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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Who is your musical 'idealized other'?

I am singing in a shanty choir these days. When talking with some of the members, they assure me that shanty is not too popular in the Netherlands (despite the vast amount of shanty choirs over here - but these choirs don't attract much audience, my choir mates tell me), but in Germany that's completely different.

And indeed. Yesterday we sang in a restaurant in Germany, and it was filled with about 200 people, who had a great evening. They sang along, they swayed from left to right and back again on the music's metre, some of them danced, and they stayed till the end of the concert. Very German - "You don't find that in the Netherlands", one would think.

The funny thing: on the way back in the bus we estimated that about 80 percent of the audience was Dutch.

It may well be the case that my choir mates are right, and that shanty indeed is more popular in Germany than in the Netherlands. Or it may be just an image they have. But for me, the 'truth' of the contention is less important than the contention itself. Because the contention may be an example of the fact that we need musical 'idealized others' - a place to long for, people whose behavior we see as a model for the ideal world. And then we try to become them, and behave like them. Hence the Dutch audience crossing the border and becoming a German audience; or what they believe a German audience is.

Which makes me think of all those people doing the same in other contexts - dressing up for an opera and becoming their personal idealized opera-lover; dressing up as a death-metal fan and becoming their personal idealized metal-head; me dressing up in jeans and a lumberjack shirt, playing the fiddle and mandolin and becoming my personal idealized bluegrass musician.

Music is performance in many ways.

Who is your musical 'idealized other'?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Mushroom Argument; or: Music is So Much More than Creativity

The football match of my oldest daughter (6) is canceled, so early in the morning I am sitting at the table, writing this blog, while my oldest daughter, her football friend, and my youngest daughter are busy making drawings, and my son is at the computer working at his Minecraft world. In the background Bach's Motets play, in the performance of Herreweghe's Collegium Vocale. My youngest daughter is enthusiastic because actually this is the music used in the Peter Pan Disney-movie she just saw, she tells me.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Embodied Cognition

I was sitting in the car with my kids. Johnny Cash' "Southern Accents" was playing.

Daughter: "This is a sad song."
I (hoping, as a proud father, for intricately verbalized brilliance): "How do you know?"
Daughter: "I feel it in my body".

Sunday, November 3, 2013

What Music Does for People

I finished writing my dissertation, had the exam, and then of course: party.

With our research group we found ourselves on the island of Schiermonnikoog, in the renowned Hotel Van der Werff, enabling me to spend some days of work and reflection amongst colleagues who are all, in some way, connected to studying the power of music.

One evening, my colleagues had decided to organize a little party for me. Speeches, presents, and music. Two of my colleagues played Fauré's "Les Berceaux". I will try to explain what went through my head - or rather: through my body, including my head - while listening. An incomplete story, because moments like those (or any moment, if you observe yourself carefully) are so incredibly filled with links to yourself and the rest of the world that it takes at least a work similar in size to one of the books of Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu" to explore the full meaningfulness of the moment.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

(Dirty) Maggie May

I was a bit secretive some time ago about my new research project. I'll be more open now: it's the phenomenon of the shanty choir. A phenomenon hugely popular in the Netherlands and Germany, as this little map of the membership of the International  Shanty and Seasong Association shows:

Basically the phenomenon consists of male singers gathering once a week, singing shanties and seasongs, and occasionally performing, mostly in some kind of uniform. The main question in my research is, as usual, Clifford Geertz' question: "What the hell is going on here?" I want to figure out why shanty choirs are so abundant, what it brings their members, their audiences, and eventually what this might learn me, the conservatoire where I work, and the professional musicians trained there, about what music does with people.

I was listening to a shanty CD, and heard a German shanty choir perform the famous song 'Maggie May'. No no, not Rod Stewart's song, but this one. For some explanation I of course first consulted Wikipedia; then realizing that the story of the song reminds me of many other songs, including New York Girls.

But on hearing the song I was of course also reminded of the Beatles' version of the song, beginning with Lennon singing in his most Liverpudlian voice "Oh, Dirty Maggie Mae, they have taken her away...".

Which reminded me of the tendency of songs to become less and less explicit as they become more known - the 'dirty' is dropped when a German shantychoir sings "Maggie May". Or was it an addition by the Beatles? Something to find out. Let's call sir Paul one of these days.

Which reminded me of the Dutch song "Daar was laatst een meisje loos..." (loads of versions on YouTube, but also check out lots of recordings of people singing this song at the Dutch folksong database "De Nederlandse Liederenbank"), a song which - as so many Dutch folk songs - ended up as a children's song; an innocent school song about a girl who dresses up as a boy to go to sea.  Most school teachers teaching the song to our kids probably don't realise that this actually was rather an explicit song - the girl had to 'climb into the mast' (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more, know what I mean?) and ends up coming home pregnant and marrying the captain of the boat.

