Corijn’s Covid-19 Recordings
A philosopher and his ukulele
Corijn van Mazijk admits to being a bit of a hypochondriac. That’s probably why, when the corona crisis had only just started and people weren’t taking it entirely seriously yet as they couldn’t quite believe it would actually affect them, he went looking for a place to withdraw. He wanted somewhere as far away from civilisation as he could get in Groningen.
‘It seemed like a good idea to start quarantining now rather than wait for the measures to overwhelm me’, the UG philosopher says. ‘This way it would be my choice and not a restriction. Plus, I’d always wanted to know what it would be like to just withdraw, read some philosophical texts, and make music. To be completely alone.’
He went looking for a place in the middle of nowhere and checked the RIVM website to see if he’d be safe from the virus there. ‘It was pretty much the cleanest place in the Netherlands, which was reassuring.’ He left for the cabin in the woods near Den Andel with some essential clothing items, food for a week, a couple of books on philosophy and Dutch poetry, and a laptop: ‘I’m working on a Dutch book about phenomenology’. But the most important item in his luggage was the ukulele he’d bought just a few months’ prior.
In his total isolation, he taught himself to play the instrument in less than two weeks using the ‘clawhammer’ technique, which involves hitting the strings rather than plucking them. ‘It’s a banjo technique. There are very few people who use that same technique on a ukulele.’ He also wrote a string of songs, capturing his experience in Den Andel with the music. ‘Like little poems about the society of social distance.’
My songs are little poems about the society of social distance
Most people wouldn’t be able to do what he did. Mastering a new instrument usually takes months or even years of practice. But Van Mazijk isn’t like most people. Not only has he been playing guitar since he was fourteen, he’s also mastered the bass, both the five-string and the four-string banjo, the drums, and the piano. If that wasn’t enough, he also sings. ‘Once you’ve figured out a number of string instruments, adding another one isn’t that big of a deal.’
Liberation Day Festival
Once, when he was still a student, Van Mazijk was hard at work making a career in music. ‘I was a singer-songwriter, modelling myself after Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen. I played in Vera, performed at the Liberation Day Festival, and in 2009, I won the national version of music competition Nooduitgang. I loved doing those performances.’
But then, towards the end of his bachelor in communication and information sciences, he burned out. He had an injury to his wrist that prevented him from playing, although he now realises that wasn’t so much the reason he quit as an an excuse. ‘I felt like I had reached the limit of what I could express through pop music. It was too generic. Besides, the more successful you get, the more you have to diminish yourself.’
He rather abruptly decided that this rendered making music useless. ‘I couldn’t see the relevance of it anymore.’
For Van Mazijk, music has always been more than just a hobby or something to while away the time. It expresses a sense of the inadequacy of existence. ‘There is something lacking in life’, he says. ‘I think we can all feel that. Music and art don’t appeal to people unless they understand that somehow, unless they recognise it.’ As long as he was unable to express that in his music, he’d be better off quitting.
There is something lacking in life that we all feel
Fortunately, around that same time, he discovered the power of philosophy, the ‘mother of all sciences’. For him, philosophy carries that same creative power. ‘The largest problems are being tackled in a rational, responsible way rather than an aesthetic one like in music, art, or poetry. But it takes years before you’re able to express yourself properly in that medium.’
He did a second bachelor, got his PhD, and returned to Groningen. There’s a good reason he especially loves philosophers like Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger: ‘People who focused on human experience, using it as a key to find answers to what the world really is.’
Even now, philosophy isn’t a technical game or purely an academic exercise to him. It’s something real and tangible. It may not have ready-made answers, but it can offer solace through the realisation that throughout history, other people tried to give their life meaning by looking for answers.
Ever so slowly, the door he thought he’d closed for good, started to open again. ‘It wasn’t easy’, he says. ‘It was scary to seriously engage with music again. It’s also hard to do something truly good in music.’
The first few songs he wrote were practically sarcastic. Jokes. He now knows that he was just trying to protect himself. ‘If you’re not fully committed, people can’t hurt you with it.’
He picked the banjo, an instrument he had to learn how to play all over again. The five-string instrument necessitated a different posture, a different touch. ‘It’s a bluegrass instrument, and it’s practically ironic’, he says. ‘Just a gimmick in and of itself.’ Nevertheless, it’s also an original and honest instrument with a rich history.
When he looks back at the almost comical music he made on his album Come with Alfa, it’s secretly a lot more serious and true than he originally realised. ‘It’s captured something about that time in my life’, he says. ‘It’s kind of biographical.’
A banjo is a gimmick in and of itself
That’s why the ukulele album he made in Den Andel makes him genuinely happy. It’s a reflection of true and valuable moments that he’s trying to show people without coming across as too pretentious. There’s the icy cold at night, when he was playing his ukulele outside his little house, his fingers getting stiffer by the minute. There’s the track Rainy Day, where you can hear the howling wind and the murmur of the rain. The song Orange Skies, the timing of which, although ridiculously simple, took him forever to get just right, giving it the soul he was looking for. The duck splashing in the water, the bird song in the background.
‘It’s that connection to nature. The isolation, the melancholy.’ It’s a happier album; he no longer has the need for philosophical gloom that he used to have. He found somewhere else to put that.
Translation by Sarah van Steenderen