Harvard Erasmus Lectures II - March 11 2010

 

                            
                                            

Hoketus, ensemble culture in the Netherlands


On the Monday evening concert of the 17th of November 1969, just when conductor Bernard Haitink had lifted up his arms for the first downbeat of the Concerto for Flute by the 18th-century composer Joachim Quantz, the intense and silent concentration that got hold over the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, was suddenly disrupted by alarming noises emanating from the foyer and the hallways. Sounds of whistles, drums, rattles, toy clicking frogs and a sporadic klaxon baffled the soloist Hubert Barwahser and prompted Bernard Haitink to slowly lower his arms again, a gesture that displayed a genuine sadness, which was tangible for the audience. When Haitink turned around to see what was the cause of this turmoil, he saw a group of about forty activists storming into the hall, performing what they proclaimed to be their ‘Notenkrakers-Suite’, the Nutcracker- Suite. The word ‘noot’ in Dutch means both ‘note’ and ‘nut’. The group was led by five composers: Peter Schat, Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg and Jan van Vlijmen. Pamphlets were handed out to the audience and members of the orchestra, stating that the deliberate disturbance of this concert was an act to bring to the attention the deplorable situation of Dutch composers of contemporary music, and their difficulties to have their works performed. With the aid of a megaphone, Peter Schat ‘invited’ conductor Bernard Haitink for a ‘public discussion about the programming policy and the undemocratic organizational structure of the Concertgebouw Orchestra’. The reaction of the audience and orchestra members was of a strongly emotional nature and there was a vehement disapproval of the action of the Nutcrackers, which was considered to be some form of sacrilege. There was however also some hilarity, when the orchestra was accused of being ‘an instrument to defend the interests of the ruling class‘. Some skirmishes and fistfights broke out, and the protesters were evicted with force from the Concertgebouw by stewards and the police. After a brief intermission, the performance of the Quantz Flute Concerto in G major could finally take place, preceded by a long, standing ovation for the orchestra, its conductor and the soloist.

The Nutcracker-action in itself was rather unsuccessful. Afterwards, the unprecedented provocation was condemned by a great number of colleague-composers and musicians. But it was the brazenness and recklessness of the action that was condemned. The ideas that were behind it, could count on a much wider support. So, even though the immediate effects of the manifestation were quite limited, the Nutcracker-action can be seen as a turning point.
It started off a search for alternatives to the established musical practice. New ensembles were being formed, which were to operate on a smaller, project-based scale and with a greater flexibility, in widely diverging, non-standard types of instrumentation. Alternative locations outside the regular concert hall were looked for, in an attempt to reach out to a new, broader audience. And in fact, it was also an attempt to restore the contact between contemporary music and its audience, which largely had been lost. It was not only modern music that was to benefit from this new spirit. The resentment against a concert practice that concentrated on a limited period of barely two hundred years of the musical history, and which repeated itself over and over again, brought forth a movement that focused on the music from before that era. People like flutist Frans Brüggen, now widely renowned with his Orchestra of the 18th Century, and harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt tried to reconstruct and restore a musical practice which had largely been forgotten, thus becoming the frontrunners of the ‘authentic music practice’. In a report from the Dutch ministry of culture from May 1991, it reads : ‘Retrospectively, the Nutcracker-action can be regarded as the start of an ensemble culture which is unique in the Dutch and international musical life.’
The occurrences of November 1969 were the culmination point of a growing sentiment of unease and discomfort, which had been brooding amongst Dutch composers for a number of years. In the first decade after the Second World War had ended, musical life in the Netherlands had recovered with a remarkable speed and resilience, aided by a strong support from the government, and a general desire amongst the people to pick up the course of their lives, and to cherish the newly regained liberty. Contemporary music got its first impulse by Walter Maas, a German of Jewish descent, who had come to the Netherlands as a refugee in 1933 and had lived for most of the war in hiding in a villa in the woods near Bilthoven. The official inhabitant, and the architect of this villa, was Frants Röntgen, the son of the composer Julius Röntgen. After the war had ended, Walter Maas was determined to express his gratitude and to do something in return for the Dutch people who had helped him. He bought the villa, named Huize Gaudeamus, and made it a place where young composers could work and meet and organize concerts. Most of the composers who would later be involved in the Nutcracker-action went there, but also the likes of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Olivier Messsiaen were there, to teach and to find repose in nature. Still today, the Gaudeamus Music Week, in early September, serves as a laboratory for young composers and interpreters of contemporary music. And though performances of Dutch modern music in the 1950’s were numerous and widespread, it was music of a rather conservative and exclusively tonal language that was played on such occasions. The formula which was used, is more or less similar to what I explained in my first lecture: That the Dutch music on the program mainly served as an appetizer, to warm up the audience for the main event after the intermission. And apart from that, composers like Lex van Delden or Guillaume Landré would quite uninhibitedly manifest themselves as the musical establishment, and were not inclined to neglect themselves when it came to commissions and prestigious performances. But for the younger generation of composers, there were few platforms for their work to be heard, apart from the Gaudeamus Music Week. Practically all of the available financial resources went to the institutionalized orchestras.