Just that you know how much fun I am having with this new research topic of mine...

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Secret of André Rieu

I hope you know who André Rieu is - if not, just check YouTube. I wrote about him before, because I like to try to understand why other people like other music than I do, and Rieu for me is a good field to examine this. And also I like occasionally to mention his name in the conservatoire where I work, just to check the reactions of my colleagues (horror, concern - "Do you feel alright?", the assumption that I am sarcastic; but also sometimes sheer admiration).

But I am not the only one who is curious. In Maastricht (Rieu comes from that area, I remember being taught by one of his brothers when I studied at the Maastricht Conservatoire, and his father was conductor of the local symphony orchestra and one of the music tycoons there), in Maastricht - as I was starting to say - there is a group of researchers who will study Rieu the coming few years. The project is called"The secret of André Rieu", and they present themselves to the general public as the "Rieu Academy".

They have at least learnt something from Rieu's PR-machine. "This research project will bring together art, science, cultural history and the Rieu-audience", the Rieu Academy writes in an announcement for an afternoon where they will discuss Rieu's work, stating that this, "our first performance" (!), will deepen the experience of Rieu's concert visitors.

So what are they going to research? I quote: how do Rieu, his orchestra, his musical guests and his choice of repertoire contribute to bridging the gap between 'low' and 'high' culture? How does Rieu popularize classical music? What is he doing with it? How does he revive old songs, nearly vanished from our collective memory? What is the contribution of the attire of the orchestra members , how do the special effects work, when does he move the listeners?

Mildly interesting, I would say. I would never start any research based on ideas about a gap between 'low' and 'high' culture. I mean: project those terms in your questions and rest assured that they will boomerang back on you in the conclusions. "Mind the gap", the English say - "Avoid the gap" would, in this case, be more fitting.

Elsewhere I read that one of the questions is whether Rieu's success can be replicated by someone else in the future. Hardly a question, I guess. The answer is "Yes, if that someone else is André Rieu and the future cirumstances are the same as the current circumstances". Annoying, those social scientists who still want to figure out whether history is repeatable or not, and whether or not mankind is a machine.

And in yet another place, about Rieu's waltzes: "The dance is one of the most ancient sources of music. Folk music actually is nothing else then dance music."

I don't think there is much hope for this research project.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Acting Like a Moron Before the Natives

Summer holiday's over, work has started. The PhD is written, so time for a new project. I am not going to tell you what it is, only that it is ethnomusicology - anthropology of music, if you want - and that it is just around the corner. And that I will be doing participant observation, this time, rather than an interview study.

I can't wait to start!

I was reading We, the Tikopia by Raymond Firth, an anthropological classic. And right in the beginning of the book I found a quote which reflects my feeling of embarking on this new voyage - because a voyage it is, even if the fieldwork is nearly in my back yard and the new language I need to speak is only metaphorical new.

So there we go:

"The reality of the native life is going on all around him [the anthropologist], but he himself is not yet in focus to see it. He knows that most of what he records at first will be useless: it will be either definitely incorrect, or so inadequate that it must later be discarded. Yet he must make a beginning somewhere. He realizes that at this stage he is incapable of separating the pattern of custom from the accidentals of individual behaviour, he wonders if each slight gesture does not hold some meaning which is hidden from him, he aches to be able to catch and retain some of the flood of talk he hears on all sides , and he is consumed with envy of the children who are able to toss about so lightly that speech which he must so painfully acquire. He is conscious of good material running to waste before him moment by moment; he is impressed by the vastness of the task that lies before him and of his own feeble equipment for it; in the face of a language and custom to which he has not the key, he feels that he is acting like a moron before the natives. At the same time he is experiencing the delights of discovery, he is gaining an inkling of what is in store; like a gourmet walking roound a feast that is spread, he savours in anticipation  the quality of what he will later appreciate in full."

Raymond Firth. We, the Tikopia. Kinship in Primitive Polynesia. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963 (1936), p.3.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Real People

I was in Shanghai for an ethnomusicological conference. On the day-off, we had the option to go on excursion. I chose to go to Wu Zhen, a ‘water town’ – a village with a lot of little canals and many boats and bridges. Like Venice, maybe (never been there); or Giethoorn, if you look for a Dutch equivalent.
It was hot. There were many tourists (most of them, of course, Chinese), who all had paid in order to be able to visit the village. The village brimmed with tourist shops. Obviously it lives from tourism these days, like for example Schiermonnikoog.

When we were back in Shanghai, I bumped into a fellow ethnomusicologist acquaintance, someone researching Chinese music. I asked him where he had been. He had also been to Wu Zheng, and was furious. “Why did they take us to such a stupid tourist village! Couldn’t they have brought us to a real Chinese village? There are many of them around. Much more interesting. And at least there are real people there!”

