With ‘Verslegen nevest gie’, the musicians Wannes Cappelle and Nicolas Callot go on tour in Flanders again from Friday 9 December. After making a West Flemish version of certain Schubert songs, the two now tackle Mozart. “It’s fantastic that as a musician you can recreate that work, even more than just interpreting it.”
At first glance, it may seem like an odd combination. Wannes – tried and tested in the West Flemish clay – usually makes music that scrapes and tears, while Antwerp’s Nicolas Callot, avant-garde chamber musician, dissects classical piano pieces very sharply. And yet the two have strikingly much in common: in addition to being highly regarded in their profession, they are both rather modest about their contribution to the genre. They try to be a point of rest in a world that is far too loud, but they are a mess when it comes to the love of their profession. And they deal with the clichés associated with cabaret and classical in their own way.
Perhaps immediately the, er, classic question: why Mozart?
Nicholas: “We started with Schubert, and could easily continue with it for a while. But Mozart also wrote many beautiful songs and arias. When we tried it in front of an audience, it seemed to work. You felt that people were with you. For me, that music is my second mother tongue, for Wannes it was probably a new challenge.”
Wannes: “I was curious about it. Of course I also know Mozart, but it was great to get to know him in a different way. I have already played a piece by most of the composers at the music college, and Klara also plays a lot at our house, so I’m certainly not a complete layman. But not an expert either. I learned a lot by being creative with it anyway. That way you start to better see where the genius is.”
How did you work specifically?
Nicholas: “I made a selection and then suggested a few. Some were shot in the neck.”
On the basis of?
Wannes: “Sometimes it is not easy to translate a song to today. Sometimes there wasn’t even a start, while other pieces—especially in light of these waking times—didn’t feature the most female-friendly lyrics. Some of them were possible because they are so well-known, but I kept a little watch on my words, but I didn’t censor them either. The bird catcher still wants to catch women with his net, but it’s actually a funny character.”
How do you start such a translation? Want to hunt them down through Google Translate?
Wannes: “Actually yes. There is already a Dutch translation of many songs, but I only kept it until the end. I read the lyrics first. What I didn’t understand, I actually typed into Google Translate. Or I looked at the English translation if I could not understand the meaning.”
Nicholas: “The striking thing is that it is often close to West Flemish.”
Wannes: “Strangely enough, West Flemish sometimes leaned closer to German than to Dutch. I also tried to make the decision very clearly: does it sound good? Because the melody was composed then on the German text. So I tried to echo the sounds, so to speak. It can certainly also be heard in one song with an Italian text. I like that, and an expert might notice it, but not so much the average listener.”
Were the texts more difficult to translate than with Schubert?
Wannes: “Yes, because they are often less clear-cut. With Schubert you got to death or er… death rather quickly. (laughs) Mozart often has a strange angle about him. You have to read it a few times to understand exactly what he means. And then the challenge is also to get that twist in the translation. It was certainly not easier than Schubert, but it was a very nice exercise.”
How much influence did you have, Nicolas?
Nicholas: “Not necessary. It is especially nice to note the double layer. The text sometimes mocks the musical, and in a way they are poles opposing each other. To discover such a new layer by translating it into a contemporary context is therefore an enrichment for me.”
Wannes: “The song ‘Abendempfindung’ for example. At first glance, it seems that someone is looking forward to his funeral. But if you analyze that text, it actually turns out to be someone who looks very ridiculously and with a lot of self-pity on his own death. I can’t shake the impression that Mozart also laughs a little at it.”
Mozart was known not to be an easy figure, with sometimes strange twists of the brain.
Nicholas: “He made music as a kind of entertainment for the public. There is a lot of emotion, but also humor in it. It’s very layered. The beauty of the selection of songs is that it gives a kind of overall picture of the person Mozart was: complex, versatile, but musically very high quality. Lyrically, Wannes has taken it to a higher level.”
Like your voice apparently, because vocally you have to sing much higher.
Wannes: “I seriously had to clean my toes, yes. When you write for yourself, you don’t always think about it, but you write things that fit your voice well. Now you have to stick to the score. Of course I had singing lessons before, but now I really had to use my voice as an instrument and sometimes sing the same thing twenty times in a row until I got the sound right. I’ve actually never worked with my voice like that before. I treated it casually instead of seeing it as an instrument. I feel like I can get a lot better from this. I feel like I’m just learning to sing.” (laughing)
Nicholas: “I would also like to point out that the live experience is also very special. How Wannes talks to each other, with the necessary humor… He is not only a singer, but also a full-fledged storyteller. It really is an added value to come and listen and take that record home to immerse yourself in the music or as a kind of souvenir.”
What audience did you first target?
Nicholas: “A very broad audience. We’ve performed on different types of stages where we mainly wanted to do our own thing.”
