Wim Mertens

This morning our Agent in Leeds prompted me to re-listen to a bit of Wim Mertens.

Back in the day (at Lancaster University) the notion of anyone composing a soundtrack for your show was pretty fanciful so a high premium was placed on long evocative pieces of instrumental music. Many of us were pretty clueless on that score, Philip Glass was the ‘go to’ section of the Record Library (as it is still for many in TV) but one tape wasn’t his and wasn’t in the library and thus had a very high premium on it – I think I heard a copy of a copy and made a copy of that – Wim Mertens: Maximising the Audience.

That was the piece you wanted for your show. Hell’s teeth you could read the phone book or push a shopping trolly on stage to that and your audience would weep in spite of themselves. It was so good a mate and I dared each other into each buying – direct from the record company in Belgium, using most of our worldly wealth – a massive seven disc set of Mr Merten’s work, ear unheard.

Tense weeks passed as we tortured each other with imaginings of how terrible the results could be. We pretty much shat ourselves when the first half the first disc – For Amusement Only – appeared to be studio recordings of the sound effects from a Space Invaders machine. The second half of that disc, barely better, was someone honking intermittently on a clarinet, bassoon or similar. Our nightmare was looming horrifically real. Disc 2 was Maximising the Audience: the very least we had expected and a crumb of comfort for providing the couple of minutes of the last track which was missing from the pirate cassette copy. Eventually, in the later discs, things started to come good as minimal minimalism became the maxi-minimal lushness we had hoped for.

Of all the seven discs Disc 2 remained the gem for theatre, of course it was; Maximising the Audience had been composed by Mertens for Jan Farbre’s The Power of Theatrical Madness (1984). A legendary (and apparently very long) dance/theatre show which, when it visited the Albert Hall, was supposedly the source of such audience discontent that those booing and whistling in the stalls were shouted down by those enjoying it in the balcony, who were all in turn shouted down by a man screaming “can you all be quiet – I’m trying to sleep!”

Anyway, I can’t comment on that show, it was ‘before my time’ (I can confirm that on the dance floor Stan’s Cafe cut a better dash than the Jan Fabre company – as proven in Hanover 2000 “Play that Funky Music White Boy”). What I can also confirm is that the two problems with appropriating Maximising the Audience for your show now are:

1: You really do have to pay the royalties.
2: It’s so brilliant it’s a cliche.

Of course using the music in rehearsal is different. You’re getting your own soundtrack composed now, but it’s going to be a while. You’re running some improvisations, you want to set the tone, give the performers a bit of help: reach for the Mertens. I can further confirm that the two problems with appropriating Maximising the Audience for your rehearsals are:

1: You could read the phone book to it an people will weep in spite of themselves.
2: You could push a shopping trolly around the stage and people will weep in spite of themselves.

You have no idea if the improvisations are any good because the music is so good (this is why we deliberately screw the beautiful music up in The Cardinals by playing it off cassettes, through a dodgy cassette player into a microphone and then through the venue’s P.A., we quote the fact we are catching a tow off Bach, Mozart, Part et al), It’s only use now is if you are trying to convince a bunch of students that doing very little can be way more powerful than doing a lot. Insist they do very little slap this on and once half the group have reported back to the other half through their tears how good it was you’ll struggle to get them to move a muscle on stage they’ll be so into doing very little.

Anyway that’s a very long introduction to a full Wim Mertens concert available on YouTube. The title track of Maximising the Audience is in there; Whisper Me – the real weepy one, you’ll be relieved to hear, is not. Get the phone book out and follow this link.

4 thoughts on “Wim Mertens

  1. Your epic CD disappeared from the house following a party in the late 90s I seem to remember, and though traumatic there was a part of us that admired the taste of whoever had snaffled it. This is a great post about Wim’s help in the devising room. Hard to bring oneself to use the falsetto singing though, isn’t it.

  2. The falsetto was challenging. Wim Mertens: incredibly cool – sings like a lady go figure.

  3. i think the man at the Albert Hall shouted “can you all be quiet – i’m trying to read”. i was there. i think i lasted a couple of hours.

  4. Thanks for this Simon that’s great – I’m very happy to defer to someone who was actually there! ‘I’m trying to read’ is also much better than ‘trying to sleep’. Marvellous.

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