“I try to keep away from the Internet and social media as much as possible.” Composer John Gilbert Colman on the recent reissue of his little-known, nearly disregarded Belgian theater score

In July of this year I got an email announcing the reissue of a Belgian avant-garde record from 1986 I had been trying to get my hands on ever since Ziggy Devriendt, of STROOM fame, played it to me. Daedalus was the soundtrack for a 1986 theatre piece by director Guy Cassiers, based on the Greek myth of the same name, that worked with 45 children with cognitive disabilities from the Krauwelenhof school in Antwerp. Composed by John Gilbert Colman, the limited-run record was sold prior to each performance, as a souvenir for parents and audiences. The record itself consisted of ten tracks that, each in their own right, reinforced Colman’s experimental undertones, focussing on costumes, movement and sounds instead of words and which contained broad shifts in mood. Colman developed a pop-musique concrète style that could easily appeal to nonexercised listeners by incorporating squeaking balloon samples, environmental recordings, tuned percussions, drum computers, spoken word by the actors as well as the enchanted voice of an opera singer, all of which accompanied a traditional small chamber instrumentation. The music, reminiscent as its liner notes suggested of other avant-theatrical pieces from that era by Nuno Canavarro, Piero Milesi and Daniel Bacalov or Roberto Musci, could have easily featured in the experimental catalogue of Made to Measure, the Crammed Discs sublabel that spawned a bewildering array of library music releases from 1984 onwards. This particular reissue, however, was the work of Musique Plastique, an American label from Portland, Oregon. After getting in touch with label bosses Tony Remple and Luke Buser, I managed to get an email address for the enigmatic and elusive Antwerp-born composer who today splits his time between Wenduine on the Belgian seaside and Kats, in the Dutch Zeeland area.

John Gilbert Colman will be appearing live on The Word Radio as part of its ongoing Belgian Pioneers series this afternoon from 14h to 15h.

So how did Musique Plastique get in touch with you?

They were very tenacious. They had tracked down musicians from the credits that featured on the cover of Daedalus. One of them, Rolande Van der Paal – a professional opera singer now – turned out to be the neighbour of someone I used to know. So she emailed me, saying there were some Americans wanting to reissue our record. I emailed Musique Plastique and found out that they had already contacted everyone else at that point: Sfinks Animatie, the non-profit that released the LP; all the musicians; and even Guy Cassiers, the director of the play who was of course always too busy to reply. The funny thing is that the reissue almost didn’t happen. Literally two days before Rolande contacted me, I had thrown away the original master tapes – my old stuff had been lying around for too long. So I contacted the studio where we mastered the record, and someone luckily had a digital mix on videotape. I sent it to the US, but they couldn’t find the appropriate machine to play the tape. It took two years to finally find one, but then we discovered the tape was empty. No idea if it was due to its age or just issues with the magnetic tape. I also didn’t have any LPs left – all of them had been destroyed in my basement – so the prospects of a reissue looked rather grim. Sfinks had three mint copies left, though. They kept one, gave me the second so that I would at least possess my own record, and we sent the third to Portland, where the music was mastered straight from the original LP. The Musique Plastique guys didn’t like the first attempt, so they tried again, at which point it went well. They sent me the files, which contained something peculiar, like a ghost in the machine. On one of the tracks you can hear someone say, “Let’s do one more.” But that wasn’t on the original record! Turns out they had left their mics on in the cabin whilst mastering. Tony and Luke panicked, but I convinced them to release it like this anyway, because I find it really funny. I’m retired now and have come full circle in a way, because the last thing I’ll ever release is also my very first. I like that idea.

And how did your collaboration with Guy Cassiers come about?

Through an old academy classmate, with whom I had stayed in touch. He was dating this lady who was the assistant of Guy during the Daedalus production – funnily enough, he had provided me with my first theatre project through his previous girlfriend too. It was a thing at the time; every director had to have an original score for his or her play. We clicked, he liked my previous work, so I jumped right into it. The actors, all kids between the ages of 11 and 18 with cognitive disabilities, were attending a private school in Antwerp. As far as I’m aware, they asked Guy to make a theatre piece for the school party, as some kind of occupational therapy. But of course, Guy sees things big, and it went out of control immediately. The piece premiered in deSingel and then went on tour. I did all the theatre shows too, as the PA.