The growing discomfort regarding this situation led to an open letter in the Algemeen Handelsblad in March 1966 by ‘the Five‘, as the group of young composers now had officially labeled itself. In this letter, they urged the Concertgebouw Orchestra to appoint Bruno Maderna as principle conductor, next to Bernard Haitink. They thought that Maderna eminently was the person to conduct the most modern repertoire with the orchestra, instead of Bernard Haitink, whose affinity with contemporary music was considered to be close to none, and was therefore deemed incompetent. There came no reaction from the Orchestra. Sometime later a public debate was organized, and on this occasion the director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Piet Heuwkemeijer, read a statement which said that more than twenty-five percent of the repertoire performed by the Orchestra, consisted of music composed after 1910. But ‘the Five’ thought this argument to be irrelevant, because this percentage included composers who had deceased a long time ago, such as Bela Bartók and Willem Pijper. To them, it was quintessential that the most current and freshly born music should be performed by a leading institution such as the Concertgebouw Orchestra, in concert programs that were put into a context, and were mixed with works from the general repertoire. The series of Experimental Concerts, which was proposed by the Orchestra, would put contemporary music in an isolated position, and was declined. And while some of the demands by ’the Five’ to my personal taste somewhat tend to the outrageous, they have a most valid argument here. Music, be it music either from today or yesterday, in general benefits when it is put into a perspective. It will add depth and meaning to each individual work, and the contrasts, or striking similarities, between the pieces, can add an extra dimension. This should of course not be applied as a strict rule, there is nothing inherently wrong with an all-Beethoven or all-Boulez program. But contemporary music is too often set apart from the rest, like the bad boy in the classroom. If it can only manifest itself in special concert series or contemporary music festivals, it seems as if it is set aside in quarantine, like it is carrying some mysterious illness, that hopefully will go away by itself. The public debate between ‘the Five’ and the Concertgebouw Orchestra ended in a stalemate, because neither side wanted to change any of its positions.

Curiously enough, Matthijs Vermeulen, who we well remember from the first lecture, reacted very negatively to the demands of the five young composers. We might have expected the man of the ‘Long live Sousa!’-incident, to take sides with the ideals of these young upcoming talents, who had often cited Vermeulen’s troubled relationship with conductor Willem Mengelberg as an example of what was wrong with the policy of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. But Vermeulen reacted undignified, stating that this troubles with Willem Mengelberg were the result of a personal feud, and, more or less from his deathbed, he wrote: “Where have they gone, these 350 scores? Who can name me, apart from a single piece by Webern and Schönberg, a few pieces by Ravel, by Bartók, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, ten titles of pieces which will make one gleam just by looking at them. The Concertgebouw Orchestra has always performed modern music, and always on time, and nowhere else in the world will you find such a high percentage of new music on the program. The question is once again : what will remain of these pieces? Didn’t it strike any of you, that the schools of Darmstadt, Cologne, Donaueschingen, of Baden-Baden and Gaudeamus, which have already functioned for a number of years with a lot of fuss, have none of them produced a symphonic work, and perhaps not even a work for chamber ensemble, that has become part of the repertoire somewhere? And what do these ‘five young composers’ themselves have available at the moment, that is intended for the symphony orchestra? And have any of you already heard that one of their works has been refused by Mr. Heuwkemeijer? Because that would make quite a scandal. Does any of these Five take into account that even the entire production of ‘current music’ of the five continents would not justify the appointment of an extra conductor to the symphonic organism, which is our orchestra?”

