Grote piano

‘Chords are like colours to me, a language that is talking to me,

I don’t have to think about it’

INTERVIEW WITH THE BUCKET PLAYLIST

11 February 2021

Hamme, Belgium-based classical composer, Johan Famaey, will record four new piano pieces this month, including ‘Moon Dreamer’. His next album, Time Passenger Shows, will likely be released this autumn.

‘The new piano pieces follow the same pattern as earlier ones, they start from études that get developed into something melodic,’ Famaey explained. ‘The four new pieces share the themes of nature and night and myths and legends, including the legends of Selene, Aurora and Medusa before she was changed into an evil being. One of the new pieces, ‘Waiting for Someone’, was inspired by waiting for a student to show up. I had a study on my mind and I was waiting for her and just started playing it,’ he laughed. The other three pieces to be recorded are called ‘Happy Vibes’, ‘Moon Dreamer’ and ‘Verano 2020 Extended’, which is an extended yet altered version of his ‘Verano 2020’ piece, which appeared on his Recuerdos EP last year.

Famaey got into music when he was just two years old and expressed an interest in playing the organ like his father. At the age of four, his father taught him to play the accordion with piano keys, which is a bit smaller than a regular accordion and spans two octaves. Famaey went on to study music at the Music Academy in Lokeren and received his Master’s degree in 2002 at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven.

However, being a man who likes a challenge, he decided to stay in Leuven when he graduated and study Mandarin. He met his wife, who is Chinese, there and they moved to Qindgdao in China in the summer of 2005, an experience that he describes as ‘an adventure’. Whilst there, he taught chamber music at the Qingdao University Music Conservatory and the faculty of music at the Qingdao University for Science and Technology. He was also the cathedral organist in Qingdao, before returning to Belgium in 2009 in search of greater job stability.

‘There’s a Chinese element in all my work’

Since then, Chinese influences have permeated his compositions: ‘The melody is paramount but now there’s a Chinese element in all my work, it’s in my DNA,’ he said. ‘The pentatonic harmonies and melodies and typical ornamental elements. The harmonic progressions are softer, there’s a Chinese model way to the cadenza.’ 

This is best exemplified by his composition, ‘Chinese Memories’, which originated from three earlier melodies that he composed in China and which he later extended into a song cycle. The songs are based on poems from the Tang and Song Dynasty and blend Lieder, opera and film music.

During lockdown last year, Famaey released Recuerdos (‘Memories’), a six-track EP of interconnected yet very short piano pieces, each ranging from just 1-2 minutes in length. ‘I wrote them for my students here at the academy in Hamme, so that they’d have something to play that wasn’t too difficult to play at a time when I couldn’t see them,’ he said.

The EP opens with ‘Molinos’ (‘Windmills’) and builds to the closing track. ‘Recuerdos’ and was inspired by a trip to Spain he made when he was 16: ‘It was the first time I flew anywhere, I was playing the clarinet in a concert band. I had a girlfriend there and we wrote each other letters for a while. The cover art symbolises all of the themes in the songs, from the moon, to the night and windmills.’

Famaey says that he often composes at night, so the time has a special significance to him. The windmill element was inspired by Hamme’s local mill, The Great Napoleon. The track ‘Mira la Luna’ (‘Look at the moon’) is both a reference to his love of the moon and planets and a play on words as the woman who did the artwork happens to be called Mira, which is also the name of a famous bridge in Hamme. All of the tracks on Recuerdos have Spanish titles, other than ‘Morimaru’, which is a Celtic word for the North Sea and which is about the waves.

‘Melancholy is a thread through them, it’s hard to pinpoint why’

I tell him that I am amazed that such short pieces can be so emotive to listen to, moving seamlessly from fleeting moments of euphoria to melancholy, something that is particularly true of ‘Recuerdos’, which, for me, packs the biggest emotional punch on the EP. ‘It’s true, melancholy is a thread through them, it’s hard to pinpoint why. I was very young when I was first exposed to music. I’m drawn to minor chords, they’re more emotional, there’s more tension in minor chords.’

SOURCE: In The Bucket Playlist

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