You could coach these kids a bit of course, but thinking outside of the box was also necessary. So I quickly understood that I had to use some friendly persuasion, giving them the impression they were finding stuff out for themselves. Just like with professional actors, basically (laughs). A lot of people were involved, both on-and offstage. It was a very intense period. At some point a child disappeared right before we had to play in deSingel, and we eventually found him along a highway, dancing with his pants around his ankles. Or there was this other kid who performed a solo in the piece. I would have tears in my eyes every single show because it was so beautiful and intense. Before we started working with him, he would beat his mother and pull out his hair – yet when he danced during the piece, he was the sweetest kid. His parents really wanted him to pursue acting and dancing, but I don’t think it happened. So some of the kids really got something out of the acting. On the album, you can hear one of them say, “I talk very little, I can’t find my words.” Daedalus helped them become more spontaneous. It was nice, especially because sometimes we’d read things in the press like, “These theatre people used the crazy kids for their benefit,” or be denounced as voyeuristic. Of course, we had a very different outlook, mainly because many positive things happened for everyone involved.

Did you have total artistic freedom or was it a close collaboration with Cassiers?

I had my mixing desk at home, and my computer. So I was present at every rehearsal and then went home and wrote music, which I would play to Guy afterwards. We talked about what he needed, so I tried to translate his dream sonically. We ping-ponged a lot, with the aid of cassette tapes. “I liked it, but maybe a bit shorter, or longer, or faster…” In the end however, no one really interfered with the music. Every note is mine.

How old were you when you made the soundtrack?

33. It was my first LP. I made one more later on, for another theatre company. When you compose for theatre pieces, you’re not really thinking about making records or signing deals, to be honest.

It was a thing at the time; every director had to have an original score for his or her play.

Were the musicians on the Daedalus record friends of yours?

No, I was working on my own island, I didn’t really have ties with anyone else. You know, I can play some instruments but I’m also a bit unruly, so I don’t play them like you’re supposed to. Sound sampling was coming up back then, so I mostly used that. I learned to write computer music, which is very different from that of real instruments. People often asked me who played which parts, to which I’d sometimes lie to cover up the fact that the music wasn’t made by real musicians (laughs). I used to have one of the first music computers, a Yamaha MSX. It had a tape recorder for saving files, which you could plug into a computer. There were no hard disks back then; not even floppy disks nor CD-ROMs. It was a very primitive period. It was the time of the reel-to-reel recorders, so if there was one beat too many you had to manually cut out two millimetres of the tape and put it back together again. Now, with the computer, you just click on the beat, delete it, and the computer fixes it all.

John Gilbert Colman pictured alongside Belgian producer, songwriter and artist Edwin Eastfield.

How did you become a composer? Did you study music?

I taught myself. I was really into jazz and played guitar. Those were the medieval ages, you know. Back then you had to put on headphones, listen to a record on your turntable and try to reproduce it. Or you had to play shows with skilled musicians and learn from them. Nowadays you can study music at any academy. I think I was quite good at jazz guitar, but I felt more of an urge to record. Since everyone has their own temperament in an improvisational setting, jazz goes in too many different directions for me – I want to determine every note myself. So I started composing, and was picked up for theatre productions quite quickly. I’m rather fond of working as an autodidact. When you teach yourself something, you really know it. Somehow it’s ridiculous, because you’re trying to reinvent the wheel that’s been around for thousands of years – but I still prefer finding out stuff by myself. If you have to find solutions by yourself, it comes from your restrictions, which then become your strengths. That’s why sometimes something can sound way more original if it’s done in an unorthodox way.

But did you have any overriding preferences at the time?

But did you have any overriding influences at the time? Not really, no. I was working in a specific timeframe and, like I said, I was really on my island. It’s only later I realised that there’s such a thing as minimalist music.

John Gilbert Colman will be appearing live on The Word Radio as part of its ongoing Belgian Pioneers series this afternoon from 14h to 15h.