Perhaps you may find this difficult to imagine, but Louis Andriessen started off as a composer of serial music. What he has in common with Peter Schat, Misha Mengelberg, Reinbert de Leeuw and Jan van Vlijmen, his fellow-composers of ‘the Five‘, is that they all studied with Kees van Baaren. Van Baaren, born in Enschedé in 1906, studied composition with Boris Blacher in Berlin in the 1920’s, and it was there that he became acquainted with Arnold Schönberg and his dodecaphonic world of thought. Kees van Baaren transported these ideas to the Netherlands, where he established himself as a composer and a teacher. His Septet, composed in 1952 was the first Dutch piece conceived completely along the principles of serialism, which in one stroke made him by far the most modern and advanced composer in the Netherlands at that time. This attitude attracted the attention of many composition students, the prevailing sentiment of that era being a desire to radically break with the musical language of before the war, and to construct a wholly new world of sound. It is interesting to see how the five composers at first all fell head over heels for the concepts of serialism, but then gradually, and each in their own way, started to raise doubts concerning the viability of this new musical language and started to explore different paths.
Without question, it was Louis Andriessen who most deeply felt the necessity of such an exploration. And he even went some steps further in the thought process, to come to the construction of a new musical concept. Because he came to understand that it is not only a matter of in what musical language you are writing, in extenso: which notes and chords you utilize as a composer, but that it is equally important for who you are writing this, both with regard to the performers, as well as the audience. This is how Andriessen describes the end of his relation with the symphony orchestra: “In 1967 I wrote a work for symphony orchestra titled Anachronie I. The title itself already refers to the fact that I thought the apparatus of the symphony orchestra was an anachronism. But because my background and education had taught me to work with this production device, I wrote a piece for it. In this piece however, I tried to juxtapose the different musical styles that the symphony orchestra more or less possesses (ranging from Brahms to Peter Schat) in a fragmented manner, in order to alienate these styles from their origins. In this way they would function as quotations. I noticed that in reality little of this process of alienation came to the surface, because the entire piece itself was already alienated from its producers: the orchestra musicians. The parts were smacked on to the musician’s stands, and they had to do what the gentleman in front told them to do, and after two rehearsals and one performance the piece disappeared into a drawer. Nobody understood what they had played, and why. And nobody could also give a damn. I could hear (and see) that by the way they were playing. The audience didn’t hear anything at all.”

Louis Andriessen further elaborates on these thoughts, in what seems to be a bizarre mixture of Soviet planned economy and the most insightful kind of musical observations :
“I realized that the musical material cannot be separated by the method of production. The term method of production can be split up in three different phases :
1. The conception of the composer;
2. The confrontation of this idea with the performers;
3. The confrontation of the performance with the audience.
With the production of Anachronie I it turned out that these three phases were so far apart, that the audience did not have a clue about the ideas of the composer (phase 3). I understood that, in order to solve this, I not only had to work on a better connection between the performers and the audience, but also on the relation between composer and performers. (phase 1 and 2).”

