"We must dare to move forward and convince the public"
In times of crisis, you have to invest. That's what the badly hit music venues, the AB and Botanique, are doing. Investing in musicians, by setting up residencies and production support for their new projects. Also, investing in the audience by resuming concerts under safe conditions.
As long as we're dancing with the virus, there will be no dancing in our concert halls. Nevertheless, our big concert halls have resumed their programme over the last few weeks. In the Botanique, concerts of Pomme, Smino and L Divine have been cancelled or postponed, but you can still watch excellent artists such as Blu Samu (23/10), Les Marquises (31/10), Mademoiselle K (7/11), Ben Watt (10/11), Tim Dup (3/12), or Individual Friends (16/12) this autumn.
In the AB there are also ABnormal times. This autumn, the concerts of De Mens, Wim Mertens, 30 years of Channel Zero, and Tindersticks were cancelled. You can, however, get tickets for School is Cool (17/10), Brihang (24/10), An Pierlé Quartett (27/10) and even Spinvis (25/11) and Ellen Ten Damme (12/12) from the Netherlands, or Sorry (4/12) from London.
In our conversation with Botanique director Paul-Henri Wauters and AB artistic director, Kurt Overbergh, we don't dwell too long on the suffering of the past but look ahead to what is possible in the coming weeks.
Kurt Overbergh, AB artistic director: “The scheduling nightmare, the financial hit, the freelancers you have to let go: that's the real suffering. . “Our sector employs 80,000 people, including first and foremost artists who give the most individualistic expression to their most individual emotion. After 22 years of AB that still gives me a blissful feeling, but in March, in the space of a couple of days, it was snatched away from us. In the first weeks and months after that we were still postponing and rescheduling events, but in the end we were not able to put an artist on stage for six months. We're going to feel the repercussions of this for another two years. Only then will we be back to a normal programme rhythm that's in line with current events."
“The scheduling nightmare, the financial hit, the freelancers you have to let go: that's the real suffering."
Yet for some time now we have begun to see bright spotlights again at the end of the tunnel.
K.O: "At AB we decided fairly quickly that we didn't want to look back next year and see how we spent the entire autumn of 2020 in the dark. We want to be able to look back with pride on the beautiful things we can still achieve, and invest in the future. For example, by having a lot of artists do residencies with us, now that we have stepped out of the rat race a little. That means we're going to dedicate time and resources to musicians by giving them a place here in-house, but also by providing all possible technical, artistic and promotional support to help prepare their productions. Echo Collective, a group on the border of classical and pop that originated here in AB, is going to work with a video artist. The Brussels-based group Hi Hawaii - which, like Stuff and Schntzl, is on De Werf Records - wanted to do something with horns and strings. They thought it wouldn’t be possible, but we want to make that dream come true by letting them perform with a sextet. Soprano Astrid Stockman is going to make the flash opera Salome with Colin H, the front man of Amenra. With the non-profit Voetvolk of choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez and music magician Maarten Van Cauwenberghe we will also co-produce and present a new creation. By the end of October, that should be fully rolled out. All in compliance with the fair practice rules on payment."
In the meantime, AB has also reopened its doors for some time now, for around fifty or sixty corona-proof concerts under the name 'ABNORMAL'.
K.O.: "Of course, the original autumn programme wasn't ideal with all those changes. There's also no point in booking a techno DJ today. In the ABNORMAL programme we were able to let the artistic focal points shine through. We have been investing in the young jazz movement for a couple of years now and we will continue to do so with Commander Spoon (10/11), Paard (15/11) and Schnitzl for example. By programming the Salon Concerts in the ABClub we can also highlight our strong focus on electronics and improvisation. But the most important component of these ABNORMAL concerts is the artists, thanks to whom our venue exists. This programme gives them somewhere to work, and every euro that comes in goes to them as far as possible."
"This was followed by a round of applause that our calm Belgian audience normally doesn’t give until the second encore."
