Name: Ensemble Emoción
Members: Joris Laenen (composer, pianist, trumpet player), Ferdinand Schaefer (percussionist), Christoph Schmitz (cellist) und Patrizia Ports (violin), Sevine Abi Aad (vocalist)
Nationality: Belgium (Joris Laenen), French-Lebanese (Sevine Abi Aad) German (Ferdinand Schaefer), Peruvian (Patrizia Ports), Venezuelan (Christoph Schmitz)
Current release: Emoción's debut album Open Your Eyes is out now and available directly from their website.
If you enjoyed this interview with Ensemble Emoción, visit their official website for everything you always wanted to know about them.
Can you please tell us a bit about your own sense of identity – and how it motivated you to take an artistic path?
Joris (from Belgium): Two years ago, I was having dinner with my godmother. Whilst speaking about our past, she mentioned at one point that I'd once said as a kid that Belgium was too small for me and I really wanted to go and explore the world. I admit it sounds a bit arrogant but I have to say it’s a big part of my identity. I’ve always been a cosmopolitan, interested in different cultures, different people and different styles of music. My wife is South Korean, I live in Qatar and am currently visiting my family in law in New York. I have friends from all over the world and all of that was made possible thanks to my career in music.
But perhaps my biggest motivation came during my teenage years. Back then, I felt most at ease with other kids that played music. We shared the same ideas, the same passion, and just had a fantastic time together. I felt people in that particular environment were always more open-minded than the kids in school and that was so much more interesting to me.
What really changed me though, was when I got to go on tour with the European Union Youth Orchestra. A six-week journey all across Europe, playing concerts in the most amazing concert halls with young adults from 27 different countries. That’s something that changes you. For me it felt like coming home.
In which way do you feel your identity concretely influences your creativity?
Ferdi (from Germany): I must admit, my cultural identity and background as a German (and classical musician) has influenced my creativity in rather a negative way. I want to do everything 150% correct. I am very critical with my performance and my skills. Writing music or being creative in general is about trying new things and crossing and pushing boundaries and I have the feeling that my identity / background didn’t really help.
On the other hand, my identity describes my role in the ensemble quite well. I like to keep things under control, but from the background. Even though I am a percussionist, I’m not a loud person that likes to be at the centre of attention and I think all this is clearly visible in my playing within the ensemble.
You met as members of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. Tell me about that orchestra a bit, please. Assuming you moved to Qatar, how has that changed your life and your perspectives?
Ferdi (from Germany): Moving to Qatar made me realize how German I was. In Germany, I was used to things being planned way ahead in time with a clear (and often inflexible) system behind everything. That’s something I was always complaining about. Yet, moving to Qatar made me see the benefits in this. I started to appreciate a lot of little things I never cared or thought about, public transport for example. But also, more ‘deep’ things such as sick pay or pregnancy pay. Living here makes you realize the high standard we have in Germany without appreciating it.
I also realized how arrogant and judgmental we often behave towards the Arab world. We have very little knowledge and too many prejudices regarding how life in this part of the world actually is and what is going on here.
In the Ensemble Emoción, five different personalities from five different countries are playing five different instruments. What does this clash of identities look like in your creative process – from composing and selecting the pieces to rehearsing them up until the moment you're performing them on stage?
Joris (from Belgium): In all honesty, we rarely clash during our creative process. We see our different backgrounds as our super-power. I do most of the composing and write the arrangements so I mostly take the lead during rehearsals but everyone pitches in with their own ideas according to their strengths. So basically, I come up with a starting idea, but then it becomes a work-in-progress where everyone with their own cultural identity weighs in. It’s like everyone brings a huge suitcase to a rehearsal, filled with their experience and we tap into those experiences to enrich the music.
Don’t get me wrong, we sometimes have very fierce discussions during rehearsals but that’s mostly because we feel so strongly about the music we make and want to get it absolutely right!
What do you still remember about the recording of your new album Open Your Eyes?