I understand the feeling and appreciate it, although I myself don’t worry too much about being a tourist at periods – every role has its pros and contras. But many ethnomusicologists are busy with research into the real life of ordinary people – and then tourist representations of real life are generally not too interesting indeed.

That is: if one takes tourist attractions such as Wu Zheng to stand for ‘the real thing’. The other option, of course, is to take Whu Zheng for what it is: a tourist attraction. I found it rather interesting to see how the Chinese handled their version of heritage tourism.

And, contrary to my fellow ethnomusicologist, I wasn’t missing ‘real people’. Because why should a tourist shop owner, a tourist temple guard, or a tourist from a Chinese suburb, be less ‘real’ than a Chinese traditional villager? Beats me.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Sorcerer's Head

Amongst anthropologists and their musical counterparts, ethnomusicologists, one of the shared pleasures is story telling.

Widely shared are stories during dinner, recounting what has been eaten with whom, where and how, and what the consequences were. I have not many stories to share, I must say; yes, we eat raw fish in the Netherlands, I ate dried worms in South Africa, barbecued shark in Yemen, buried and then dug-up shark in Iceland, stinky tofu in China recently, and mock-dog in Timor (they threatened to feed me dog every day but never did). But all that's nothing to compare with what many of my fellow researchers had to eat all over the world, so usually I keep my mouth shut - and most of the time I try to keep my ears shut as well; I have a too vivid imagination.

Less shared are stories about atrocities witnessed in 'the field', though some of my fellows have had their share of it. But those apparently are stories not to be shared widely; maybe the more (un)edible variants mentioned above function as their substitutes for some of them? In the monographies written by researchers you do occasionally find references to the incomprehensible cruelty of daily life, but those are never transferred to the table or the pub.

It was therefore astonishing to witness a paper presentation lately by an ethnomusicologist studying Balinese witchcraft and its music where the presenter showed, in his second slide, a mob of people carrying a head of a sorcerer on a stick. More astonishing was the fact that the slide had some sort of novelty- or freak-character; no story was given about the slide, it did not play any crucial role in the presentation, it was just shown - with a warning beforehand to maybe close your eyes if you were not up to terrible pictures, but that was it.

No-one asked a question afterwards about this strange slide in a for the rest interesting an quite good presentation; including me. But the ease with which we apparently allow ourselves to show and be shown, under the pretext of research, the most terrible things shocked me.

I know people generally seem to think recent James Bond movies are violent-but-innocent; and when I sometimes point out that I don't want to be confronted with such an amount of violence on my screen people reassure me that it is just a movie; it's not real, really.

Yeah; who do you think I am? Still.

The same counts for the arts world (I commented earlier on it in a side remark). I remember being presented an Art Work in which you could make a puzzle or another funny something out of the image of the corpse of Khadaffi - or was it Saddam Hussein? I remember talks on art showing the pictures of the corpse of Pim Fortuyn. I know those pictures exist, I know they represent a reality in which they all have been killed. But the question is: am I really so close to those people who talk to me because I am in their audience that I have silently invited them to cross all boundaries about what I think is still decent to show someone unasked for?

I often sympathize with mr. Gautama, father of Siddharta, who tried - says Wikipedia - 'to hide from him  the sick, aged and suffering'. I know it is undo-able - eventually mr. Gautama didn't manage to keep hiding the lot, and you all know where that led to - but living my life as if walking around in candid camera full time is the other extreme, I think.

Oh yeah, by the way: I saw a girl walking through town yesterday with a T-shirt announcing "Fuck you". Or was it an invitation rather than an annnouncement?

Anyway, I am also not going to the exhibition "Fuck Off part II". I rather fuck off, as it were, to hide in the shade and watch the people go by, including the sick, aged and suffering..

What do I need research, movies or art for anyway?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Nr. 100

I am sure it will not be of interest to many of you, but this is blog entry nr. 100. 2.5 years of writing an average of one entry every week, apart from holidays. Nearly 7300 page views from - in descending order - the Netherlands, the US, Germany, Russia, the UK, France, Latvia, the Ukraine, China, Sweden and many more countries.

I started this blog for a reason. I was writing a PhD dissertation and thought a form of 'public thinking' might help me to develop my ideas. And actually it has worked well. Not that my thinking became 'public' because of readers' reactions (it did happen, though - thank you), but rather because the public character of the blog kind of ordered me to write a bit about music every week, thus forcing me to put thoughts on paper. It kept me writing and thinking, and some of the thoughts have eventually ended up in the dissertation.

This morning I sent the dissertation to the committee which is going to judge whether the research I did is original  enough to grant me the title of doctor. We'll find out in due time. The rather new illustration of the parachute guy you find somewhere on my blog actually is an artistic  interpretation of the result of the PhD; study the illustration a bit and you know all you will have to know. In the meantime, there is the feeling of 'job done'. If they would ask me to write another dissertation I would accept immediately, but for now it's over. So it feels fitting this is a celebratory nr. 100.

