Mertens, born in 1953 in the north Limburg border town of Neerpelt, embraced music when he was eight. “Literally, even, since I started with the guitar, an instrument you can take into your arms,” he says. “It’s an ideal instrument to start with: not too dominant, adapting to the body of an eight-year old, very different from the piano.”
Uncertainty paralysed him at 18, when he had to choose the direction in which he would steer his life. “It was a huge crisis,” he recalls. “Between eight and 18, I’d been involved with music very intensively. Literally on a daily basis: guitar, piano, music theory and history, you name it. Logically, after high school I would have gone straight to the Brussels or Antwerp Conservatory.”
But his piano teacher Didine Geens felt there was more to the boy than music. “She lent me books about art, history and so on. I started to realise that music – and other art forms, too – change throughout history, and suddenly I was really interested in what elements caused those changes.”
Music training, he says, didn’t at that point provide answers to those questions. “And I think it still doesn’t. That’s probably why music is so conservative – because you can only pass on what you know.”
So, he says, he was looking for other answers. For two years he even stopped playing music, but then the urge became too strong. “While I was still studying in Leuven, two mornings a week I travelled to Brussels to follow some theoretical courses. After receiving my degree in political and social sciences, I went on to study musicology. First in Leuven, where at the time they focused heavily on early music, and afterwards at Ghent University, at the Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music.”
There he wrote a Master’s thesis about American minimal music, a style that has clearly influenced him. “This music told me there were still new territories to explore, that we didn’t have to run aground in musical sterility.”
A rhetorical question follows. “You know what the problem was? The Second World War had led to such a disastrous situation that no composer dared to work intuitively any more. They fell back on serial work and rational compositions.”
Intuition, on the other hand, is highly important to Mertens’ work. “That’s how my music germinates: par chance sans effort.” French for “fortunately, effortlessly”, it’s also the title of one of his older compositions.
“Coincidence implies risks,” he continues. “After this fortunate, effortless start, the real working process begins: the practicalities for a new production, recording with the musicians, orchestrating the music. But the moment of the discovery is ‘given without givenness’. It’s free, and you have to leave it free. This has always been very important to me. It’s a way of escaping the purely rational.”
At one point, Mertens calls Charaktersketch a symphonic work without a symphonic orchestra. “I don’t make music with epic dimensions,” he says. “I’ve never written an opera or a symphony. I’m looking for the power of smaller compositions.”
From the start, he says, “I worked outside the existing musical organisations, to assume an independent position towards a dominant recording industry. Now this kind of attitude is commonly accepted, but back then, it was unusual.”
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