Four names inscribed in the brickwork: Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Celebes. Chain hoists dangle in front of rotting wooden doors, hooks missing. Behind the derelict warehouse, construction has begun on a new development of luxury hotel suites and yuppie apartments. Across the Nieuwe Maas, a few more modern piers and processing plants are still in use, but from a cursory stroll along the riverbank you’d have trouble believing that this was until recently the world’s busiest port.
“It’s kind of funny that this city that boasts on its port does not have a port anymore!” Roel Meelkop observes. “For many reasons, the port activities are being developed outside of the city. And in the city these old piers and old warehouses are now being changed into living quarters. I think it’s a natural development, you know. If you need space in the city, and you want to expand, industry just goes out.”
The gradual disappearance of the city’s largest industry from the daily lives of most Rotterdammers isn’t the only change to occur since Meelkop arrived as an art student in the early Eighties. “When I started studying here there were a lot of spaces around the city where you could squat,” he explains. “There wasn’t a big hassle about it from the government or from private owners. You could just do that, and as long as you didn’t make a mess of things it was fine with the neighbours as well. This also inspired a lot of people to start up their own initiatives. They popped up everywhere – gallery spaces, concert spaces. People just did it themselves. This was a very nice atmosphere to work in… It’s become less so in the last years because of laws against squatting.”
Meelkop came to Rotterdam to study painting, but he also became involved in the burgeoning experimental music scene, creating collages of electronics, tape manipulations, and noise recordings both on his own and as part of legendary groups THU20, Kapotte Muziek, and Goem. “I started off cutting up tapes and making collages with those,” he recalls. “Sound is a material to work with, just as a brush or as paint. You can cut up sounds, you can glue them, stick them together again and get something new, and that can be the basis of a new composition.”
These days Meelkop rarely finds himself reaching for a pair of scissors, preferring to use a computer and a software studio environment called Audiomulch. However, when he demonstrates the program to me, the parallels with visual collage are immediately obvious: the software allows complex compositions to be built up using layers of different modules for sound generation and processing. From a more oblique perspective, it’s a working method with connotations of construction and machine-aided manufacturing – of working with one’s hands – that resonates with Rotterdam’s traditionally working-class, industrial self-image.
Fellow Rotterdam resident Rutger Zuydervelt trained not as a painter, but as a graphic designer, yet for him too music soon took over. He began releasing solo material under the name Machinefabriek (‘machine factory’ in Dutch), a fitting moniker given the scale of his quality-controlled production-line output – at one point he was releasing a 3” CD-R of new material a month. Zuydervelt also works frequently with other musicians: past and present collaborators include Stephen Vitiello, Tim Catlin, Gareth Davies, the Kleefstra brothers and Mariska Baars (as the band Piiptsjilling), Steve Roden, and Celer.
“I’m not really sure it’s important where I live, because with the internet and stuff like that, you could be anywhere,” Zuydervelt says. “But in Rotterdam there’s quite a vivid scene, not only music but especially visual arts.”
This proximity to a thriving gallery network has proved a rich source of opportunities for both artists. I meet them at Galerie Hommes, an independent art space in the south-west of the city, where a work Meelkop and Zuydervelt made in collaboration with the video artist Marco Douma is being shown. To me such a contextualisation raised the question of classification – is this work music or is it sound art? – but the pair had differing opinions on the subject.
“When I think about what I try to do, I guess it’s finding a balance between the two,” Zuydervelt offers. “My music is a lot about paradoxes or contradictions – combining a beautiful melody with a really grainy texture, for instance, or something really rough with really silky sounds. So I think I try to find a balance between really musical things, and also things we recognise as musical, and combine them with super-abstract things. And these things enhance each other.”
“I’m not really interested in the question, I’m sorry!” laughs Meelkop. “I used to be concerned with it, like, what should I call my own production? But then I just stopped worrying about it and just made my things. People gave it names and that’s fine with me! But like Rutger said, it’s nice to play around with these differences. What if I have a grainy noisy thing, and I just put a synthesizer melody on top? It gets sucked into this sound, and then… I like the play of things, I like to play. That’s my interest.”
