Freedom and creative challenge
Dominique Vleeshouwers, the newest member of the Maestro Arts family, explains how playing percussion offers an exciting combination of the freedom to explore and a challenge to be creative
How did you come to play percussion?
My uncle plays percussion, and although no one else in my family plays an instrument, there is a strong wind-band culture in the south Netherlands and every village has its own orchestra. When I was around six I went to a concert and saw a drummer, and thought, ‘I want to be a drummer.’ Usually at school you are assigned an instrument, but my mother said that I wrote a note to the school secretary saying, ‘I only want two sticks, otherwise I don’t want anything.’
When did you know you would be a professional?
There came a moment when I had to choose between sports and music. I was playing two or three soccer games a week, as well as handball, and I was selected for the regional soccer team. I was always running to training and I also had percussion group and orchestra, so when I was around 15, my mother said, ‘You have to choose, because you can’t do both – it’s too much.’ She got me to write down what I liked about both and choose. I went for music and decided to prepare for conservatoire.
Why did you make that decision?
I like the social side of working with people. You get that in sport, but music also has the creative side. I’m also able to be alone, so I enjoy the endless time I spend on my own with the instruments. But it was mainly the creative part that made my decision.
I started playing in professional orchestras while I was still studying, including the Royal Concertgebouworkest, but at a certain moment, I realised that I needed more. I wanted to be able to decide what was happening on stage and to do something completely different from one week to the other, from working with dancers to playing solo recitals with electronics.
Who were your heroes growing up?
I never had a particular hero, but I was always looking up to my colleagues in percussion groups, or players I saw at concerts and festivals. If I could feel a special energy I would think, ‘I want to be able to do that.’ I’m still fascinated by other musicians – what they can do and what I can learn from them. A hero doesn’t have to be famous – it could be an old African man playing an African drum that I don’t know about, making me want to discover how he makes it sound so interesting and beautiful.
What are the benefits and challenges of being a solo percussionist?
In one sense, percussion is the oldest instrument, and yet the idea of a solo percussionist is still very new. Bartók wrote one of the first convincing sonatas for percussion, but not many other composers of that era tried. If you’re a violinist or pianist, there’s so much repertoire to study and your whole lifetime will not be enough to play it all, whereas as a percussionist, I’ve already played a lot of existing solo repertoire. That means I have to search for new pieces and people to collaborate with. I enjoy that challenge – finding the right people to work with, figuring out what instruments offer but also what they miss and how to fill in that blank. It’s a very creative process. We’re still inventing new techniques, which have already been settled for most instruments, so there is a lot to develop and investigate.
Because so much of my work can be solo, there is a sense of freedom to do my own thing and programmers trust me when I experiment. I use more and more improvisation in my concerts and have also started producing and writing my own music, which I can programme next to other composed music. I like to push my own boundaries, as well the boundaries of my instruments, by using new techniques and even other instruments, including synthesizers and electronics.
Where do you get your ideas for new projects?
Life throws them up in random ways. It can be a trip I make – for example, Marching and Breakin’ came out of my trip to Senegal and watching the street musicians there. When I came back to the Netherlands, I started to think about what the street culture is here, and what it used to be, and that became the focus of the show. Another performance came out of a trip I made to Japan, to the Japanese gardens in Kyoto. So, my work can have different triggers.
When I work with someone or ask them to collaborate it’s usually because something about their work, artistry, technique or instrument has lit a spark in me. This spark then usually lights up a whole new area. Working with painter Marcel van Hoef, for example, inspired me to look at my compositions in a new way and to think differently. The process can be mutual. For example, I created a piece of improvisation using a big gong, as if I were a painter painting the notes, and when Marcel saw it, he says he became emotional, recognising himself, and started painting differently because he was hearing the sound I made when he put his paintbrush on the canvas.
What do you feel are your responsibilities as a musician?
It’s important to enjoy playing and researching, but also to have fun. Joy is especially important: it’s the basis of performing and sharing enjoyment with people – showing them that they can be happy.
I also want to connect people from different scenes, which is one of the reasons I do a lot of crossover projects. I want to link people who look at the world in diverse ways and listen differently. For example, if you bring a street percussionist from India together with a well-known classical musician, you mix both these worlds together and show that we share a common humanity.
What part does social media play in music today?
These platforms allow you to share well produced videos and photos, but also more casual images that give an insight into what it means to be a musician and what happens behind the scenes. I don’t know if social media can change anything, but it might inspire someone and make them think something new or come to a concert. A performance, whether in a concert hall, virtually or anywhere else, is a chance to get someone’s attention and show them something or make them experience something, so if I can reach them via social media it’s a big win.
What are the most important things you’ve learnt so far?
I’ve learnt to trust myself: to stick with my ideas and go for them, while still being open to the ideas of others. I try to take criticism without letting people judge me too much. I’ve also learnt not to make decisions too quickly. I’m naturally very resolute, but sometimes art needs to be slow. I did a collaboration with writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who spends five years on a book, which made me realise that sometimes I need to slow down and take a lot of time.
I have also learnt that the more I know, the more I realise I don’t know very much. There are so many things to discover still. Being open to others is very important, especially towards people who do weird things, because those weird things often end up being normal. I hope I can remain open and non-judgmental, and maybe even become more curious.