Mink Steekelenburg can go in all directions, and so he will. Under the moniker Winterdagen, the Rotterdam composer makes neoclassical piano music, but also flirts with techno and other electronica. He regularly joins forces with cellists, violinists and guitarists, but also with visual artists. And it is precisely at the busiest moments that he finds the patience to create his most layered works. “I find neoclassical piano music becomes boring quite quickly.”
Written by: Loulou Kuster & Dirk Baart
Photos: Kamiel Scholten
December 31, 2015, the clock is approaching midnight. People are indulging in their New Year's Eve celebrations. The champagne is taken from the fridge and outside the first fireworks take to the skies. But Mink Steekelenburg, the mastermind behind Winterdagen, is not involved yet. He sits at the piano, working away on a piece of music. 'In here, it's quiet' is the title of the composition, which finally saw the light of day last April. It’s a minimalist work, so quiet that the mechanics of Steekelnburg's piano can still be heard. Every now and then it seems as if a flare flies by, very far away. “The composition is about coming to a moment of rest”, says Steekelenburg in an attempt to explain why he was still releasing 'In here, it's quiet' five years later. “It's about closing things off and just being yourself. I think that's something people can get hope from, especially now that everything is completely turned upside down."
'Westerkerk – b e m version', a recent track that served as a harbinger for Winterdagen's new EP Phase In, was also created in an environment in which Steekelenburg himself had to look for peace. The composition was created in the church of the same name in Terschelling during the Oerol festival, where Winterdagen gave an audiovisual performance for ten days in a row, in which images of a wintry Terschelling were projected onto the walls. During those performances, 'Westerkerk' was created piece by piece, as an ode to the place that managed to calm down even large audiences effortlessly. “The song also sounds very much like that place to me,” Steekelenburg analyses. “A church can have something very sad, but this church doesn't have that at all. It is a small wooden church, very fine and light, not as gray as a normal church.” Just like 'In here, it's quiet', 'Westerkerk' does indeed have something comforting. Something hopeful, even.
These are qualities that are, of course, quickly attributed to the work of composers who, like Steekelenburg, create neoclassical music, for lack of a better word. To that of Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds and Steekelenburg’s compatriot Joep Beving, to name a few. The popular playlists in which their work is collected are often full of sweet beauty, ideal for playing as background music while working or studying. Fortunately, composers in the neoclassical genre also increasingly dare to demand attention. They intersperse their piano music with electronic influences and look for the edges a bit more. Winterdagen is no exception to this development. In fact, musical experimentation is an important part of the project. Just listen to 'Up North', the last track from Phase In. It's an ominous composition. Cold and dark, inspired by the forests in the far north of Scandinavia where Steekelenburg himself has never been. Or to 'Clearing', a work in which Steekelenburg displays his talent for musical flourishing and decay. “It is quite a small and simple piano piece, but secretly more and more layers are added. Those layers then decay, to make way for the blossoming of the song.” It is a song that, like no other, betrays Steekelenburg's love for melancholic techno and house. Producers such as Jon Hopkins, Oneothrix Point Never and Max Cooper are at least as great a source of inspiration for Winterdagen as the pianists mentioned above. Recently, Steekelenburg recorded a solo version of 'Canone Infinito', a recent production by Lorenzo Senni, the experimental Italian who specializes in hard techno and pointillist trance. In his sets for the Rotterdam online radio station Operator, Steekelenburg mixes ambient, electronics and classical music.
Steekelenburg is a musician who doesn't care about genres, who doesn't necessarily have to find the perfect sound, but who mainly approaches Winterdagen as a playground. One moment, he swings towards one sound, the next moment he slides off the other. As far as he's concerned, the possibilities are endless. It is an attitude that ensures that Steekelenburg is sometimes met with incomprehension. “I had approached some labels for the record we made of the performance at Oerol,” he says. “But the labels I work with when I make neoclassical piano music said, 'Dude, this isn't neoclassical piano music at all! We can't publish this.'” For now, Steekelenburg can laugh at those kinds of reactions. “Recently a girl came to me after a concert. "Hey, you're Mink from Winterdagen, aren't you?" she asked. "I've seen you play a few times and the last time you were doing all sorts of electronic stuff. Then I thought: what are you doing?' I don't even realize that people come to my shows with certain expectations.”
The way in which Steekelenburg – also a member of the Rotterdam krautrock band Smudged – broadens the musical horizon of Winterdagen is by entering into collaborations with other artists. In 2018, for example, he worked on a track from the Danish-German-Icelandic project VIL and the British techno producer The Mountain Howl made his own version of Winterdagen's 'Grenzeloze Rotterdammers II' a year earlier.
In the permanent line-up of Winterdagen, Steekelenburg performs together with bassist and guitarist Martijn Eikenhout and violinist Jaap Rovers. But other than that, there are no fixed elements: the trio thrives on improvisation. Of course preparations are made, but rehearsing the same piece a hundred times in the same way? No, that doesn't fit the project. Steekelenburg is a firm believer in variation. “When we had to play the same piece ten times in a row at Oerol, I noticed that it got better technically. But improvisation makes music more exciting, both for me and for the people who listen to it. If I want to learn things, I will of course practice it, but I like the challenge of playing differently every time.”
“I want to make music that sounds new to my ears.”
Improvisation also formed the basis of Steekelenburg's collaboration with visual artist Iris Woutera, which eventually resulted in a four-hour performance commissioned by the Centre Pompidou in Paris. For four hours, visitors could walk in and out and watch dancers move through the space in Woutera's sculptures of clothing. Steekelenburg's music formed the soundtrack. “Of course we rehearsed a lot, because you have to feel each other well in such a performance,” Steekelenburg explains. “But the strength of what we've done has been in improvisation.”
For Phase In, the long-awaited first EP from Winterdagen, Steekelenburg found a partner in cellist and producer Maarten Vos. In recent years, Vos has worked with Colin Benders (also known as Kyteman), Remy van Kesteren and scenographer Nick Verstand, among others, but as a member of the Blazing Suns project, he also created an audiovisual club experience. Together with Vos, Steekelenburg dove into Kytopia, the breeding ground under the inspiring leadership of Colin Benders, until recently situated in former Utrecht pop venue Tivoli Oudegracht. “It's big, you have a lot of different spaces,” explains Steekelenburg. “That's where we made the recordings. For example, there are several pianos and old tape recorders in the building, and each room provides different effects.” Vos plays the cello and modular synthesizer, ensuring that every composition on Phase In sounds particularly layered. That analog phaser, the inspiration for the EP’s name, also came in handy for that. “All those layers are sometimes subtly and sometimes less subtly incorporated into the music. Even if you barely hear them, they still keep things exciting. Neoclassical music is often a small and simple piece of piano, but I find that easily boring. I like making something that sounds new to my ears, so I try to make that too. This is the first time that has actually happened.”
The EP Phase In will be released on May 29 via 1631 Recordings.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.