Ever since his first recording back in 1976, composer and interpret Dominique Lawalrée’s musical output has both confused and conquered. A classical pianist in its purest of form, his is a world that took in a wide range of influences – from jazz to rock n roll – to create a very unique and distinctive sound, one which eschews any attempt at categorisation. Strong on the back of a renewed interest in his prolific career – over 650 compositions and counting – as well as the recent release of a compilation of his oeuvre by New York-based label Catch Wave ltd., the enigmatic musician discusses everything from his early beginnings and his approach at constructing an album to his relationship with Marc Moulin and his 1994 pilgrimage which resulted in a noticeable shift in his musical direction.
Photography (c) Thomas Ost.
Your early work clearly tilts towards the experimental and minimal streams within music. In interviews, however, any attempt at labeling your work results in a “That’s what I had to say, it’s as simple as that.” Now, with the years gone by and with the benefit of hindsight, how would you define your early work?
You could say that the movement within which my music existed was minimalism. I mean, I didn’t really know it at the time, but I got to meet a ton of different musicians and artists and realized that there was a common thread, a common aesthetic, that ran through our work. And all this became the minimal strand in music, a term that was culled from contemporary art in fact. It was the time when Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Gavin Bryars, all those kind of musicians, were gaining ground. Really interesting times, at least for me. The thing is, my music back then was really difficult for people to place – not classical enough for classical musicians and fans, and not jazz enough for jazz fans. In the end though, I’d say post minimalism would best describe my work at the time. Fact is, I always found it more interesting to compose music that had two layers to it. Jazz and rock are, to me, rather first-degree genres – you listen to it a few times and get the picture, it’s all very seductive. Contemporary classical music, on the other hand, requires a little more digging to find what you’re looking for and like what you’re hearing. There’s a certain depth to it, a multilayered complexity which allows for a more substantial listening experience. But that’s my take on it.
In press clippings I read about you dating back to 1979, you’re often referred to as someone out of the ordinary, a prodigy of sort, with a phenomenal output at a still very young age – four albums released by the age of 24 – that you were somewhat forced to publish independently.
Yes, I self-released my first album, Infinitudes, at the age of 22 whilst still studying at IMEP in Namur. A lot of my peers as well as my teachers kind of thought “Who does this guy think he is?” considering me to be overly pretentious for daring to release an album, on my own, whilst still a student – it might seem normal in today’s world but, back then, it was rather bold I have to admit. Fact is, at the time, the kind of music I was making wasn’t for the faint of heart, it wasn’t for everyone nor was it really in the spirit of the times. It was difficult for a label to pinpoint my work so I didn’t even try getting signed, I just decided to go about it alone, setting up my record label Walrus, together with Jean-Pierre Hermand, a sound engineer who grew up in the same neighbourhood as I did, Auderghem. I composed and interpreted, and he took take care of the recordings.
Beyond merely being an independent, you described yourself as something of an individualist. Where does this propensity to remove yourself from any movement and going at it alone comes from?
Well, I trained as a classical musician and composer, so at the time that automatically set me apart from the rest of the scene. I composed my own music and interpreted it myself, didn’t compose for others, so you could say that by default I was in my own world. This was, in a way, dictated by my education as a classical composer, even though I listened to a variety of different genres at the time, which set me apart from my classical music peers. But I wouldn’t say that I was against working with others – as collaborations with Charles Loos, Baudouin Oosterlynck and others attest to – nor that I had a propensity to remove myself from any moments, it just so happened that, in the beginning, it was mostly me and my keys. In some ways, this explains the title of my 1982 album, Clandestin…
Much has been made about Brian Eno showing an interest in your work as well as your relationship with Gavin Bryars, to whom you even dedicated a song to on your album Traces (K7 Music, “for Gavin Bryars and obscure friends). How did the relationship with Gavin first come about?
At the time, I’d go to London quite a lot and meet up with Gavin, whom I had previously met at a festival we both played at in Brussels’ ULB, Entrax, which was organized by Daniel Sotiaux, founder of the record label Igloo. Gavin gave me Brian’s address and I simply went over there to give him my first two albums to see what he thought of them. He wasn’t at home at the time, but I nonetheless managed to give them to his assistant. Then, a few months later, Gavin came back to Brussels and told me that Brian had listened to the recordings, was very interested in my music, and told him that he’d get in touch with me. He never did though and that was the last I ever heard about it.
You could say I was part of the scene whilst being on the fringes of it too.
You also had something of an admirer in Marc Moulin, whom you dedicate the song Hello You’re the W. on Traces to, and who also is credited on Brins d’Herbe. How did that relationship first come about?
When my first album Infinitudes came out back in 1976, I called Marc Moulin and asked him if I could send him a copy. He agreed, then called me back a few days later saying he enjoyed it and asking me if I wanted to come on his radio show for an interview. And that was the beginning of a relationship that lasted a few years, with him regularly inviting me in for interviews and allowing me to record a few compositions in his RTBF studios. Some of those ended up being used for Traces – I recorded the album’s piano takes in his studio – whilst Brins d’Herbe was entirely recorded in his studio. He even invited me to play live on his radio show once together with Charles Loos (of COS) and Siegfried Kessler, a jazz pianist who has since passed away – it was all very interesting.