Though arguably not Andriessen’s strongest work, these three phases of the musical production process nowhere come together as much as they do in Hoketus, which he composed in 1977. Hoketus started off as a project on minimal music at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. The idea was to make use of certain stylistic devices of minimal music, which would at the same time criticize this style. New music, in the view of Louis Andriessen, is always a comment on music which already exists. The principal quality of minimal music, a consistent limitation of the musical material which mainly focuses on rhythm, is here confronted with the hoketus. The hocket, or hoquetus, which is Latin for hick-up, is a musical device which stems from the 14th-century Ars Nova music, by Guillaume de Machault and others, where the melodic tones are divided between two or more voices, who each sing one note alternately. In Andriessen’s Hoketus the ensemble is divided into two groups. Each group consist of a piano, an electric piano, a pan-flute, a saxophone, an electric bass guitar and percussion. The pitch material of both groups is nearly identical. This applies to the rhythm as well. It is, however a complementary rhythm: in Hoketus the groups never play simultaneously. The harmonic material of Hoketus is different from most minimal music in the sense that it is chromatic and not diatonic, it radically abandons the tonal continuous sound-masses which are characteristic of this style. The ensemble, which was also named Hoketus, was established along with the creative process of the piece. The ensemble consisted first of all of the composer himself, a highly kinetic presence during the performances, which were always extremely loud, and was supplemented with people he had gathered around him and shared the same aesthetics. There were quite a number of refugees from Chile in the Netherlands in those days, hence the pan-flutes. So, what we see here is a combination of phase one and two: the conception of the composer, along with the confrontation of his ideas with the performers. The essence of Hoketus is that its musicians and its musical content are inseparable, with different personnel the piece would have come out in a different way. And with regard to phase three, the confrontation of the performance with the audience: It is a fact that the musical output and the ideas of Louis Andriessen managed to both reach out to new audiences, as well as it reestablished the contact with those who love contemporary music, but somehow got lost during the days of serialism. So, let us listen now for a bit to the final measures of Hoketus…

Hoketus-Andriessen (stream)

After the ensemble Hoketus discontinued itself, in 1986, the piece Hoketus has still been performed numerous times. What has struck me about the performances I witnessed, by the Amsterdam ASKO-Ensemble and the California EAR-unit, is how tailor made the piece was for its original performers. Of course a distinction in interpretation will occur with any piece of music. One can go to the store and get ten different performances of Beethoven’s Razumovsky-Quartets, and I can guarantee you, you will hear a wide variety of interpretations and different colourings, though all within a certain bandwidth. But with Hoketus I have always felt that the piece didn’t quite work with any other ensemble. The massive loudness and accuracy with which pianists Gerard Bouwhuis and Cees van Zeeland would bang away their chords, the bassnotes of Andriessen’s partner Jeanette Yanikian, who, amiable as she was, always had a tendency to be just slightly late, or the brutal sound of saxophone player Peter van Bergen; Louis Andriessen would always come up with the exact right notes for them. “When Hoketus plays a G-sharp, it is not only a G-sharp, but it is also Hoketus”, was his credo.

Of course it is impossible and impracticable to start up a new ensemble for every new composition. Most of Andriessen’s pieces with an unusual instrumentation were the result of projects with students at the conservatory, a place that provided him of a large arsenal of musicians. But they also came forth out of the musical ideas themselves, and not from an inclination towards the eccentric. The fact that these pieces are still performed quite often, gives evidence that the ‘format’ of these unusual instrumentations is a viable, and valuable addition to the musical landscape. Or perhaps more aptly put: it proves that the framework of standard instrumentation, like that of the typical ‘one of each’-chamber ensemble, (one flute, one oboe, one clarinet, etc.), is no longer the most desirable option. The numerous ensembles that have been established in the Netherlands over the past decades, and are still being brought into life, are also increasingly collaborating on a project-basis, giving way to the most outlandish instrumental combinations. For composers this is a very fertile soil for their ideas to root. There is a great diversity of musical styles and many different views and preferences on the art of performing music. Most importantly perhaps, is that this situation creates an atmosphere where there is a much closer and more direct relationship between the composer and the performer. It is my opinion that a composer can only reach out to an audience, and convince the audience of the validity of his or her musical ideas, after this composer has managed to convince the musicians first. Therefore you need dedicated musicians, who are truly interested in the music that is on their stands, and who do not hesitate to ask difficult questions about what they are trying to bring into sound. This is also the best and most direct way to learn, and to gather up ideas for future compositions. For me, the most ideal learning ground has proved to be the ASKO-Ensemble, classically trained musicians with a very wide musical horizon and with an enormous amount of experience of dealing with the most diverse approaches to music. A number of years ago, the ASKO went into a close collaboration with the Schönberg-Ensemble, which enables them, if the situation requires this, to draw upon a large pool of musicians. In essence: an orchestra of the 21st-century, with a size somewhere halfway that of a chamber- and a symphony orchestra.
The Schönberg-Ensemble is still regarded as the crown jewel in the widely diverse landscape of musical ensembles in the Netherlands. Arnold Schönberg is actually also the founder of the concept of the ensemble, with his ‘Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen’, which was established in 1918. The intention of this ‘Society for private musical performances‘, was to give carefully rehearsed and comprehensible performances of ‘the music of Mahler up to the present’ for genuinely interested members of the musical public. The Society set new standards, not only as a nursery of new works, but also through its unconventional structure and rules: Only society members could attend the concerts. The exact program of these concerts was kept secret on beforehand, this was to ensure an evenly public attention. The policy was to repeat pieces, if not on the same concert, then in any of the subsequent events, in order to give the artists and artlovers a full acquaintance with, and a better understanding of a new work. Any sign of approval, or disapproval of a work was ‘verboten’, polite applause was the norm, in order not to influence the judgement of the fellow-listeners. The rehearsals and concerts could take place at regular concert halls, but just as well at the local Chamber of Commerce or at the clubhouse of the Union of Railroad workers. Until December 1921, when the Verein had to cease its activities due to the Austrian hyperinflation, the Society gave 353 performances of 154 works, in a total of 117 concerts.