What has been Overbergh’s experience of the first ABNORMAL concerts? "Of course, you're faced with a lot of artificial rules. At a normal concert, it's easy to talk to old acquaintances or strangers, and now none of that is possible. But I noticed that when I announced the first concert after the lockdown, that of Blanche, the audience started cheering as soon as I pronounced the word 'accueillir'. This was followed by a round of applause that our calm Belgian audience normally doesn’t give until the second encore. It was a swirling wave of warmth that made it almost impossible for me to get my words out. In the meantime, I've attended several concerts and the gratitude of the audience and artists is so great that we know we've made the right decision. My predecessor Jari De Meulemeester always talked about the take away effect of what we offer. You make people dream and let them take home a piece of happiness."
At the Botanique Les Nuits Botanique runs until 17 October. Immediately after the first Security Council that enacted the lockdown in March, it was decided to postpone the festival that was about to happen until now.
Paul-Henri Wauters, director of Botanique: "From the beginning, we did everything we could to reschedule all the concerts. . For many artists from abroad this did not work out. Due to threatening quarantines and the difficulty of getting quick tests it was difficult to make commitments. But overall, all Belgian bands have been given a new date."
For Les Nuits, the Botanique even had access to stages in its own park and in the Church of Laeken. The capacity of the Rotunda was reduced from 130 to about 60 places. The Orangerie's from 330 to 160 - 200. And despite the practical concerns, the Botanique will continue to sell concert tickets after Les Nuits. "People show a lot of resilience," says Wauters, "but corona has kept them out of the halls for a long time. So you have to reactivate that resilience, and we can only do that by organising concerts, in whatever way we can. I have always argued this during the video conferences we held within our sector. If you wait until everything is really cool to be able to organise carefree concerts, you'll have to wait until somewhere in the spring of 2021, which could endanger the summer festivals again.
"The audience is increasingly in the mood for live performances, which we have to offer on a small scale."
When, on September 13th, our first concert was scheduled, with Halehan, I was actually about to postpone it. But in the end, we made it happen. He played three concerts on the same day, for a total of more than 300 people. It was a very positive experience for both the artist and the audience. Everyone obeyed the rules, and the release was great. Just like after the terrorist attacks, you feel more emotional. The audience is increasingly in the mood for live performances, which we have to offer on a small scale. If the media also shows the way back to the halls again, then we can achieve our first successes. We'll have to continue to adapt to the virus, but quitting is not an option."
In addition to concerts, following the successful summer residencies, the Botanique is organising a new series of autumn residencies for artists such as Blu Samu, Esinam, Bombataz, Charlène Darling, Nicolas Michaux, River into Lake, SKY H1 and YellowStraps. "We were already building a new sound studio with the Botanique in our former cinema that is no longer in use. That studio will be finished by the end of this year, but we bought the equipment early so our summer residents could already work with it. Those were sixteen bands who each spent three days in-house and each performed a live stream at the end. We have now decided to welcome eight new residents during the autumn, who will end their stay with a live stream and a mini-concert for the public"
Not that Wauters expects an explosion of masterpieces and events once corona is behind us. "I hear the studios have a lot of work with recordings. But when we postponed everything from the spring, we also thought that we would have too much to offer in the autumn. This has certainly not yet been the case and the audience is still hesitant. Most of all an artist wants to launch a new project under good conditions..."
"A positive result of Covid is that contacts with colleagues in the music industry have been strengthened."
A positive result of Covid is that contacts with colleagues in the music sector have been strengthened, which also facilitates consultation with the government. Consultations are taking place across the language border, and on the French-speaking side, all festival organisers have now even united. Has Wauters learned anything for the future from the whole situation? "How sometimes you have to move forward without asking yourself too many questions. The progress of the pandemic is very erratic. In the thirty years that I've worked in the sector, I've never experienced still waiting for a permit three days before a concert. So we have to show the necessary humility and always keep asking ourselves whether the decisions we make are the right ones. But sometimes we have to dare to move forward without knowing exactly where we’re going."
Kurt Overbergh was promotion manager at Rough Trade and founder of the music magazine RifRaf. He is a DJ, record collector and a judge at Humo's Rock Rally. He joined AB in 1997 and became artistic director in 2000.
Paul-Henri Wauters is a pianist, musicologist, philosopher and cultural anthropologist. He first worked for the French community and in 1988 switched to the Botanique where he was initially programmer and now director.