft and acoustics. These are the

proposed networks and examples, providing all

to the listener. Left is a wide space for meaning,

for feeling.

Only by giving a composition a name, the

composer gives or gives not a slight hint. He

may or may not add accompanying text, which

would intensify or alter meaning. All the other

parts are speaking for itself. It’s a simple thing,

however simple things are most often misunderstood

Stereo, Computer, Found Objects,

Timpani (Lenny Vanhuffel), Field Recordings


A transcript from Ambae isle,

an aria with scherzo’s and

a coda 14’50’’

fig. – Our place is in a deep cleft of Vaea Mountain, some six hundred feet above the sea, embowered in forest, which is our strangling enemy (…)

(R.L.S. in a letter to Sidney Colvin, November 2nd, 1890, Found Object)

fig. 2 – The longhouse in Papua Nuigini is a central house in the village

where the men have meetings and perform ceremonies. Here pictured

is the longhouse in the village of Didesa. The small outbuildings house

government patrols that come through once a year. (Found Object)

This is a melody copied from an Ahi Gavegave

(“a song of anger”), recorded on Ambae Island,

sung by Barton Qaribageo in the mountain village

of Vuingalato. This type of song is a technique

of sharing ones grievances and conflicts through

declamation and melody. The singer expresses

the reason of his anger, describing the situation,

and sometimes also announces consequences

of the harm done to her or him. Thus in a way

one could say this is a pacifist way to deal with

troubles, yet that being said the song could foretell

vicious consequences, retaliations and alike …

The latter giving it the kind of “charm” an army

march might hold to some.

I once knew this local pianist who had a

short temper. Many times when he felt enraged

he would play Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue over

and over again, as a meditation to control his

anger with the world. Through the song he would

lower his blood pressure, and when performed

in public the potential listener would understand

that now is not the best time to debate with the

pianist. This sometimes created a grotesque choreography.

In the centre one saw a redheaded pianist

looping Gershwin’s playful melodies shielding

himself from the outside world; surrounded by the

uncertain movements of onlookers. Sometimes

whispering to each other, ideas for reparation.

But back to this composition. I found this

particular Ahi Gavegave on a CD collection

with music from Vanuatu. The song is called

Qaruqarahi Qarimemea, after the original hero

and / or composer of the song. I transcribed

the melody of this chant inside a corresponding

Western chord scheme, and reduced the tempo.

A monophonic melody appears, resulting into an

aria reproduced by a standard Midi piano plug-in.

This segment, like all parts of this composition, is

created by feeding automations to the computer.

Thus no personal playing has been involved in

the creation of this piece of music, only (mainly…)

the voice of a man from Ambae.

Part two is a scherzo in the same chord and

created with processing and layering note numbers,

cc’s et al of the previous transcription. When

having the computer decide which note it plays,

it seems the machine has a (deceptive) feeling for

melody after all. The computer even butters the

situation into a softer, almost piano bar environment,

counterpointing the initial “anger” of the

song with a soft pillow and a chilled white wine.

Parth three and the coda are two sample and

frequency modulation experiments, created by

feeding the previous scherzo through yet another

set of plug-ins and automations. These are two

tableaus with typically appealing structures, which

again one would never mistake for “angry music”.

It reflects the practice of a good and especially

effective Ahi Gavegave. Where even in all the outrage,

anger and grievance, beauty is always the

key concept.

Thus through these four steps, the voice of

the enraged man of Ambae, travels deeper and

deeper inside the computer system. And equally it

sinks deeper and deeper inside the listener’s mind.

Stereo, Computer


Grondements Du Volcan

De L’ile 3’28’’

This is a musique concrete play. Manipulated

sounds become other sounds and evoke the

image of a rumbling volcano, Mount Yasur,

during a rainy night.

Yasur is an active volcano on the south of

Tanna Island, deemed by the natives as “the

throne of John Frum”. John Frum, the deity

of an eponymous cargo cult that originated

in the 1930’s, is a mythical messenger who

foretold the bringing of wealth to the island

by American forces. The people solely had to

reject the Christian missionaries and European

constructions like cash money, revert to ancient

customs and wait for his return.

John Frum villages display a wooden red

cross not resembling Christian practices yet

derived from times of Red Cross food parcels

and American military presence. Relics and

fetishes could be these military items, the wrappings

of old food parcels, and similar debris.

Followers returned to said ancient customs,

and simultaneously built landing strips for imaginary

American airplanes bringing the cargo,

while organising National America feasts, performing

daily American flag ceremonies et al.

However this movement never saw America as

a country they would like to join; they were just

waiting for one of its inhabitants to return and

bring them wealth.

Etymologically, John Frum could mean

John The Baptist Broom in bêche-de-mer

— or A Broom To Sweep The Whites From

Tanna. But on the other hand, and probably

more correctly, John Frum could be derived

from “Johnny From”. The latter could be reminiscence

to a first personal contact with an

American soldier who probably introduced himself

with “Hi, I’m John from the USA”. These

American soldiers were abundantly stationed

on Tanna Island during the Pacific battles of

World War II, lulling about in green jungles riddled

by confusion.

The John Frum cult initially had a harmful

side effect. Its articles of faith namely required

each and everyone to abandon their gardens

and neglect their work of fishing, livestock herding,

et al. Since on its return, the deity John

Frum would provide everything the people need

anyways. This self-imposed hardship resulted in

sudden poverty and villages in peril.

