Wim Mertens: “Dotting the i’s”
The sight before Wim Mertens’ eyes must be an odd one. It’s a gloriously sunny afternoon in the Galerie du Roi in downtown Brussels. From his vantage point aboard a bandstand, Mertens sits behind a stunning Steinway and pretends this is an ordinary gig. It’s not. He has already played a few numbers every hour on the hour since midday. This time, in addition to the passers-by and tourists, he has attracted the attention of a large number of girls sprawled across the floor watching him intently. Or rather, they would be if the piano wasn’t in the way. And they are perhaps more interested in the piano, as they are students from the academy of fine arts doing live sketches.
“It’s been like this all afternoon,” notes a representative from his record company. Wim, meanwhile, is busy at the keyboard playing his trademark repetitive ripples. Gentle, flowing and surprisingly pretty for someone best known for his “system” or minimalist music. But then, things are changing subtly on planet Mertens.
When Mertens first appeared on the scene in the mid-eighties, music was at an unbelievably open phase. New Wave had opened the door to a mixed-bag of geniuses and engaging scheisters. The barriers between music, graphic design and the moving image were for a short while completely blurred by groups such as Soft Verdict, Tuxedomoon and Kraftwerk. Mertens’ Soft Verdict headed off in an intellectual direction, gradually morphing as Mertens’ tidy compositions became more minimalist. Comparisons with Philip Glass and Michael Nyman were often made. A highpoint came when his music was featured in Peter Greenaway’s “Belly of an Architect”.
At the same time, he was recording solo albums of piano and voice. Although they derived from his repetitive/minimalist experiences, they were also more overtly melodic. The latest release, “Der Heisse Brei”, which he was showcasing at the Galeries, is his finest to date. “The melodic aspect of my music has always been there,” he says in his polite and slightly formal tone. “Even though it wasn’t obvious in the beginning. It’s true, this album is like a collection of lieder, a song cycle if you will. But melody has always been a part of my work.”
Mertens sings in an odd high-pitched voice. There are no recognisable lyrics, although the songs all have German titles. “It’s something I started on the ‘Vergessen’ album,” he says. “Today, I improvised a number of lines in French and German. The piano is also a percussive instrument, which often evokes certain words for me.” The choice of returning to piano and voice is a result of his other work. “After touring and recording with the group, I felt the need to come back to what I am,” he says. “It’s a way of dotting the ‘I’s for me.”