The work showing at Hommes, “Pierdrie”, was made using sounds and images from a local pier that extends out over the water, allowing the hustle and bustle of the city to fade until only the noises of port activities remain. These sounds – the clank and whirr of machinery, the rumble of boats and the lapping of waves caused by their movement – remain integral to the city’s history and self-identity, even though they are now mostly exiled from the consciousness of Rotterdam’s residents. Yet the use of such sounds as music also has a history, of which Meelkop and Zuydervelt are well aware.
“Walter Ruttmann made a collage out of film strips, just for the sounds,” says Meelkop. “That was 1927 or something. So I guess in that sense we are in a sort of historical context – composers that left the path of harmony and melody and started investigating sound made by instruments, rather than composing new melodies. This is a development that started almost one hundred years ago, and we are still examining it, still looking into all the finesses that it has and what we can do with it. Of course, computers have given us the studio on our lap.”
Zuydervelt agrees. “I think that maybe the last twenty or maybe ten years were all about refining what already was there. I can’t think of any really, really new things happening – maybe super-high-tech things – but it still seems to be about old concepts, redoing them again. I never had the illusion that I’m doing new stuff – I also don’t really care, I mean that’s not why I do it.”
I suggest that perhaps the scientific pretensions of a lot of early experimental music are no longer quite so relevant. “I think it’s quite true,” Meelkop agrees. “In that sense we’re definitely post-modern. I don’t believe in their being one solution to everything or something! And I certainly do not believe in scientific objectivity. It’s the man who’s looking at it, or the woman, not the fact itself – or no, it’s a combination of both. In that sense music is even more personal than science. At the same time, I think it’s possible to touch people with music, you know? It’s not just for the purpose of satisfying myself. I’d like to touch people. You need a certain objectivity, you need to find a certain objective language to do so – either in conversation, or in sound, or in melodies and harmonies – or any combination of all those.”
This leads us back to the materiality of sound, as the mediator between the objective and the subjective. “In that sense music is matter – because you can shape it, you can form it, you can transmit it to somebody else, you can ‘give’ it. It is physical. And this music I make has a certain intention. It’s not purely for myself – it’s also because I expect somebody to listen to it.”
Zuydervelt chips in: “I have the feeling that these days it’s getting more and more difficult make music personal, because there’s so much being produced, and everyone can get everything, and there’s like millions of people doing – well, not exactly the same as what I do, but within the genre. I release a shitload myself I know, so I’m really responsible too! But it really gives you some obligation to give the audience something special each time. Especially now it’s so freely available – available for anyone.”
“I don’t think there can ever be too much music – never,” Meelkop states when asked if he was suffering from music overload. “Maybe it is more difficult for people like us to get our stuff across, you know, because there’s so much. But from the consumer point of view, I would say – the more the better!”
I ask if the proposed cuts to state funding for the arts would impact their work. “I can’t say yet,” Zuydervelt replies. “I mean, for this “Pierdrie” installation we got funding, maybe that’s the last money of the city! And a lot of stuff I do is not in The Netherlands, so that’s also a difference. But I guess the chances of getting asked by a theatre or dance company or something to do the music will get smaller and smaller, because all these companies are disappearing.”
“It will make some difference for gigs in The Netherlands,” predicts Meelkop. “I already get mail saying “yeah, we got cut funding, so don’t expect too much pay!”. Instead you get paid from the door takings, which in most cases isn’t even worth the travelling to! So that may become more difficult. We’ll see, you know. It won’t stop me from doing my thing, because I’m doing it already without funding.”
“If in The Netherlands people ask you what you do and you say you’re an artist, the next question is, “so how do you make money?”. Abroad, it’s like, “wow, so what do you do then? What kind of art do you make? Oh, that’s interesting, nice!”. Here it’s like, “ok, so how do you get your money?”! So these proposals were not very surprising for me. For a while there was a very, very well-funded cultural – well, it was an elite, really. And that’s something that has been stopped.”
Like Rotterdam’s ports, the arts in The Netherlands are also undergoing wide-scale processes of restructuring, relocating, and retooling to adapt to changing social and economic circumstances. The self-reliant, hands-on attitude of the squatter movement has perhaps not lost any of its relevance.
Thanks to: Roel Meelkop, Rutger Zuydervelt, Marco Douma, Jannie Hommes.