The Amsterdam-based Schönberg-Ensemble took up the spirit of the Austrian Verein from the 1920’s, but fortunately abandoned its odd and quirky rules. Its principal conductor Reinbert de Leeuw belonged to the group of five composers that were involved in the Nutcrackersaction, but he has since then much more concentrated on his activities as an interpreter. As an outstanding pianist, de Leeuw has performed a vast and diverse amount of works of contemporary music, his recordings of the piano music of Erik Satie have more or less become standard. As a conductor he is, perhaps like nobody else, able to bring to the surface the deepest meaning and levels of intensity of the works of Andriessen, Olivier Messiaen, Sofia Gubaidulina, and, if you allow me, I may wholeheartedly add my own musical output to that list. Though still only sporadically active as a composer, his scarce musical output is certainly worthwhile listening to: his symphonic poem Abschied for example, and also his most recent work Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, a re-composition of songs by Schumann and Schubert for actress Barbara Sukowa, in which she moves between parlando and Schönbergian ‘sprechgesang‘.

Jan van Vlijmen, who deceased in 2004, is the composer of ’the Five’ who perhaps stayed closest to their serialist origins, and never really got far away from an exuberant Alban Berg-like expressionism. His large scale orchestral work Quaterni, completed in 1984, and the cantata Inferno, premiered in 1993, are perhaps the strongest examples of this lyrical style of post-serial romanticism. Those who like really dark and grim opera, should certainly pay attention to van Vlijmen’s Un malheureux vétu de noir, about Vincent van Gogh, and Thyeste, his last composition, premiered in 2005.

Misha Mengelberg (a distant relative of the conductor Willem Mengelberg) was heavily influenced by the ideas of John Cage regarding aleatorics and music of chance, and by the Fluxus-art movement. Soon after the Nutcrackersaction he abandoned composition at large, to fully attend himself to improvisation, only sporadically he would write down his musical ideas on paper. In the world of improvised music Misha Mengelberg became an icon, mostly performing in collaboration with percussionist Han Bennink. Together with Bennink and saxophonist Willem Breuker, Mengelberg founded the Instant Composers Pool, somewhat of an equivalent to an orchestra, consisting entirely of highly skilled improvising musicians. Mengelberg was also involved in the creation of STEIM, the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music.

