With his wild hair and flowing beard, 6’10 Dutch composer and pianist Joep Beving is remarkable not only in stature, but also because of the way he realized his innermost creative ambitions and ended up working with one of his musical heroes.
A former advertising executive from the Netherlands, Beving would write music late at night after work while his girlfriend and two daughters were asleep. He decided to pursue his dream of making a solo record after composing a song for a close friend who had passed away. An executive from the prestigious classical label Deutsche Grammophon came across Beving playing in a bar, and he was quickly given a record deal. His first two albums “Solipsism” and “Prehension” captured the public imagination and went viral on Spotify, racking up close to 200 million streams to date, an incredible feat for neo-classical solo piano recordings.
Joep’s latest album “Conatus” is a series of reworks of pieces from the first two albums, together with some new work foreshadowing his next solo album. One of the highlights of the deeply immersive sonic journey of “Conatus” is the rework of “432” by one of the true pioneers of electronic music, five-time Grammy award nominated composer Suzanne Ciani. Her work has been featured in numerous commercials, video games and feature films, while her TV appearances on primetime American talk shows show a master at work, effortlessly flabbergasting the hosts with her electronic audio wizardry.
A year almost to the day after they first connected, I spoke with Beving and Ciani about purpose and passion, but first about the fine art of balancing creativity and commerce. “I’ve always felt that these two facets of my work were artistic twins” states Ciani. Like Beving she used her commercial talents to finance her releases, but when she was building her career there were very different challenges to today, especially for someone working with electronic music, “Technology was very expensive, so I went into commercial work, but always as a support for my artistic work, initially so I could self-produce my first album ‘Seven Waves’”. For Ciani, self-financing was an option which afforded her the most creative freedom, “You could either get a major label deal, or you had to self-produce it because there were no home studios. You had to pay thousands of dollars a day for recording, so an album was expensive.”
It was not only the recording studios which needed serious financing, Ciani started composing on the Buchla system, but then for commercial work used the Synclavier digital system which retailed at $200,000. But her investments paid off, “I worked with Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Atari, all the big guys. At the time I was the go-to high-tech person. A commission from AT&T was one of the most interesting, because the entire project was 1/3 of a second. It was the sound for their long-distance telephone and they had a huge budget.” Ciani was also briefed to forensically remove any audio tones which might trigger the telephones, as AT&T were unable to do this. This audio loophole was famously exploited by early “phone phreakers” such as Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Ciani remembers these pioneering times with a definite glint in her eye “They were all fun, they were all silly, wonderful and wide-open spaces to work in, because nobody knew what was going on.”
Some years later Beving was also trying to balance his creative passions with more practical considerations “I dreamt of a musical career, but I could never see myself be good enough to make it in that world. So, I made the jump into advertising, working for a company that did music mostly for commercials. The idea was that eventually this would lead me to composing music for short-form content, documentaries, maybe later even films. However, the reality was that I was involved as a producer or facilitator, hardly ever as a composer. And this grew into a bit of a disconnect where my artistic self was still knocking on my door saying ‘something needs to happen, something needs to come out’. When I didn’t succeed in letting my creative energy flow into my work, that’s when I turned to the piano at night. I found my escape, luckily, with writing music.”
Following the release of his first two albums Beving gathered his dream collaborators for “Conatus”, and Deutsche Grammophon reached out to Ciani. She speaks about hearing his works for the first time as like finding a kindred musical spirit, “It suited me perfectly. There is piano, but there is almost an electronic sonic sensibility to what he does, it’s very organic, I find it to be like going down a deep river.” Beving was likewise enamored with the organic nature of the sound exemplified by Ciani’s releases “I really think it’s an organic orchestra. It’s difficult to control, there’s a level of need for serendipity and maybe even failure that is very interesting, and imperfect, and that comes close to the human condition.”
Leading to this point of collaboration, the parallel creative paths of Ciani and Beving occurred in radically different worlds. In contrast to the times of technology scarcity in which Ciani released her pioneering works, music production technology today is now largely democratized, and album tracks are produced on smartphones many millions of times more powerful than NASA’s combined computing for the 1969 moon landing. The sheer volume of content produced every day means that artists compete in the global attention economy, explains Beving, “This ocean of artists and new music is so overwhelmingly present, it’s difficult to pierce through and create a following” He sees this as an environment where authenticity is paramount, “You need to be very original, and very close to who you are as a person, and who you want to be as an artist.”
Ciani observes that the commonplace nature of digital technology today is inspiring a new generation to discover the analogue technologies of the past, and also the concepts of the early pioneers, “The kids now are looking back at the 60s and 70s, vinyl records and cassette tapes. When we were working with technology then, the concepts where huge, and they were new. There were new instruments which had nothing to do with the keyboard, which we thought was an archaic interface.” She is effervescent with energy when observing this new trend, “I couldn’t be more excited to see the kids looking back. They’re archeologists, and they are discovering things that were not finished the first time around. We are in the middle of a total renaissance of this music, and that’s why I’m out playing, to show them how we did it.”
Ciani’s rework of “432” is the sound of two artists who have found a mirror to their creative journey in each other, and in the process have transcended time and space to make something new and deeply authentic.
Joep plays on Tuesday October 23rd at the Lodge Room Highland Park in Los Angeles, and tours the US, Canada and France until mid-November. See joepbeving.com/concerts for details. Ciani plays at the Red Bull Music Festival in Santiago, Chile, on the 25th October and Black Corp. Night in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan on the 16th November.
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Originally published in Forbes.