The establishment of John Frum was an,

for occidental perception at least, odd answer

to a discontent with external interference on

Tanna; a discontent with the New Hebrides /

Vanuatu government (the island group to which

Tanna island belongs) which was mainly an

Anglo-French vehicle. Like any other religion,

it was the choice conductor to transfer political

and sociological ideas. John Frum and its political

spin-offs shielded a disappearing culture

against Christian totalitarianism implemented

by missionaries and European settlers. Over

the past few hundred years, that unification of

religion and customs wiped out many unwritten

languages and customs all over the Pacific.

Even whole people went missing…

Stereo, Field Recording


Cylinder 1011_13 1’49’’

fig. – Universally the outsider always fears the inland. Like the protagonist in The Isle Of Voices who gets scared by invisible presences inside the forest, we all fear

there’s something there for us that we should not encounter. Natives would deem it tapu. I was reminded of this feeling while a few months ago taking a hike on the

isle of Tokashiki. When a sudden needless fear for the local poisonous Habu snake drove me out of the thick forest to the nearest beach. Where I dwelled in a fearful

history of settlers and beachcombers. (Found Object)

fig. – A picture taken on the northern tip of Tanna Island.

Where, facing the Yassur volcano, among the pandanus on the

margin of the ash plain, several elaborate gates and crosses are

erected in honour of John Frum. (Found Object)

A Western Gisalo, performed in the long -


I asked Mia Prce to make a short interpretation

of the aria of the Goldberg Variations by

Johann Sebastian Bach. These Variations, an

archetypal work in Western music, were commissioned

by Count Hermann-Karl von Keyserling

who, so the story goes, used this piece as a

relief for his incessant sufferings due to many

illnesses and severe insomnia. The Variations

are named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, von

Keyserling’s personal keyboardist.

By the way, do you know that story about

Bach and the Danish-German composer

Dietrich Buxtehude? In the winter of 1705

— 1706 Johann Sebastian Bach apparently

walked 400 kilometres (about 250 miles) by foot

from his home in Arnstadt all the way to Lübeck

to witness Buxtehude, then a leading figure in

the arts of music, performing his final concert

at the local St. Mary’s church before going into

retirement. Moreover, Buxtehude considered to

offer his position as the church’ organist and

music leader to Bach and for a young aspiring

musician as the latter, a position in Lübeck was

about as good as it gets. Anyway, this is the

official story Bach’s first biographers would like

you to hear. A lot of scholars however think that

Bach walked all that distance solely because

he was to meet up with Buxtehude’s eldest

daughter Anna Margareta, and young Johann

Sebastian needed some private time to figure

out what to say to this lady, hoping this long

and solitary walk would grant him with courage

and conversation. Since as a matter of fact, any

successor of Buxtehude in Lübeck was enforced

to marry the composer’s eldest daughter

and that’s exactly why some other famous contemporaries,

like Georg Friedrich Händel for

instance, turned down this renowned position.

For Johann Sebastian Bach however, this mandatory

combination was a godsend. Because

although he was an outstanding composer who

invented the most divine musical structures, he

was apparently lacking even the basic skills of

talking to, and seducing a woman. In Lübeck he

might be able to tackle both and “get the free

pass”’ to finally marry a nice girl.

Anyway. We went to a local music school,

and recorded Mia’s aria on their grand piano in

the recital room, which is also used as a gym

room. There we performed a single person’s

private (now public) ceremony, threating this

piece of music as being a tribal solemnity. The

longhouse, in Papua New Guinea being the central

house in the village where men have meetings

and perform healing ceremonies — both

mundane and spiritual — is replaced by this

hybrid recital / gym room where a sole woman

performs a small ceremonial and relief act. And

we’re not in Papua but in Deurne, Antwerp’s

diverse suburb.

I choose the wax cylinder recorder as the

ideal tool to capture this piece, being the historical

recording device for the Western wanderer

eavesdropping around in the exotic sound world.

The ethnographical museum in Berlin has

an extensive collection of such cylinders in its

basement. And although these were always

carefully stored in bunker-like constructions,

most of the cylinders are severely damaged.

They are scratched and distorted by heavy tremors

and frequencies, caused by multiple aerial

bombings during World War II. The extreme

frailty of the medium thus makes these cylinders

very vulnerable to their environment. So

how people treat them, and especially the surrounding

humane and natural factors determine

how the content acts when being reproduced.

Behold the philosophical beauty — a specular

quality — of an obsolete and deficient recording


Mono, Wax Cylinder Recorder,

Grand Piano (Mia Prce)

fig. – Lieven Martens, compositeur. In the garden of Monserrate, Sintra

Recorded 2014 — 2016, Antwerp —

Belgium, and Aharen — Tokashikijima.

All compositions, instruments, text and photography

by Lieven Martens, except otherwise noted.

Mastered by Christophe Albertijn.

fig. – Mia Prce, pianiste. With an Elkhorn Fern

For Wietske Van Gils, Pele Flores Martens, Naoko

Yamauchi, Amy Faust, Spencer Clark, Jeroen Wille,

Christophe Piette, Niels Latomme and De Neus.

fig. – R.L.S. and his entourage, with King Kalakaua of Hawai’I.

Kalakaua spent much of his time collecting and writing down Hawaiian (and some other Pacific) legends and myths and

is responsible of institutionalising the Hula dance as the vessel of choice for passing on knowledge through generations.

He was of an essential influence on R.L.S. South Sea stories.


pacific cityt sound visions

Similar magazines