Peter Schat underwent a completely different development, compared to the other composers of ‘the Five‘. Having freed himself of the stranglehold of strict serialism, he soon discovered that he could not compose music without a solid theoretical basis. Inspired by Arnold Schönberg’s final words on his deathbed : “Harmonie, Harmonie,Harmonie…”, he developed a system which he called the Toneclock. The Toneclock attempts to construct a harmonic language out of the twelve steps of the chromatic scale, extracting twelve different sorts of triads from them, which can be manipulated by different scales, or modes. Peter Schat calls them ‘hours’, and of course there are twelve of them as well. I could easily spend an hour and a half extrapolating on the merits of the Toneclock, because it indeed is a wonderful system, with which one can create the most extravagant and beautiful melodies and chords. But one might argue, that one can make beautiful music with virtually every tone system. Peter Schat saw a direct line running from Jean-Philippe Rameau‘s Traité de l‘Harmonie, through Schönberg‘s dodecaphonic theories, to his Toneclock. The problem however, with the triads generated by the Toneclock, is that its individual notes lack the specific functions that are attached to those of the tonal triad : tonic, third, and dominant. If this tonal triad is inversed, these functions pleasantly move along. A person who does not have a clue about musical theory, and what is a II-V-I-cadence, is still able to experience the progression that is taking place in these chords and will say : “Ah, there, on that third sound, we are back home again.” This person would never be able to tell what time it was, by listening at the Toneclock. Peter Schat did certainly manage however, to create some very nice music utilizing his Toneclock-system, as for example several sections of his large scale orchestral work De Hemel, (the Heaven) will demonstrate, which he composed in 1990. One might add to that though, that this is not as much to the credit of his Toneclock, as that it is to his unmistakable gift as a composer. Overall, it seems that this desire to theorize, and his inclination to blindly follow the craftsmanship and automatisms that were handed to him by his tone-system, more got in the way of him, than that it helped him. And also, this blind faith in theoretical rules, was in such a stark contrast with his exuberant personality. I believe the most interesting music he composed, music that still has an edge and a sense of urgency, was made in the period where he was still searching and developing his system, as for example in To You, on a text by Adrian Mitchell, of which we will listen now to a brief section of the beginning of that piece.

       To You- Peter Schat (stream)

Peter Schat initially was the most ardent and adamant advocate of the ideals and aesthetics of the Second Viennese School, amongst the composers of ‘the Five’. Of this group, he was also the most unequivocal admirer of Che Guevara and the ideals of the communist revolution in Cuba. He was also the one who barged in to the Concertgebouw with a megaphone, urging Bernard Haitink, nowadays conductor emeritus with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to step down into the hall and to participate in a public discussion. In short, he was their spokesman.
Later on in his life, Peter Schat would become the most vehement and ferocious opponent of serialist music, which he deemed as viable as the former DDR, the German People’s Republic. Though a progression of insight in general seems to be a laudable, if not an utmost necessary element in the development of one’s points of view, Peter Schat would somehow always end up with the most drastic and radical standpoint, at either end of the scale. With regard to serialism for example, I could agree with him up to a certain extend, but I do think that Boulez’ Pli selon pli is a masterpiece, regardless of the validity of the ideas that are behind it. According to Schat, such a thing was not possible.
It is therefore not easy to find anybody who had anything to do with Peter Schat, who did not somehow end up in a major quarrel with him, before he passed away in 2003. I think I belong to these few people, but that might very well be because I never really had much to do with him. We simply lived in the same neighbourhood in Amsterdam, and would occasionally bump in to each other when we went out for a stroll and had nice, pleasant conversations.
With his fellow-composers of ‘the Five’ he got in an embrouillage decades ago, not long after they had produced the opera Reconstructie, on which they collaborated, together with the authors Harry Mulisch and Hugo Claus, for the Holland Festival in 1969. Twenty years later, Peter Schat wrote about this project in retrospect:
“In the performance, a number of ‘theatreworkers’ erected a statue of Che Guevara of twelve meters high, a difficult labour, which at the premiere almost ended in a catastrophe. The statue thus formed the backbone of the performance. The verbal spine was formed by the alphabet, and the story was based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Don Juan, in our story America, the imperialist, was called to account for his actions by the Stone Guest, Guevara, the revolutionary. Meanwhile his servant Leporello, in our story Erasmus, the doubtful Dutch intellectual, was watching the events quivering with fear. The exploited Third World was given the female roles : Cuba, Bolivia. Thus we had Erasmus, the prophet of tolerance, put on stage as a collaborator to imperialism - an infamous Leninist agitpropaganda trick, of which I am still deeply ashamed. And, different from the sage Mozart, who had the stage filled with people at the end, babbling about the morale of the story; with us, with a revolutionary difference, all that remained was the Stone Guest, the God of Revenge. Armed with a machinegun, staring over the battlefield where at that moment all of the singers, dancers, and actors were lying down as corpses. In this way we left him behind on the retina of the spectators. The orchestra played one long sustained tone, that gradually grew louder to the maximum over the course of three minutes. A final bang, and then: blackout. About this ending, where as always everything depended upon, we had had the strongest of discussions for weeks, leading to nothing. On the very last moment, at the pre-dress rehearsal, two composers came up with this single tone, and by that point there already was no way back. The discussion was about scene Z, Zingen of Zwijgen (singing or silence). The smallest possible majority voted finally in favor of Zwijgen. In favour of this single tone, and against the melody - I have always seen this as a fundamental choice, a historic moment, a divergence of paths. And as a mistake. Because in this way, our (musical) revolution stranded in a onetone-state. A sharper depiction of the deadly gloom of the oneparty-state, presented as a triumph, has never again been put on stage, I think. It went down very well. Nobody saw it for what it really was, indeed they were stone-blind.”

