The Bucket Playlist’s interview with Johan Famaey

Interview with Johan Famaey: ‘Chords are like colours to me, a language that is talking to me, I don’t have to think about it’

by Sara Seddon at The Bucket Playlist (inthebucketplaylist.com)

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.

Famaey’s piano pieces also have a beautiful, sweeping, cinematic feel to them and when I tell him that he seems very pleased. Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who died last year, was a master at writing highly emotional film scores that frequently had the power to underscore the emotions and action in a scene more vividly than the dialogue could. He turns out to have been a huge inspiration for Famaey.

‘When I was 9 or so, they were broadcasting Secrets of the Sahara every week. (A four part Italian TV miniseries in 1988 where archaeologist Desmond Jordan embarked on a quest to discover the location of the legendary ‘Talking Mountain’ of the Sahara Desert and the secret that it hides.) Morricone wrote the end track, ‘Saharan Dream’. The music stuck in my head, I’d listen every week and I wrote down the music. His music is always a part of me and Michael Nyman is an extension of that. My teacher at the conservatory in Leuven described Ennio Morricone as ‘the Palestrina of our day’.’ (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 – 1594) was an Italian Renaissance composer of sacred music.)

‘Everything has to be in a piece of music for a reason’

In particular, Famaey is drawn to the spareness of Morricone’s music and the elegant precision of his compositions: ‘Morricone wrote complicated music that doesn’t sound complicated but which has a purpose. That’s really important, everything has to be in a piece of music for a reason. It would be a dream for me to write a film score.’

He typically either composes pieces on the piano or on paper: ”Chinese Memories’ was mainly composed on paper. I hear the notes in my mind, I don’t have to play them. Chords are like colours to me, a language that is talking to me, I don’t have to think about it. Human beings are emotional, the good, bad and sad feelings are all there but it’s the sad things that shine through.’

Last year, he released piano and orchestral music which form part of the Time Passenger Shows, which will premiere on 2 and 3 October this year in Hamme, Belgium, and which will likely also be released as an album this autumn. The compositions mark an interesting new direction for him, given that some of the tracks such as ‘Leaves on the wind’ feature vocals from Belgian vocalist, Charlotte Campion, with lyrics by Helen Grant. Other tracks on the album will include Dutch and English versions of ‘Le Crotoy’ (a commune in northern France) and ‘Bedtime Story’: ”Bedtime Story’ started out when I was playing arpeggios on the piano, I improvised and kept the chord progression,’ he said. ‘I found a poet here from my secondary school – Georges Van Damme – I knew him and I put the two poems over the top for the lyrics.’ Mariana Roque wrote the lyrics for the English versions and those will be the versions used in the Time Passenger Shows.

Other piano pieces that he brought out last year were written for his son, namely ‘Dream Flight’ and ‘Moon Touch’ (María Cecilia Alguacil created music videos for ‘Moon Touch’ and ‘Time Passenger’): ”Dream Flight’ was written one night for my son when he was asleep, to go beyond the dreams,’ he said. ‘I’m fascinated by the moon, the universe, planets and the stars. I’m in awe of what surrounds us. The thought of zooming out and seeing our planet, we’re such a tiny element in all of this, it’s amazing.’

This story first appeared on: https://inthebucketplaylist.com/ on February 11th 2021

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