31 May '23 - blog / Collab

Behind the collaboration: A talk with composer Jac van Exter and podcast maker Lieselot Mariën about White Out

Lieselot Mariën and Jac van Exter are currently working on the documentary White Out, created for Oorzaken Festival and the podcast DOCS by Dutch broadcast station NTR in collaboration with Buma Music In Motion. The documentary will see the light with a live session in front of an audience on 3 June. During the premiere, they will tell the story of Sam and Maarten, who have different lives but find each other in-between spaces of a white out, a phenomenon where the light obliterates everything. After the play, they’ll do a Q&A session with Martin Rombouts. 

Could you explain what White Out is about? And how it came about and where it started?

Lieselot Mariën: ‘The people from Oorzaken had asked if I wanted to make a play. I knew it would be with Jac and based around the theme of the festival: opposites. Suddenly there was this idea of, on the one hand, a polar explorer making a journey through Antarctica and, therefore, very much an explorer, and, on the other, someone struggling with depression. I think there is a lot more overlap in those things than you would think. This offers a lot of room for music and sound design. The piece is about how when you are at the South Pole, where the story takes place, you can have weather conditions there such that you see white all around you. The sky is white, the snow is white, and there is fog, so you can’t see the horizon. The sky is as white as the snow. There is no holding back at all. That image of that white out is also an image that Maarten, who has struggled with depression, very much recognizes because that is also an experience in which all your structure, certainties, and anchor points disappear.’

She continues: ‘Two characters in the play look back on something; I knew it would take an extra layer to make the story feel alive again. I mainly looked at Jac for that.’ Van Exter: ‘We are still in the middle of the music-making process now. We had a few calls with the editors of NTR and Oorzaken.’ Mariën:

‘I liked it when I first wrote down the initial idea, Jac immediately mentioned what captured his imagination in his response. That gave me a lot of confidence because he immediately mentioned the same things I had sensed myself.’


Van Exter adds: ‘And then I thought, okay, we have a theme and framework. We’re going to do it! That felt like a huge luxury position to me. Only now, it’s my turn. We haven’t agreed to much yet with each other, which I also like. I feel that we give each other the freedom we need and know it will be fine. You also have to be enormously vulnerable to work together.’ 

‘There is just something very vulnerable in the process when you are still getting to know each other and haven’t seen each other yet,’ Mariën continues. ‘You’re working together, and so you’re meant to see the inside of each other’s process, but there’s something incredibly vulnerable about sharing something you know isn’t right yet.’ Her musical buddy Van Exter agrees: ‘The nice thing is that for music, it’s quite easy because you usually meet up with someone, and then you can tweak things very quickly. But, because that distance is there now, you have to come up with something good very quickly.’ He refers to the fact that the two creators live in different cities. ‘We’re a good match but not yet done with the work.’ Mariën: ‘We stepped out of our comfort zone in any case.’ Van Exter: Sending the drafts is very good, though. Because only that will get you ahead.’

No orientation

The story is about a landscape where for a moment, you don’t know what is above and below and what is before and after. Disorientation is essential here. You then try to convert that into music, so there is no orientation in rhythms or sounds, for instance. That’s where the disorientation is. The wind also plays a vital role as a sound effect. The sounds go from left to right, so the piece is about the formation of sounds as well. It becomes a soundscape,’ says Van Exter. Lieselot Mariën adds: ‘That’s the only thing we said to each other beforehand. And from what I have already had the opportunity to hear, I think he has translated that beautifully. In a way, the story is about a kind of in-between space that comes about. There are two stories: the story of Sam, who is a Polar traveler, alongside the story of Maarten, who struggles with depression. There is a space between them, an experience they both know. That space is a space that does not exist in Sam’s story because he is in Antarctica. And that space does not exist in Maarten’s story either because he is in his room, but by weaving those two stories together, something new gets created. A place that is both places, in one of them simultaneously. Normally, you record scenes, and those scenes have background sounds, and you hear clear actions. But this space has to be created in a certain and non-classical way. That’s really what Jac lifted to a new level, where the piece feels much more alive.’

Van Exter: ‘The sound can be dominant sometimes. Again, you don’t want to make it too dramatic, pathetic, depressing, or light-hearted. Because it’s such a raw story, I also started looking for sounds that were self-recorded or self-sampled as much as possible. I just started banging on all kinds of things, turning things over, and I recorded things through a cassette. It helps that there isn’t a clear beginning and end to the sound. I usually work with snare instruments, but they have an obvious beginning. You have to pick at it, you have to hit it, and then sometimes you just have it. Now I’m avoiding that way of working. The cassette tape is now becoming an instrument of itself because you can make a grittiness with it. I also started making a lot of wind. So I found a lot of layers of wind,’ he laughs. And that wind is significant in the story, says Lieselot Mariën: ‘In Antarctica, that’s the only sound there is. Otherwise, it’s completely empty of sound.’

A live performance of the piece is coming up on 3 June. So what can people expect when they visit on 3 June?

Van Exter: ‘It will be an outstanding experience to listen to a podcast together in a hall because that is usually something individual and personal. It will be my first time at such a music festival.’

His colleague Mariën adds: ‘We’re including images by an excellent Belgian photographer, Geert Goiris. The images are almost completely white, including polar and snowy landscapes. We will also integrate those into the live session.’

Van Exter adds: ‘I’ve heard that if you put white noise on your headphones and then close your eyes, you also become disoriented after a while. So I hope we can give that experience to people as well.’

Get your tickets here.