I have a very sad memory related to a performance of my McGonagall-Lieder in 2002 at the Concertgebouw. Lucy Shelton was singing in the recital hall, the ASKO-Ensemble was playing and I believe it was Frank Ollu who was conducting on that occasion. On the back row, on the one far corner, sat Reinbert de Leeuw. And on the same row, but on the other far end, Peter Schat was located. I seated myself exactly in the middle of the two, afraid that if I were to be sitting closer to either one of them, I might insult the other. They did not even cast one glance at each other for the entire concert. But one of them came up to me after the performance, and the other called me up the following day. Both of them asked me at a certain point: “So, and what did he have to say?”

One of the benefits of coming from a small country, is that it is much easier to oversee the ebb and flood of generations of composers, the effervescence with which they wash ashore, and the calm resignation with which they recede, while the next wave is already building up. A composer such as Willem Pijper (1894-1947), who was very much en vogue in the 1930’s and praised for his innovation and revitalization of the musical life in the Netherlands with elements and flavours derived from tango and cakewalk, was regarded in a rather different perspective twenty years after his death: "Soon", predicted the composers of the Nutcrackers-action, "Pijper’s name will be notated on the illustrious longlist of his forgotten predecessors and contemporaries.” Or:"Ultimately, his music is a sad mismash of bitonality, mixed tone-colours and habanera-rhythms," as it was concisely summarized at Pijper's Birthday-Centennial by composer Tristan Keuris (1946-1996), who in his turn could be seen as the heir to Matthijs Vermeulen's exuberant melodic vein, though with a more benign temperament.
One does not need to be a certified psychiatrist, to recognize a generation conflict in the drastic actions undertaken by ‘the Five’ on this Novembernight in 1969. And at the same time, one simply has to use his ears, to understand that these actions were propelled by an unusual aggregation of talent. The effects these actions caused, brought forth a beneficial change in the musical climate. But, as recent studies have shown, the climate is always subjected to changes. The recent financial thunderstorm that has ravaged the world, will no doubt have its impact on the musical climate, both here in the US as well as in the Netherlands. First, we should fence ourselves from the bad weather, and try to secure what is most dear and valuable to us. And after the wind has calmed down, it is up to both composers and musicians to fill the world again with beautiful and wondrous music.
To conclude, a few words about the symphony orchestra. Because from what I have described before, one might draw the conclusion that the future of modern music is with the ensembles, and not with the orchestra. Such is not the case, at least not to my personal opinion. I still love the orchestra, if only because it is the biggest band in town. It is true though, that it is difficult to communicate with over sixty people in just a 20-minute coffee break. And what has struck me on numerous occasions, is that it are often people who I also recognize from the ensembles, who come up to me, before or after orchestra-rehearsals, to ask me what I want them to do, in a particular spot in the score. It is not that the other musicians are too shy, but it is that difference in mentality which I was referring to before: a desire to make things as good as possible, the understanding that composers and performers share the same goal. And ultimately, the future of the orchestra itself also depends on how it relates to contemporary music. Because if the orchestra were to abandon new music altogether, it would cease to be a living symphonic organism, and from thereon become a sonic museum.
I thank you kindly for your attention, and am looking forward to see you again on April the 15th.

©Rob Zuidam 2010

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