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Ensemble Black Pencil
|About Black Pencil||Musicians||Projects||Video|
The virtuosic ensemble BLACK PENCIL was founded in 2010. The ensemble’s debut concert took place in the same year at the prestigious Amsterdam Concertgebouw, followed by the world premieres of several new works at the large-scale festival Istanbul: European Capital of Culture 2010.
The name ‘Black Pencil’ stems from the ensemble’s first project, inspired by a remarkable series of miniatures by the painter Mehmet Siyah Kalem (15th century, presumably of Turkish origin). In English, ‘siyah kalem’ literally translates as ‘black pencil’.
Black Pencil focuses on broad repertoire with new works composed especially for the ensemble, as well as an adventurous range of their own arrangements.
Black Pencil’s performances are characterized by being original, historically informed, fresh and virtuosic, together with a unique instrumentation: blockflute (Jorge Isaac), panflute (Matthijs Koene), viola (Esra Pehlivanli), accordion (Marko Kassl) and percussion (Enric Monfort).
Article in Timbres Magazine, by Jolanda Breur
This is the approach of the future!
Black Pencil ensemble goes for flexibility
Five lone wolves, working together intensively in a remarkable combination: Jorge Isaac on recorder, Matthijs Koene on panflute, Esra Pehlivanli on viola, Marko Kassl on accordion and Enric Monfort on percussion. Flexibility and creativity are a must, when working with such a varied instrumental setting. Black Pencil certainly don’t foresee a problem: “this is the approach of the future!”
In 2010, recorder player Jorge Isaac saw his chance. Istanbul was the European City of Culture, and he was commissioned to produce an artistic project combining Dutch and Turkish culture. Isaac (41) already had an ensemble with panflutist Matthijs Koene (37) in mind: “I knew that the panflute would sound fantastic in combination with the recorder, but there was almost no repertoire.” To compliment this warm sound, he chose the viola, and added the oud as a link to Turkey. Finally, a percussionist completed the quintet.
The project was a success, and invitations for prestigious concert halls began to line up. “We originally thought it would be a one-off project, but we had such a click as an ensemble, and enjoyed working together” remembers Isaac. Black Pencil, the name of a 15th century Turkish painter, is a lasting reminder of their first tour. The oud, however, did not last. “It’s a wonderful instrument, but it has such a specific, non-Western sound. We were looking for more harmony and sound colour.” Eventually the accordion proved to be the perfect fit.
In the workspace of Koene, sunlight from large, high windows on both sides is streaming into a room bursting with instruments. Isaac gives a passionate account of Black Pencil’s thunderous debut. “There was nothing yet written for such a setting, so our job was to inspire the composers.” A lot was required from the composers as well as the musicians. Isaac: “We received challenging pieces that we had to get deep into, exploring the sounds. It was only in rehearsal that we could hear if the combination was going to work.” This artistic cross-fertilisation produces at least one premiere every performance. “It’s a lot of preparation, but it’s brilliant”, the pair find.
“The art lies in both knowing your instrument intimately, and being able to transcend it. It’s not about the recorder, but about the music.” Such an approach requires flexibility and creativity from this unique combination. Tiresome, this is not. “We are five individual personalities, but we work well together” says Koene. “No-one is above listening to critique from the others, and stepping it up a level. There are no egos.”
Eccentric butterfly collectors
One of the composers, Roderik de Man, wrote his first work for Isaac in 2001. This was a hit, and became standard repertoire for the recorder. Since then, composer in residence De Man has written for each member of the ensemble individually. “He is ideal for us; he completely understands the sounds qualities of each instrument.” The fact that his first work for the ensemble did not feature the oud, Isaac describes as ‘prophetic’. “He didn’t feel anything for it, he couldn’t see it working out. And what do you know, by our second project we had replaced the oud with accordion.” Isaac utilises his collaboration with De Man to demonstrate that composers are not always the ‘eccentric butterfly collectors’ that popular opinion would have you believe. “He is 74 years old, but he’s still a member of the gang. He’ll come with us to concerts and stay until 2am drinking with us in the bar. The latest manuscript notation software is no problem. In short, an inspiring example to younger composers.”
After the first adventure of Black Pencil to Turkey, the premise of building upon folk culture was an obvious path. Projects based upon South American folk rhythms, the humour of the commedia dell’arte and Japanese traditional cuisine all found their way into the concert hall. The ensemble did not shy away from implementing video, electronics and even Japanese snacks.
“Contemporary music doesn’t have to be cold or distant”, suggests Matthijs Koene. “We are adventurous with different techniques, and enjoy making the weirdest combinations, in order to make our performances accessible.” Isaac finds that far too many established ensembles have become stuck in the traditional concert practice. “Everyone all dressed in black, the musicians up here and the audience down there.” He resolutely gestures from one end of the room to the other. “Saying ‘We do our thing, you have to listen’: that is arrogance from the last century.” He sees this as unappealing to the new generation, switching between smartphones, the internet and daily life at breakneck speed. “Why not use dry ice on stage? Or make contact with a composer in Japan during the concert, so that he can introduce his piece? Reality, after all, is a multimedia.”
The element of surprise
For the coming five years, Black Pencil aims to remain as versatile as possible. “Multi-purpose musicians, performing for example live jazz, formal contemporary repertoire, or film music”, says Isaac. This will be supported through multiple collaborations with dance and theatre companies. “This is the way of the future, in education as well as the professional realm. You can’t get by only being able to play Beethoven”, explains Isaac, also head of recorder studies at the Amsterdam Conservatory. “Why shouldn’t a professional musician also be good at photography?” He admits that musicians choosing to spend time developing extra-curricular talents, may do so at the cost of musical quality. But this is not so black and white, and depends on the individual. The musicians of Black Pencil are accustomed to elaborate costumes, to chat to the audience and to walk around the space during a concert.
Koene: “If you focus on your craft, you will get better. But by expanding your horizons, your playing may just improve as well. Jorge is very handy with electronics on stage, as well as being a fantastic recorder player. That’s a real bonus. One of us will specialise in programming, another in different musical styles. I’m not sure if even more hours in the practice room would improve your playing in the end. This is time that could be better spent working with a theatre maker, gathering inspiration. There’s no extra contact with your instrument – but you will play better.”
Sometimes such choices come with a price. Ten years ago, upon beginning his studies at the conservatory, Isaac chose for contemporary music. “This was repertoire being created in real time, and I decided to concentrate on this. Indeed, this was at the expense of early music, music that already exists.” Multimedia will remain a feature of Black Pencil, drawing upon the element of surprise. “In five years, we’ll probably think differently about all of this. And that is just fine.”