“a celebration of different musical projects” | Interview with Balder ten Cate

Balder ten Cate’s album Lifelines is a long voyage through different traditions, instruments you rarely hear, colors and sounds. Filled with numerous collaborations, it can be the journey you did not do this summer. Read our discussion with the artist below.

Describe your sound in three words

In my gigs as a performing musician, a lot of the music that I play is upbeat, high energy, Balkan music that is good for dancing. And while there are definitely some such tracks on the album, on the other hands, many tracks are more laid back and reflective. Looking back, this is really reflects how they came about. Most of the tracks were recorded as remote-collaborations, as ways for my musician friends and me to stay connected and create things together during the pandemic while we were all stuck at home. Listening back to the album now, I can really feel how, from a distance, we are all holding each other in a tender embrace. Many of the tracks also involved taking a traditional song and de-constructing it to its core, by slowing it down and really sinking deep into it. Finally, the instrumentation involves traditional eastern european instruments (cimbalom, cobza, panflute) that I feel to be very atmospheric and evocative. So, in summary, the 3 words I would pick are reflective, embracing, and evocative.

Your album ‘lifelines’ is a blend of music from different places and traditions. Tell us a few things about you and also the main idea behind this album.

I grew up in a musical family in the Netherlands, and all through my childhood was exposed a lot to music from eastern Europe and the Balkans. I used to perform a lot with my parents when I was young. When I grew older, I got busy with other things, but after I moved to the US (about 12 years ago), through a series of events, I met a lot friends with a similar musical background, to the point where I would now say that I owe most of my close friends and social circle here to shared interest in this music. I actively started playing again about 6 years ago, and it is now a big part of my life.
The San Francisco Bay Area is unique in the way that different styles of traditional music from eastern Europe all the way through the middle east are cherished, and also blend into each other through a large shared community (both audience and performers). I guess this started in the 70s and is also intertwined with the history of international folk dance here.
As a consequence I ended up being part of many different musical projects, and the album is really a reflection of that. Each track is the result of a different collaboration, involving different people and different styles of music. I see the album as a celebration of all the different musical projects that I got to be a part of here, as well as the friendships that resulted from them or led to them. (By the way, my trio with my parents, being my very first musical collaboration in life, is featured on one track too).

Has the Covid -19 pandemic affected your work process in a positive or a negative way?

Of course my life as a performing musician has suffered from the pandemic, and there have been many frustrating moments, cancelled opportunities, etc.
However, this album is truly a product of the pandemic, and would not have existed in this form without it. So, I am very thankful for that.
Since most tracks were recorded through remote collaboration, distance became less of an issue, and for example, one of the tracks (Aidinikos) was a collaboration between myself and an wonderful accordionist (Aydin) who lives in Athens, and if it wasn’t for the pandemic we might never have ended up working together.

Which track of the album represents you the most?

This is a really hard question to answer because of the diversity in the album. I really think that the diversity itself is also representative of me as a musician. If I have to give you an answer now it would be Ay Lachin. Unlike most other tracks, this was essentially an unedited live recording that we made spontaneously. We got together for what was probably 2 or 3 hours in the singer’s living room, and, without having every played together before, managed to record this. It was very proud of the result, especially given how it came about.

Is songwriting a talent or a skill?

Before I answer this question, I have to say that none of the tracks on this album is completely an original: the tracks are arrangements (even if often quite radical re-arrangements) of existing (traditional) material. For my next album, I do plan to focus on originals. That said, I don’t believe so much in talent as a biological, born ability; I do think that upbringing and early exposure play an important role, and I think that it helps to be trained musically in a manner where there is a continuous spectrum from composition and songwriting to performance. Traditional music from those parts of the world that we are talking about here, is very much of that nature, and it can be hard to tell where lies exactly the difference between improvisation, arrangement, and composition.

What would you change in the music industry?

Of course, the obvious answer is that musicians need to be paid properly. However, maybe it is more interesting to think from a cultural change perspective: people have shorter and shorter attention spans and are more and more visual-driven. This is not only unhealthy in general but it also makes it harder for musicians to create something really meaningful, deep and impactful. Especially during the pandemic this is very visible because so many shows were online and one is forced to change the performance concept to accomodate the fact that people are easily distracted while watching online, split there attention with other activities etc. This is why live concerts are so important, and we all need to reflect on how we can counter this cultural change.

Your music could work as a score for a film in the type of ‘Underground’ by Emir Kusturica. If you were asked to rescore a film, which one would you choose?

Of course I grew up on Kusturica movies and I love them a lot. I like atmospheric and invocative movies as well, and I love how the pan flute is used in Picnic at Hanging Rock for example. The cimbalom has that evocative quality as well, and I would love to exploit this more. Finally, there is all that crazy fast Romanian and Serbian (kolo) music that I also love, which tends to be very comical and would fit so well under, say, a looney tunes cartoon. The “Hora Lautareasca” track on the album is an example of this.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

My musical progression has been very fluid, triggered by many random opportunities and connections that led me from one thing to another, and I have always been very driven by curiosity and the pleasure of playing with people that I like and admire. So, I am not sure I would have very concrete advice. I do wish that I had been instilled with more discipline for structured practice.

Thank you!

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