I could therefore stop this blog. But I guess I'll continue. Because writing about music in this way has made me think, which I value. So let's see what happens next week on this place. After a remark of a friend I guess I could shift my attention away from the 'quality-critique' of the past few weeks, and find something new to write about. I'll do my best (although I have become rather fond of the idea of quality-critique).

At the same time, there is this feeling I described some weeks ago: a certain tiredness of all this argumentation going on in my blog, and my head. So I am thinking of starting yet another blog, in another place. A blog in which there will be no argumentation at all, just pure description. A blog unrelated to music, although music may figure in it.

A blog because, now that I know that writing can make you think, I am curious about the reverse: can you also write in order to stop the thinking?

Monday, June 24, 2013

With Music Education to the Top

When we came back from a visit to something we saw a huge van parked in the street. A colorful van, advertising itself as the 'Classic Express'.

The Classic Express is the van of the 'Prinses Christina Concours', a classical music (and jazz, nowadays - which shows that jazz has become classical music in many ways) contest for young musicians. The van is a mobile stage which drives around the country offering concerts  to primary schools.

Great. Why not give every child the possibility to regularly hear live classical music? And when played by young musicians the possibility of identification grows, of course, which is good too. I can imagine what goes on in the heads of the inventors of the van. An initiative, I think, to be picked up by the rap world, the pop world, the Dutch schlager world, the bluegrass world and the shanty world too. Wouldn't it be great to have dozens of vans cruising the country, providing primary schools with live music?

But there is that one little thing at the back of my mind, and that is the way this vanning around reinforces the general discourse about what music is supposed to be. All those vans whisper at you: music is meant to be a performance. It is done on a stage, by someone who is Really Good, and this someone is playing for an audience who are Slightly Less Good. Music is something to be performed on a stage by Those Who Can, to be listened to by Those Who Can't.

It's just a whisper, I know. There is nothing against listening to a great performance, and much in favor of it; I will be the first to acknowledge that. And of course everyone has the right to witness a concert of great quality if possible, rather than a mediocre one; yes, yes, I agree totally. And of course all this should be balanced by other musical activities in schools where children are encouraged to sing and play themselves - even if they will never be the prize winners of our musical competitions; and we do our best for that, too, I know.

But sometimes it's more than just a whisper, and then I notice my eyebrows raising themselves involuntarily. See the picture below, and see what it screams at you: "Classic Express, The mobile concert stage; with young top talent to the schools."

Sounds like a one-way street, doesn't it? And: "Young top talent", rather than "great music". What's the message here?

For sure, it will also be meant to please those who finance the van with grants - nowadays the only way to acquire grants is to mention the world 'talent' in every other sentence. But I guess it's not only that - it is also expressing what we, what 'our culture', thinks about music in general. Which is the same as what we think of everything else:


Having said all that, I also want you to know that my kids really liked the concert in the van.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Music makes you musical

"I don't teach music because it makes you smart. I teach music because it makes you into a human being." That's the way music teacher Jeroen Schipper ends a recent blog entry. It's a charming piece of prose, in which he explains that he understands why music teachers keep hammering on about music's contribution to our IQ (firmly seated in the brain and observable by means of a brain scanner, as we now all know) but that  he is actually fed up a bit with all that.

I agree with him. And I would like to add that I am also not a fan of the newest fad, which is an old fad really: the claim that music, as an art subject, makes you creative - and creativity is what our society (and especially our economy) needs. Apart from the fact that music is so much more than just creativity, and that there is a lot of uncreative but nevertheless very worthwhile musicking going on in most human lives, I dislike the ugliness of the arguments around creativity because they are so intensely tied to thoughts about being a winner and not a looser, about economic growth rather than modesty, about wanting to be better, newer, more advanced and more innovative rather than about being simply happy. (Remember the Lisbon-agenda of the EU? "The most competitive and dynamic knowledge economy of the world.")

Ach, I know, I'm old-fashioned. But music might be more than yet another instrument to be in one of the world top-3s.

What I liked best about Jeroen's blog is his question why we shouldn't turn the question around. Why do we expect music to contribute to mathematical or linguistic abilities? Why don't we ask mathematics to contribute to the rhythmical abilities of children? Why don't we ask from English to contribute to a better understanding of pop music? We know the answer: because mathematics and English have an intrinsic value. So if we want to justify why we should teach music in schools, let's not talk about how music contributes to something else. Let's talk about the intrinsic value of music, about how music makes you more musical.

Jeroen argues for precisely that. He does so by saying that music is a unique means of communication which can convey things that in no other way can be communicated. I am not so sure if that's a good argument - I'm not sure if it holds, and I would like to keep the possibility open that with music you teach something that also can be taught by other means; why would that make music less worthwhile?

But I like Jeroen's expression that music makes you human. In a way this is of course also an example of instrumental reasoning - music is good for something else. But by adding just a word it loses its instrumentality.