And what audience did you ultimately reach, do you feel?
Nicholas: “Also here: a very broad audience. People were very excited. Of course, there are always purists for whom this is not possible and who consider these concerts sacrilegious. But it is also exciting, because something is moving. These kinds of songs are already a niche genre within the classical repertoire. Usually you hear the same typically trained voice, which almost gets stuck in clichés. I find this kind of commitment very refreshing. For me personally, it is an incredible enrichment, but also for the cultural landscape. We draw inspiration from the past and look for a new form.”
Wannes: “You can tell that the audience is very curious, and most are also pleasantly surprised. But I was also surprised myself at how wide the audience was that we could reach with this.”
Has it enriched you as a musician?
Nicholas: “Absolutely. In fact, I love nothing more than to color outside the lines. Within the fairly conservative world, I tend to be progressive. I love nothing more than to research and dig until you find a new layer in the music. And I think Wannes does too. It’s a shame that the pop world seems so far from our world, and at the same time there are many things that connect us. The turmoil you can achieve with a few chords can be very powerful.”
Wannes: “I think it’s fantastic how Nicolas also tells that story. We quickly got a good feeling for each other, and for me it’s super pleasant to work because Nicolas is clearly involved. I can hardly believe how smoothly it goes.”
Nicholas: “We never play the same performance twice.”
Wannes: “Sometimes I accompany myself on the piano at home, and when I look at that score I’m always impressed by how Nicolas can interpret it so freely, without rushing to deviate from the sheet.”
Nicholas: “At the time of Schubert and Mozart, such an interpretation was very common. Plagiarism did not exist. Often songs were performed as a kind of tribute with a number of additions.”
Was it just as obvious to find an audience?
Nicholas: “It is of course a risk. It was also a leap into the unknown for Wannes. So far we have only received good reviews. Also in Holland, where they don’t speak the dialect. There were colleagues from Antwerp who said they got goosebumps, and that made me very happy. Because we do not provide an innovation, but a relief. (thinking) Relief. That’s the right word.”
Wannes: “To be honest, I didn’t lose any sleep over whether this would find an audience. I could easily play this every night. And I was genuinely sad that the Schubert tour was over, because I felt that I had just started getting into it. Even if no one had come to listen, I would have loved to have done it.”
Nicholas: “During the past two years, we have found our own style, which we are also developing in. And that is really nice to do.”
Then the question arises, what kind of classic pieces do you still want to tackle…
Wannes: “All suggestions are welcome. To say: there are no concrete plans yet.”
Nicholas: “Perhaps we can translate Schubert’s Winterreise before we die. A cycle of 24 songs which was actually more or less Schubert’s swan song.”
Wannes: “It’s going to be a long night.” (laughing)
Nicholas: “Schubert still has hundreds of songs that I know people will immediately relate to. But you might as well take a closer look at the work we already brought. The possibilities are endless.”
Perhaps the biggest misconception about classical music is that it is more than playing a score, but telling a story, complete with different intonations.
Wannes: “Absolutely. I remember the first time I played with Het Zesde Metaal with four strings. Sometimes there was a replacement for a violinist and the difference was always big. How to interpret it and how you even got that difference in energy.. . It’s much more than playing from a score.”
Nicholas: “That is the special thing about classical music. If you go to a museum tomorrow and look at a painting, you can change the frame, but the artwork is basically finished. And that is not the case with Schubert and Mozart. Of course, they exist only by the grace of those who do their work. It is fantastic that as a musician you can recreate that work, even more than just interpreting it. You need incredible craftsmanship for that. I have been playing the piano since I was six and still play it every day. It is a development, a lifetime. I believe and hope that at the age of eighty I will still have that feeling. It’s great to do: study the lyrics, always come up with something new, bring it to an audience and move them.”
Wannes: “I’ve never thought about it that way, but actually a score is just another way in which the composer tries to put something on paper, how it sounds in their head. In fact, it is already a translation in itself. This piece is piano, this forte. Ok, but how does the piano sound? How fast does forte sound? In fact, the score is something you have to bring back to life, an inquiry or a question: what would the composer have meant by this? Sometimes I hear a slow or slightly fast version of a certain song and I find it interesting again. You can do so many things with it.”
Nicholas: “Every time you try something different, you discover something that can be complementary. It creates an incredible energy. And then you can only be grateful that you are allowed to do it.”
‘Verslegen nevest gie’ by Wannes Cappelle and Nicolas Callot is now available on CD and soon also on LP. You can see them at work in West Flanders in Wingene (December 10), Koekelare (December 16), Deerlijk (December 17), Lauwe (January 13), Dranouter (January 21), Sint-Baafs-Vijve ( 22 January), Avelgem (27 January) and Kortrijk (28 January).