Herbert Meets: Sarah Neutkens

Sarah Neutkens is a Dutch composer and visual artist that  is currently finishing her studies in the Netherlands. I was drawn to speak to Sarah having heard a couple of her tracks, which had a freshness and complexity that I wanted to understand more about. I reached out to Sarah at a time at which artists around the world are also trying to adapt to a new normal, curious to see how she was getting on. 

Sarah Neutkens by Anna Perger

A lot of musicians’ lives have been affected by this crisis, what is your experience looking like?  
Not a huge amount is different for me but it is a very strange time. I am staying with my parents who live in a village on the border of Belgium. I am lucky because I just heard that the entire apartment block where I usually live is on lockdown and no one can leave the building. I have noticed a change here too, because we used to go for many walks across the border Belgium but now because of the new enforcements, we can’t … that has been strange too.  
I see a huge impact on my father’s life who is also a musician (lute and theorbo) because he would usually be playing concerts at the moment but of course they have all been cancelled. My mum’s a teacher so she’s teaching her students virtually, which is also surreal.

You must have grown up in a  house filled with music – do you remember the first time you heard a melody or a piece of music?
Yes, absolutely! The first memory I have of hearing music is my father playing Chaconne en la mineur by Robert de Visée. It was that piece that made me fall in love with the expressive and melancholic quality of music.
I then learnt the recorder like all the children in my village but I wanted to learn my own instrument..I was drawn to the piano. My parents found a teacher who I stayed with until I finished all my exams and then I went to study something totally different!

What did you study?
Well, I’m still studying. I am currently writing my thesis and I really hope I can complete my studies – it’s in Art History.
But why didn’t you go on to study music?
I didn’t want to ruin the freedom I felt when I was making music. When I studied for exams in music school, I felt very tense and after I finished, I wanted to quit music and do something completely different. I knew I wouldn’t enjoy the conventions and dogmatic rules of a conservatoire. I thought that if it was meant for me, music would find me again.   
So, when did you come back?

(laughs) well, I came back to music about two or three weeks after I had decided to quit (pauses)… so it turned out to be a very short break -
What was it that drew you back?
At the time, my uncle had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and was about to go into hospital to have an operation. I went to visit him just after and it was almost like I could see right through him; I almost didn’t recognize him…it was an intensely sad moment. This is when I wrote Hexagon and was the moment that I decided to continue to write music so that I could continue to find a way to express what I felt.  

Sarah Neutkens by Anna Perger

Was it that moment that you also realised you wanted to be a composer?
That was the point when I started writing consistently, but I have only started calling myself a composer recently. I think at first I felt that I had to prove that I was able to create consistently and that I was growing in writing and recently I have felt that.

How would you describe your music?
I’ve noticed in my own composition, I turn to baroque baselines, its repetitions and fragments with some minimalism. But I don’t try to implement anything explicitly, it just…happens... my music is (pauses), I am a very melancholic person by nature and that extreme persisting sadness, that is almost overwhelming at times, this is the part of me that I feel I need to express through my music. I can’t express it in words…but that is my sound.
For example, when I started writing my album Cumulus, I could not express my thoughts then like I can now. So, making music is my process of self-discovery – a way of improving how to express myself.  

Do you think without your sense of melancholia, you would also not have the ability to create music?
Yes, I don’t think I would have been able to create anything at all. It’s like the engine for my creation.

Do you have a process?
I wish! (giggling) Every time I write it’s different. I prefer to write at night and I write pieces all at once. If I’m not wholly satisfied, I will scrap what I have done and start from scratch. Or even stop and decide to start writing another day –  
Do you think with everything happening now, music plays a more important part in peoples’ life?   

I hope so, I really hope so, but even without isolation, music has a bigger part in people’s life than they think. It’s like the best friend you can have for every moment in the day – to confront you or to console you. In these strange times, we are seeing another function of music. Now people are turning to music for consolation or to seek a connection.

Do you have a favourite artist or composer? 

Yes! For me, the best music ever written is by Bach and my favourite piece of all time is Sonata No.4 E Minor  It is…it is so … ah…it’s like I can hear what I feel and even better than I can express it myself. It’s like so many hundreds of years earlier he knew how I felt.
Maybe the role of music is  less passive now and more an active part of people's lives?
Yes, for sure.

If we look forward and beyond our current moment, what do you have planned for the future?  
I am currently working on three projects – two new albums and a film project. One of the albums is for a string quartet and the other is for saxophone quartet – I will be working with the Amstel Quartet for this. My plan is to release that one in September – let’s see what happens, but I can promise you it is going to sound really good (laughs)
And just to end, do you have an 'ultimate' goal with your music? 
(pauses) Winning a Grammy, of course!



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