Music is worthwhile because it makes you into a musical human being.

Problem solved.

Monday, June 3, 2013

André Rieu - Respect.

We were watching a show on television - André Rieu and his orchestra playing in Sao Paolo (Brasil). Lots of Japanese in the audience, of course, as Sao Paolo hosts what I believe is the largest Japanese community outside of Japan. Lots of waltzes, lots of costumes, a bunch of sopranos, three tenors of course. Funny sketches in between and during the pieces. Lots of operetta tunes. Not really my music, but then again: the music was not really meant to be for me, so why bother about that?

The audience had fun, that was clear. So had the musicians. The audience came expecting a great show and they got it. Not only did Rieu play the repertoire he is famous for, he also played a couple of latin pieces and finished the show with Brasilian Michel Telo's world wide hit  'Mosa Asi Voce Me Mata'. He spoke to the audience in (a sort of) Portuguese. And he played 'Amazing Grace', complete with tin whistle and bagpipes - which moved the audience to tears. I was wondering why, but a bit of googling around gives a possible reason: a Brazilian kid gospel singer Jotta A. performed the song in 'Brazil's Got Talent' with enormous success.

'Smart guy, our André', I said to my wife when the show was finished and we talked about how he completely captured his audience. She replied: 'He shows respect.'

I guess we both were right. But I think my wife's remark was smarter than mine, as well as more respectful.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The King: 'Will there be more music, or was this all?'

The new King and Queen visited Groningen. We know how much they like music ('Koningslied'). And as the Groningen conservatoire is named after the King's father, the big band of the conservatoire was supposed to play for the royal couple while they were doing a walking tour of the inner city.

The King and Queen took their time. The meticulously planned scheme of the visit, which indicated from minute to minute where the royalty was supposed to hear what and talk with whom, was not prepared for a King and Queen being humans, rather than robots. And so it probably came to pass that the big band finished playing their piece just at the moment K&Q, slightly late, arrived.

Slightly puzzled, the King asked the mayor of the town: 'Will there be more music, or was this it? ... Well, thanks.' And off they went to see other things and meet other people. Whereafter the big band started playing their next piece, I suppose, for an audience of Royal backs.

Or was it planned like this? Had the organisation sold the break between pieces of the big band as an abbreviated performance of John Cage's 4'33''? Has someone pointed out to the royal couple, in answer to the King's question, that music really is in the silence between the notes? And has this led to instant Buddhist enlightenment with the King? Which later on in the day made him apologize to a cow ('Sorry, Bertha.')? Will he soon seize power and turn our country into a Buddhist state?

How useful a big band is!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Gil Scott-Heron

I am writing this blog entry sitting in the living room, while my wife and two oldest kids are watching the Eurovision Song Festival finals. (I was in an expert meeting on music yesterday (by chance and/or by mistake), and people assured me that to develop culturally everything starts with getting acquainted with culture at a young age within the family. So we don't have to worry about the musical future of the kids, I am sure.) As you know, for the first time in many years The Netherlands reached the finals. Well done, Anouk! The Netherlands should have reached the finals some years ago, as you'll remember, but we sent the right guys with the wrong song. Of course, there again is some media discussion about whether or not Anouk's song is nice and/or good - Koningslied revisited, as it were. I understood that one of our national singing heroes has said that the song made him slightly depressed (and it indeed is a ballad about a suicide), and then other people told him to shut up because the song is GOOD so he should LIKE it.

Never a dull moment in The Netherlands, musically speaking.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Playing without the fear of losing

In my regional newspaper Coen Simon, a Dutch philosopher, was interviewed. He wrote a book about guilt; a book I need to read because part of it is an interesting argument about sports. Sports, he says, has become economized (economicized? whatever) - it has become a domain where gaining has become the main goal. You play to win.

Simon thinks - at least according to my usually not too philosophical newspaper - that is wrong. Our society   has become a society where gaining, growth, winning, being the best and the biggest has become the norm. The way we sport reflects that. Simon thinks we should go back to a world where sport is essentially the playing of games: something you do together, something where you realize that if someone has to win someone else has to loose - a world where losers and winners are on an equal footing, and where you realize that when you have lost you made the game possible in the first place.

Great, great, great. I love people who invent their own mission impossible. Convince the world that soccer, baseball and chess is not about winning - not even about winning the battle against obesity. We have trouble even to think that thought - let alone to make it reality.

I especially love this because it reflects some of my ideas about making music. I understand that playing an instrument requires 'mastering' it. And that that is a process with no end - my experience is that people who start playing an instrument in some way buy themselves into a paradigm which requires them to become ever better. And I include myself in that. I want to learn to play the 5-string banjo better, faster, louder, with more swing. It is one of our 'codes of culture': the professional musician - the music specialist - as the role model for an entire music culture.

