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Talking about music is like dancing about architecture

Interview with Chris Smalt

The former warehouse of the Chemical Factory Rotterdam has been home to music building Soundport since 2010. Rock musician, composer and tenant of the first hour Chris Smalt says, "When I look at who is here, we are a mishmash of people who sit quietly composing behind a computer, a video-maker, to people who play rock-hard metal and salsa."

When you face a non-musical interviewer and a musician, it can be difficult to find the right language to talk about music. "It was Frank Zappa who said that hey, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. You can never really capture the essence in words." Even when Chris is composing, sometimes something indescribable suddenly happens. "Then suddenly you're in another world and I feel connected to the universe, whatever that is. If you play such a fledgling musical idea to someone who then agrees: yes, something is happening here, then you just know that it really is. That it's not a mirage I'm just seeing," says Chris. A chord has been struck and the listener reached.

"The idea that you can reach everyone, that you make sure that there are elements in your music that make it accessible and you can still put your own artistry into it, you can do that at the same time. I'm a big believer in that." Chris explains, "Making accessible music really has nothing to do with that you have to use simple words, or simple melodies, but with striking a chord. What I found interesting from the last, say 30 years, is that dance and hip-hop started to take a huge place in popular music. Because that chord that's in there. That's just that primal beat. That goes back so far, that has nothing to do with electronics but with people and hearts beating."

Chris sees music "as a very basic art": an art that is part of society. Look at folk music: "nothing happens and suddenly everyone is playing, dancing and singing." Still, Chris says he has trouble putting the word "art" on music: "It kind of puts a dividing line between musicians who are on a recognized art side and musicians who are not on the recognized art side. I think that's very artificial and unfortunate." According to Chris, a folk musician goes through the same development as a top violinist. Yet "those worlds are often separate" and those on the unrecognized arts side often "have to function in flawed conditions."

To make music, the city needs both places where musicians can retreat undisturbed to write, compose and record, and places to play music with good facilities for all kinds of musicians, Chris believes. "More than half of what we do as musicians is kind of monk work," he says. "We retreat. When your product is ready, then you come out. It's not our goal to be visible in Soundport. We're visible at the places we perform and with releases." But, Chris explains, "The venues where I used to play in Rotterdam are all closed. Now when I have a concert that attracts a bit more attention, it's in Amsterdam." So, Rotterdam City Council: please more music venues as well as accessible music temples, for everyone.