Who else do you remember as being supportive of your music in the early days?
Claude Lyr, who was and still is a painter. I met him at an exhibition of his at the Cultural Centre of Namur and we sort of developed a friendship over the years. We used to correspond and he’d ask me to come and speak to his students at Ixelles’ Academy, then at the Brussels’ Academy of Arts in Rue du Midi, where he was the director. He is definitely someone I remember as being very supportive of my work.
Can you discuss the scenes you considered belonging to back in the late 70s/early 80s? Despite having collaborated with Charles Loos and Marc Hollander – who plays clarinet on one of Brins d’Herbe’s tracks – you nonetheless seem to have operated somewhat on the fringes, working mostly alone and with your sound engineer Jean-Pierre Hermand…
I was very close to a lot of contemporary artists – something that, I believe, is noticeable in my approach as well as in my choice of artwork for my album’s covers. In my early days, we’d all meet and congregate at a library called Post-Scriptum in Brussels that was run at the time by Bernard Marcelis, who is now in charge of the contemporary art section at Filigranes. I’d go over to his library a few times a week and, at the time, there was a certain creative emulation that was interesting, and which I believe hasn’t existed since. There was a tendency back then to mix various different musical genres which would then build links between these different styles. But in terms of scenes per se, you could say I was part of the scene whilst being on the fringes of it too.
We’ve often discussed the way you put together an album as being rather peculiar, preferring to go by theme and curating a collection of compositions already existing in your catalogue rather than composing-on-demand. Can you discuss your approach to making an album at the time?
For me, the actual record isn’t the end objective – I’d never compose to record an album. I always compose, then when I decide to make an actual album, I decide on a theme and dig into my archives to construct a story. Kind of how a curator constructs an exhibition. There’s a story to tell. For Brins d’Herbe, for instance, I chose all the shorter pieces, very easy in fact, slightly jazz, whilst for Traces I was definitely giving into my more experimental self.
What really interests me is achieving a certain expression of spiritual interiority.
Whilst we’re on the topic of those two albums, Traces and Brins d’Herbe were both released during the same year yet differed drastically in terms of direction and tempo…
Brin d’Herbe and Traces were both released in 1978, at exactly the same time, as I wanted to demonstrate two very different facets to my work, one more experimental and the other more melodious and accessible. I suppose it was important for me back then to demonstrate my musical versatility to the world.
In press clippings, you mentioned higher education and music studies being a total waste of time for you; something rather contradictory to your career as a music teacher, musicologist and author of two mammoth books on both The Beatles and Led Zepplin. Why did you consider your own studies to be such a waste of your time?
Look, I got my diploma which clearly served its purpose but, I’d argue, more in my endeavors as a music teacher and maybe less so as a musician. I can’t say I learned a lot during my studies, I already knew quite a lot before starting them as I had been studying music since the tender age of six and was already composing in my own time. Basically, I’d say that studies consist of two elements: what you know and what you don’t know, so I definitely learned certain things, but which helped me more in my career as a teacher.
I’d like us to discuss your shift, in 1994, towards sacred music. We’ve touched upon this briefly in interviews but never really in much detail. What, at first, prompted you to go on a pilgrimage?
In 1994, I needed to get some clarity and some distance. I began questioning a lot of things – education, friendships – and needed to take a step back and reflect. Think of it as a second adolescence if you will. I had been making music for 20 years and felt it was time to gain some perspective. So I went on a pilgrimage with my wife in Medjugorje (Bosnia) and had somewhat of a conversion. You could say something really special and powerful happened to me. So I came back and decided to invest more of my time and talent in sacred music. I can’t really say anymore than that as it’s something that occured to me, something I felt in the deepest of senses, and which isn’t easily put into words – it was spiritual. Before the pilgrimage, my faith was cerebral if you will but once I returned home, it was more heartfelt. It really changed me.
In the end, how do you want your music to be remembered? What’s the legacy you’d like to leave behind?
Gosh that’s a tricky one. What I like doing is music for the soul, music that moves you. Some compose music for the heart, very intuitive music. Others compose extremely cerebral music but what really interests me is achieving a certain expression of spiritual interiority.
I’m not big on the past – I never listen to what I’ve composed in the past – as it doesn’t allow me to move forward.
Last but not least, what do you make of the renewed interest in your work?
Well, I’m both flattered and astonished that a new generation of listeners is discovering my music but, to me, that’s all in the past. And I’m not big on the past – I never listen to what I’ve composed in the past – as it doesn’t allow me to move forward. It exists, I’ve composed it, but I need to move on. Also, the fact that they’re discovering it today somehow feels as though, all this time, I was composing for future generations rather than for the present – which I find weird, but also a little amusing.First Meeting, a compilation of Dominique Lawalrée’s work, is now out on Catch Wave Ltd.