But at the same time I know that precisely this 'athletic view of music' (Bruno Nettl) is the cause for so many people abandoning playing an instrument, or worse: not even starting it. And that is why Simon's idea about a world of sports where we play games without the fear of losing is so sympathetic to me.

Wouldn't it be great to be playing instruments without the fear of losing?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

King's Day - 'Koningslied' Revisited; or: on quality and taste.

It is the evening of the first King's Day - or is it the last Queen's day? Or both? In the morning the kids watched the television to see Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses; and in the afternoon we went to buy other people's junk. I hoped for a 4th-hand working Hoffner bass guitar, violin model, but the only thing I managed to buy was a Beatles record  which I hadn't collected yet.

And this evening, we watched the live emission of the newly composed (?) song for the King, 'Koningslied' - it was sung in Rotterdam, the King and Queen listened in Amsterdam. And that will be the end of the Koningslied-craze. The craze already had waned a bit, thanks to Joop van den Ende, our musical-tycoon and the only real Statesman we have left nowadays.

Friday, April 19, 2013

"Koningslied" - Song for our new king

As you may know, our current Queen steps down in two weeks time, and we will have a new king, Willem-Alexander.

When the Chinese emperor died and a new emperor gained power, long ago, the reference pitch of the fundamental tone of Chinese music was changed because basically a new emperor meant a new cosmological order. Willem-Alexander's rise to the throne is generally not seen as a cosmological change in the Netherlands; instead of a new musical system we therefore satisfy ourselves with a new song.

We are a modest people.

This new song, called "Koningslied" ("The King's  Song"), has put the country in turmoil. It is writtten by one of the most prolific popular songwriters in the Netherlands; it is sung by a whole horde of national (semi-)celebrities; all revenues will be donated to a charity. No news there, one would say. The musical style is popular and bombastic; there is a sing-along chorus and there is rap in it as well; the lyrics are full of pathos. No news there, again. It is rumoured that the song was not written for the occasion but was lying on the desk of the composer waiting for a good occasion to be used. No news there, either (Bach recycled his music extensively).

So, everything that could be expected has happened. But the curious thing is that, in certain circles (I don't know which circles, I must admit), an enormous movement against the song has started, including a Facebook page which allows people to apologize to our future king for the song - over 32,000 likes as I write, whereas the official Koningslied-Facebookpage has 767 likes. And over 19,000 people signed a petition against the Koningslied.

Those of you who know me a little by now will not be surprised that I am not going to sign the petition or like the anti-Koningslied Facebook page. Or the pro-page, for that matter; the question whether or not I like this song is a personal question of little consequence. There is, actually, only one question to be asked, as usual: What the hell is going on here?

I invite you to send me your interpretations of all this. I will start with two options. It may have to do with the feeling of many people that the King is given a  present in their name but that they would never have chosen this particular present themselves. Or, in other words: there is a lot of talk about 'us' and 'our country' surrounding the song, and many people seem to think that that means by definition 'me' and 'my country'. Option nr. 2: it may have to do with the feeling that the song is just another commercial product written by a serial song writer, whereas the new King deserves more 'quality' - whatever that may be (read composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven's well-meant reaction suggesting that the song should have been 'new' and 'fresh' rather than commercial and without quality - his words, not mine).

So, what the hell is going on? Is the argument that it's not my taste? Or rather that it's not my quality? Or something else? Help me out.

Meanwhile, to remind you of the fact that all this will pass, listen to Danny Schmidt's 'This too shall pass' ('better carve it on your forehead or tattoo it on your ass'), a song where a King plays a role in the final verse.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Mathieu Weggeman and The Indecent Musician

It's old news, sorry, but I remember I wanted to react on it when I read it last year but forgot to do so. And now one of my Facebook friends re-posted it: a column by professor Mathieu Weggeman, well-known in management circles and a member of the National Arts Council.

Weggeman announces that the Dutch  grow more and more stupid and more and more impolite. To make us smarter again he proposes to do away with managers who are managers; instead we need managers who know about the subject they are managing because that prevents 'stupid mistakes'. I leave that argument for what it is, although I must say I don't see a one to one relationship between stupid mistakes at work and being stupid in general.

Now about impoliteness, or maybe indecency ('onfatsoen', in Dutch). The remedy is education in 'arts & culture'. I quote Weggeman: "The declamation by heart of William Blake's 'The Tyger' (within the English lesson) is just as relevant as having a Socratic conversation together about the value of Marina Abramovic's performance 'The artist is present' (for example in the biology lesson)." And all that can be paid for by lowering the budget for physical education in schools, argues Weggeman - kids spend lots of money on sports gear anyway so let the market do its job.

Yes, he really wrote it. No kidding. Professor Weggeman, yes. Speaking of dumbing down.

