Koen Claeys

This week we dive into the world of the internationally acclaimed, award-winning classical guitarist, Koen Claeys!

We all know HELLO STAGE’s favorite color! What’s yours?

There are 2 colors that I like for some very particular and also some very obvious reasons. Brown is the color of wood. And chocolate. No other reason needed…but as a guitarist I can fall in love with all the timbres of the wood used for instrument making. Some parts of an instrument are like a painting no one would ever be able to paint. Not even Van Gogh.
Besides brown, I can really love purple. It is the world of blue and red together, and there is no other color with so many nuances. A lot of tints look decadent or kitsch, but well used, in a good shade and well chosen context, it looks authentic and gives a feeling of dignity and unpretentious luxury. And of course, it is the color of worlds best football club, Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht. No other reason needed…

What was the best advice a teacher ever gave you?

One of my teachers told me once: there are no good teachers and bad teachers, there only are good students and bad students. The bad student, is the one who does everything the teachers tells him to do. The good student, is the one who does more than that.
In my opinion, he is right: no one can teach you to be a musician. This has to come out of yourself. Never go to a lesson with the expectation that the teacher is going to improve you or solve your problems. You have to do that, but the teacher is there to help you on your journey. But I have to say: always when there was a problem on the road, my teachers were there to show me how to change a flat tire. So all of my teachers had a great influence on me. They never let me imitate them, but they were like generous patrons who let me copy their library of ideas to start my own library.

How has your practice changed with time?

More and more often, I don’t see practice as 'practice' anymore. I think practice doesn’t really exist. If you consider it: when you are at home, you perform for the smallest audience there is; yourself. Everyday I play concerts in my room, and I hope to please the audience (me). Sometimes I am happy with the concert, sometimes not. But the positive thing is: I don’t need to be afraid. This audience (yourself) always comes back. And because I think about practice like this more and more, I increasingly look forward to playing for other people. That creates so much more joy then to play for myself.
Besides that, I think what is called practice, also should involve other things. For me, reading a book or attending a concert is also practice, because you are learning something. You can think different about your musical phrasing after reading a beautiful novel, one can find inspiration in a painting, … in a way, for me attending a concert is not time that I cannot practice, but practice time spend in a very good way. In this way, yes my practice has changed a lot in time. When I was 15, my practice was when I was practicing a new piece or scales or arpeggio’s, now I could say I practice the whole day music in everything I do, or I could say I never really practice. I don’t mean that in a pretentious way, but I just don’t think a painter would say he is practicing when he is making a new painting. He can throw it away when he doesn’t like the result, but actually he was performing. But the only public at that time was he himself.

What do you think is the most important trait of a successful artist in today’s modern world?

To remain authentic as an artist but meanwhile look for your audience, is a difficult balance. To be a musician that aims for musical-technical perfection, but doesn’t lose the contact with society.
I think that we have to accept that we have to use Facebook, Twitter and other platforms nowadays. It is just part of society and an artist always has to consider todays society. In the time of Segovia, you went to the local wine store to taste, pick your favorite red wine and go home with some bottles. Nowadays amateurs buy books like „Wine Guide 2014” before they go to a store and they check what is the top 5 for 'red wines of Chile under 10 euro'. And now all the information is for free online. It is the same for music: if my neighbor wants to go to a concert, he won’t go to the local concert house to see who is playing what. He will check the internet first. So as a musician, if we like it or not: being on an online platform is part of todays life.
I am sure that Segovia was a great manager as well, but there was no online media. I bet he would have used it, if it existed.

How much time do you spend every day on Facebook, Twitter, and which other ways do you use to promote yourself?

I try to spend a limited time everyday. I just try to inform myself daily about what concerts are going on where and try to keep in contact with every the interested audience regularly. If you expect people to make the effort to come to your concert and buy a ticket, you should make the effort to share a bit of your artist life with them. So I try to use Facebook every day for 20 minutes, I created a Twitter profile, a Hello Stage page and I keep my webpage up-to-date once and a while.

Koen, you are passionate about listening to music. Tell us more!

I like to listen to all kinds of genres. My instrument, the guitar, has a way more diffuse path in music history than piano or violin. These instruments have a constant prominent place as soloists and well known composers. The guitar has been everything: an instrument to accompany, to play in the salons, to play on the streets, …to play flamenco, blues, bossa nova, tango, jazz, rock, basso continuo (lute and baroque guitar), Lied accompaniment, … But the constant was always: the guitar was a popular instrument and important for popular music. So even now being a so called classical guitarist, in my opinion it is very important to play and listen to popular music. We should learn flamenco techniques, study cuban music, learn from the brazilian musicians, … I am often amazed how much we can learn from popular musicians. We have conservatories and have lessons about articulations, phrasing, solfège lessons, rhythm, harmony and so on. But often popular musicians play more rhythmical, have better phrasing, … Paco de Lucia was way more accurate when he played the Aranjuez concierto than all of the classical guitarists together. And he couldn’t read notes! Yamandu Costa has a perfect timing when he plays Villa-Lobos. Keith Jarret has an amazing recording of Shostakovich Preludes & Fuga’s. That phrasing is flawless. As well, we can learn a lot from other instruments. The repertoire we cannot play, is the repertoire we should listen to. I listen more to piano, violin, string quartets, orchestra’s, … than to guitar recordings. When I can’t play a Brahms symphony, I have to listen to it. Also there is so much to learn from comparing conductors: we should all listen to their phrasing, because they only care about this and are not obstructed by technical problems. They don’t read scores like instrumentalists.

What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment I am reading Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut: seriously funny. About a man that finds out, he is the only one in the world with a free will. A serious book, written with a rare kind of humor. I like to change the style of the books I read a lot. Sometimes you need an easy reading book, because the music you play is so complex. Then you can read a book by Deon Meyer: exiting thrillers, but easy - a fast read. Sometimes you need books that make you think about every line, because you play a piece that you know so well, that you risk starting to practice mechanically. I can highly recommend everything Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote, Antifragile is non-fiction of the highest level. And to give you my favorite book: Mysterier (mysteries) by Knut Hamsun. You will never believe it was written in 1892, but it is the best book I have read until now. I have read it again a few times and was more amazed every time.

What CD are you currently listening to?

Cancion Andaluza, the last album of Paco de Lucia. It was quite a shock in february when I heard he died. I couldn’t believe it. Every day I respect him more and more. He was a complete artist in every sense of the word.
I love to go and check what is new, Cd’s that have just been released. I am also growing fond of listening to old masters. When I was 18, I actually didn't like Julian Bream. Now I love his artistry, just like I now aprreciate Segovia, Ida Presti, … They lived in different times, without Facebook, Youtube, … If you live in such a society, you will play another tempo, choose other colors, just be a different musician. If they lived now, for sure they will play other phrasings. But that is why they are so interesting for us. I love to go back to recordings of Michelangeli, Cortot, Schnabel. DVD’s of Carlos Kleiber and Bernstein.
Just as a reference, once and a while I listen again to the Beethoven Trio’s played by Trio Zimmermann. Because that is the way music should be played! What an energy! To play so perfect, in the tempo they take, amazing phrases, articulation, colors, … I saw them live in Düsseldorf and Köln and they managed to get their live concert energy on a disc. I think this was the best Cd I bought in the last years. I also bought their other 2 Cd’s with more Beethoven Trio’s, Mozart and Schubert….no more interview: go listen to it!

Keep with Koen Claeys on HELLO STAGE!
Author: Nina (c) HELLO STAGE
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