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Joep Beving is a Dutch composer and pianist who has been described by The Guardian as a “one-man recording phenomenon”. His journey is the stuff of dreams, going from “kitchen composer to Spotify star” virtually overnight. After self-releasing his debut album Solipsism, Beving went on to see his contemplative piano pieces streamed more than 85 million times, and has since given up his day job to compose and perform full time.
If you follow any ‘Chilled Classical’ or ‘Ambient Relaxation’ playlists, you will have heard his music even if you’re not familiar with his name. The deluxe version of his latest album, Henosis, comes out this week and I had the pleasure of chatting with him while he was over in London for a few brief hours.
Did your relationship to music change when it became your job rather than your hobby?
It definitely changed. I never saw myself as an artist… I felt it on the inside, but I never dared to see myself that way, let alone as a composer. It has very much intensified my relationship with music and I’m just extremely thankful for it. I have to take myself seriously now, which is still sometimes difficult, but it’s exciting and the only thing I can really do is work hard to write music and and hopefully create things that people appreciate, and at the same time be absolutely open and honest about what’s behind it.
Having gained so many followers and listeners so quickly must be quite mind-blowing.
Yeah, that is mind-blowing, although it’s very easy to put in the right perspective because that insane amount comes from one very influential playlist that I have had the luck of being featured in.
You’ve been described as one of the most listened to living pianists in the world, which is amazing.
That’s ridiculous. There are many more that deserve the credit in what used to be a niche of solo piano music, but is now a bit bigger: Jóhann Jóhannsson,Max Richter, Niels Hausgaard, Nils Frahm… It’s a very good thing but it’s also a very scary thing. I can see why some marketing people would want to use that to get people’s attention but it creates a lot of negative energy.
You’ve said that while your music uses a “classical vocabulary”, it’s aimed more at a pop audience, and you’ve also performed in jazz festivals around the world. How do you classify your music? Do you see it fitting into the evolving classical canon?
No, not at all. My writing is completely free of rules. What I try to do is just get myself out of the equation and just accept what comes out and feels right. I want to see if I can create or establish a connection to others, so I try to find something universal. I often follow a pop structure (AABA) and my music has similarities with ambient music because of the sound, the vibrations and the tempo. It has a little bit to do with electronic music, mostly where electronic means minimal classical. It’s much more in that vein than in the classical vein but it obviously does borrow from the classical vocabulary and if you look at John Cage, for example, who’s rightly considered a very great American composer – he had a phase of doing some recordings that were intentionally mood-based, using music for a specific mental purpose.
Someone said that your music’s quite similar to Keith Jarrett’s…
That’s a huge compliment. It’s funny you mention him because Keith Jarrett was one of the first musicians who showed me that music can just be without the genre. If you classify Keith Jarrett you say ECM because that’s cross-genre – it’s not classical, it’s not jazz per se, it’s somewhere else. If I can have just a little bit of Keith Jarrett in me, that would be phenomenal.
Do you mind how other people perceive or describe your music?
No. Every description has its ripple effect, its consequence, and if I would be in the business of trying to control that I would be wasting my time. The moment that it prohibits you from being heard in the first place, then it’s an issue. Once you have the luxury of an audience, then it doesn’t matter. It’s easy for me to say because I have the audience first. If it was the other way around I would probably have a different opinion.
Whose music would you say has influenced your style?
Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Chopin, Satie, Radiohead, Mahler, and anything late romantic.
Who are your favourite composers?
Scriabin, Prokofiev (mostly the 3rd Piano Concerto), Mahler, Brahms’ piano music, Arvo Pärt, Peteris Vasks, Tigran Hamasyan.
What’s your opinion on the ‘classical chillout’ trend that’s growing in popularity?
I think it’s great. On the one side of the continuum, we have the massage saloon version, which is obviously kitsch and too far down the road. And then the area that we’re talking about, which you could say Satie is part of, or Cage. If that has a beneficial effect on people in their franticness, or fighting anxiety or insomnia, then that’s absolutely amazing. The other part is the deeper side of serious music that can have a very important effect on how you feel and how you look at life. If you embrace that dark side, and you’re not scared of it, it’s a great way of overcoming a lot of anxieties and issues.