But the best part are the final two sentences: "Especially from reflection within a frame of reference formed by arts & culture we may expect that the need for indecent behavior will decline. Isn't it so that there are few violinists, poets and sculptors in jail (other than for political reasons)?".

There is too much ignorance in and behind these sentences to even try to argue against it. The usual confusion between a relationship and a causal chain. The uncontrollability of the assertion about the number of imprisoned violinists. The unproved assumption about the effects of reflection. The usual unreflective ‘arts & culture’-thing popping up. Et cetera.

But two things annoy me specifically. One: the equation of ‘arts & culture’ with ‘high arts & culture’. He doesn’t say it. But he implies it. Blake. Abramovic. The violin. Rather than IceT, PSY, or the scratcher’s turntable. No no; it’s not about arts & culture, it’s about 'our' arts & culture. (May I point out, as a side remark, that even in this specific realm of ‘our’ high arts & culture there’s a lot of indecency going on? And, especially in the visual arts, a lot of reflections on indecency which I think are sometimes very indecent themselves? Think of Jonas Staal’s ‘New World Summit’ and you’ll know what I mean.)

Two: the use, as always, of the ‘the arts are inherently good’- argument. I wrote about it before, and before – it is a claim loved by arts educators, and a claim which is refuted as soon as you simply open your eyes and look around. As I argued earlier: the arts do not consist of beautiful things; they consist of human behavior. And we know what that means.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Golden Oldies

A colleague of mine, whom I asked if he would be interested to take part in one of our projects in the field of music and the elderly, mentioned the television series 'Golden Oldies'. I had completely missed it (not much of a television man, me) but it was a series about how a rock choir consisting of elderly people was formed and how they prepared for a (yet to come) performance in Amsterdam's Carré, one of the most respected concert venues in the Netherlands.

I googled the programme (which is inspired, of course, by the American documentary 'Young at Heart'), and found  some news items on it. One mentioned that this programme would finally draw the elderly out of their old-fashioned repertoire they use to sing (old children's songs, folk songs, popular songs from the 50s, cabaret and musical repertoire, classical music) and into the exciting world of pop and rock. So I prepared to write a blog about that - about the idea, again, that some repertoires are inherently better than other repertoires. I would write that I am, of course, in favour of elderly rock choirs, but that the main point is not to dismiss elderly people singing 'old-fashioned' repertoire. The question is not about replacing a 'bad' repertoire by a 'good' repertoire, the question is inclusivity. The question is about acknowledging any repertoire that is sung by people as inherently useful. Maybe not for you, no - but most of the world is not about you anyway.

However, when preparing to write the blog I watched the first episode of the series, and that changed my mind. Yes, it is a slightly clumsy copy of 'Young at Heart'. Yes, there is a certain undertone in the series of dismissal of what 'the elderly' 'usually' do - but that undertone is far from dominant and is often replaced by a visible sympathy of the young presenter and the even younger choir director for the elderly people they meet. And yes, of course it is a televised series and therefore it sometimes is a bit over-dramatised. There is the 'personal interest'/'emotion tv'-thing coming into it,where the presenter tries to reconcile one of the older participants with her son, a completely unnecessary and distracting addition to the series (why do television presenters think they are allowed to perform therapy on - and by - tv?). And the working towards a great concert on the Carré stage to my mind is too much in line with what Bruno Nettl so rightly calls our 'ahletic view on music' - music is only worthwhile if it is fast, loud, high, long, great; there is no place for the mediocre in our minds. Which is a pity because it makes that many people refrain from the joy of making music because thy think they are 'not good enough' or 'too old' or whatever.

But what I like is that much of the documentary does convey, in between the little prejudices and the grand expectations we cherish so much, something else: that elderly people are just people; that when they sing, they are just singing; when they have joy, they simply have joy; and when they have high hopes, those hopes are the same as yours and mine. And that made the first episode eventually quite pleasurable to watch.

Now may I ask you: if you are a musician and have time and energy for something new, start a Golden Oldies choir or seopmthing similar. I know - although the television series stresses the novelty of it - that there are many of them around already; my own town has a very succesful one. But there is room for at least ten more in my town, and for hundreds of them in the country. A great way to earn your money, and a great way to discover new places to work as a musician - outside of the domain of the athletics of music, outside of most of your grand expectations, but (maybe: therefore?) enormously rewarding.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Tyranny of Playing an Instrument

Christopher Small once invented - or at least reinvented - the word 'musicking' to indicate musical behavior,  stressing the fact that music is not so much a thing but rather an activity. A good idea.

However, at the same time he implicitly stressed that some sorts of musical behavior - some sorts of musicking - are more musical than others. He tied the word musicking to the performance as the musical situation in optima forma: musicking is playing; or listening to people playing; or helping people to play, or to listen to playing. A hierarchy of musicking thus is present in his description of musicking.