Joris (from Belgium): It was a labour of love. Labour because we recorded around 20 different tracks. Only 13 of those made it onto the final album but it was a lot of work getting all of them up to the standard which we wanted to. On top of that a lot of the tracks we recorded, are technically very demanding and therefore it took a lot of energy during the recording sessions. The slower tracks are so emotionally charged that they demand a different approach. But since we give our best in every take, we felt pretty drained afterwards. That’s where the love kicks in. We live and breathe this kind of music, and love what we do … so the reward at the end is immense.
I remember after recording the last track in Cologne (which was our opening track ‘Open Your Eyes’) we just felt like we had climbed an enormous mountain, so the release of emotions was immense. We cracked open a bottle of champagne, and just sat there exhausted, listening to the track. It was all worth it!
You're singing in multiple languages on Open Your Eyes. What are your thoughts on the idea of music as a universal language – and where words can add to it and where they can be obstacles?
Sevine (from Lebanon): They say that when you can't put words to what you're feeling, say it with a song. Man played music before he invented written language, so it's no surprise that music is a universal language. Especially when it comes to expressing emotions and stories common to just about anyone around the world (heartbreak, loss, loneliness, joy, celebration, love in all its forms and stages ...).
I don't view words as an obstacle in any way. If you're complementing a musical piece with lyrics, no matter the language they're in, they are there to add an extra layer, extra dimension to the message, they help translate and structure the intention of the piece in people's minds and hearts.
One thing I do find tricky, though, is writing lyrics to music that's already been composed. Here is where one language might have an advantage over another as some languages have a richer musical vocabulary to choose from when laying them down in harmony with the notes and overall arrangement.
The same goes for the way these words are sung, depending on the language chosen. Indeed, the same song will sound completely different when you hear it in different languages (case in point: we wrote "Milonga para Sonja" in 3 languages, and we decided to publish the Spanish version because for some reason, it 'sounded better', though it's lovely in French and English as well).
I think it has everything to do with the way each language, when spoken and especially, when sung, will call for the use of different sets of muscles, tongue and larynx position, making the 'caisse de résonance' or 'vocal sound box' if you will, all the more rich and versatile, and it will produce a very particular colour, vibrancy and intention from a vocals point of view.
In any case, it's definitely fun to experiment and offer variety to the audiences we play for. Living and performing in cosmopolitan cities, we're bound to have listeners from different parts of the world, so we love the idea of being able to offer a bit of something for everyone with our repertoire.
Art can be an expression or celebration of identity, but it can also be an effort to establish new ones or break free from them. How would you describe your own approach in this regard? How has working together in this group changed you not just as musicians, but as human beings?
Joris (from Belgium): Most of us in the group come from a very classical background. We studied classical music at top universities in Germany and our dream was always to play in a big symphony orchestra. We were all very lucky to achieve that dream, but like with all goals, once you reach them you want more.
I personally love playing in a big philharmonic orchestra. It’s an indescribable feeling being part of this enormous instrument, playing some of the greatest artworks of the past few centuries. But, artistically you don’t have a lot of wiggle room. The management decides on what repertoire gets played and the conductor gets to decide on the interpretation. So you become a bit more of an interpreter rather than an artist.
For me, Emoción gave me a space to create. It started with writing my own arrangements, but soon I got a taste for more and started writing my own music. It changed me as a human being as I started looking differently at the world. Before, I was mostly consuming, taking part and interpreting the world. I can be in awe of beautiful architecture, amazing literature or even a fantastic piece of technology. All of these things were created by someone. And being part of Emoción made me realise in my own small way I can also contribute to the world and create something new.
Your pieces are not necessarily political, but the constellation of the ensemble does seem to be so. Do you see Emoción as a sort of a cell for change in some respects?
Patrizia (from Peru/Germany): In fact, we have a political song. It’s not on our new album, but last year we spontaneously recorded a video for ‘Black Lives Matter‘ and received tremendous feedback. That was pretty shocking, but also interesting. We learned from it and we still stand by it. And I think we should do more.
How, do you feel, can music contribute to a society capable of dealing with different identities in a more positive way?
Patrizia (from Peru/Germany): Music allows us as musicians and, at its best, the audience, to enter a higher dimension. Where everything is limitless and free, where there is no judging, no being separated from race, class, gender etc ... Where we are one. All together we enjoy the music in all facets of the emotions and are at peace. With yourself and everyone around us.