This hierarchy however is not at all 'logical' or 'evident'. It is a choice. A choice ubiquitous in western music culture, and maybe in all music cultures - but a choice, still. "It could have been otherwise", Anthony Giddens whispers in our ears.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Alan Lomax revisited - or Who the Dutchie Was (aka: Pieter de Rooij Wins the Prize)

This blog entry will reveal who the Dutchie was who accompanied Alan Lomax on a trip to Spain just after the second world war - see my earlier writing on the topic. But it will do so with a detour. Have a little patience, be brave, have faith that this story will finally end and the question will be answered, just read on and you will be rewarded. And allow me to take the opportunity to make some more or less related points while detouring.

So let me start with announcing that this summer I will go to Shanghai for a week.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Schizophonia - or: Against Amplification

Although I love pop, rock, jazz, world music at least just as much as classical music, there is one thing that classical music does better than most other musics: in general, it does not work with microphones and amplifiers.

I know, there are examples where they are used in classical music - when you use a bass guitar or a keyboard in the orchestra you can't do without amps, really (unless performing Cage's 4'33''); and I remember sitting in an old amphitheatre somewhere in Turkey where a symphony orchestra accompanied an opera singer who used a microphone to make himself audible. But I consider these occasions as exceptions to the rule.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sido Martens' New CD Is An LP

Sometimes I am somewhere - don't worry, this blog entry will eventually make a concrete point - sometimes I am somewhere and I feel the urge to transform my experience into a drawing, a painting, a poem, a short story, a piece of music. Often some of them at the same time - "Oh, I wish I could make a painting of this beautiful mountain view; or write a poem about it; and wouldn't it be great to have a song about it"?"

Of course, most of the time the mountain view simply stays a mountain view. At best, it becomes a memory to pop out at some undefined moment in the future, for example, when you suddenly smell something that reminds you of the smell of that same old mountain view back then - yes, even mountain views are entitled to an olfactory element.

Hence my admiration for people who dó transform the mountain view into a song, or an art work, or a poem. Or in all of them at the same time, as Sido Martens did recently in his recent project "Wankelmoed” (please come up with suggestions for translation in English - "wankelmoedig" means hesitant or wavering, "wankelmoed" literally means "hesitant courage"). Wankelmoed is a project which led to a CD with songs written by Sido (words and music), sung and played by Sido, packed in a small square book containing pictures by Sido of the landscapes and places that inspired him to write the songs (which were recorded by Sido on the locations he sings about, in a camper van owned by Sido), as well as verbal reflections on the landscapes and places expressed in poetic prose by Sido.

I am not going to write a review here of the complete package. Taste is, as you know by now, a personal matter; and judgments about 'quality' are for many listeners completely redundant, and rightly so. Suffice it to say I like the CD - I like Sido's voice which does remind me of the voice of Fred Piek (Sido as well as Piek played in the legendary Dutch folk-rock group Fungus - the Lowlands' equivalent of Steeleye Span), I like his guitar (and mandolin, and banjo) playing, I like the fact that the song lyrics are descriptive rather than metaphorical, and I like the concept of the project - the inspiration by landscapes and places, the recording on location, the do-it-yourself-mentality up to the selling of the CD. Musical self-sufficiency (speaking of which: check out Sido's “concert camper van”, which furnished a concert space for audiences up to ten people, as Sido proclaimed "dependent on size and density" of the individual audience members). That's all you'll get from me, as a review.

What I would like to point out here is that actually what Sido has been making is an LP rather than a CD.

This deserves some explanation. Long ago, in times animals still could speak, there were no CDs but LPs: big black disks,playable on both sides, containing five or six songs on each side. Now the technical matters are not very interesting; what is interesting is that LPs are things loaded with nostalgia for the people I interview for research purposes. They are, in that respect, much 'thingier' than CDs.

There is a sort of pecking order of musical thinginess in which LPs (together with Stradivarius' fiddles) stand highest in rank and cassette tapes (together with Yamaha's orange plastic recorders) lowest. Cassette tapes as well as plastic recorders are easily thrown away. LPs, however, have the tendency to stick around in households long after the record player has disappeared. "We can't throw them away", my interviewees tell me. "Once the record player will be repaired, we will play the LPs again". Or: "I keep them as reference material, to look up who sung which song again, back in 1979".

But the thinginess of music seems to come to an end. We now live in the era of the MP3-file. We have freed the information, which was packed in the grooves of the LP and is now contained in the 1s and 0s of the MP3 file, of its carriers. Which music needs a carrier when it can be transported through the air, thanks to the wireless networks zooming around our poor heads? We don't own music anymore - at best we own an MP3-carrier; for example a USB-stick in the form of a music cassette - very fitting, I must say:

Are there USB-sticks yet in the form of LPs? I don't think so... And for the newest listener, the carrier is already completely out of sight, and the MP3-files are not in his possession but are only there to be played "just-in-time", thanks to services such as Spotify. Which also leads to the nice effect that people using a USB-stick-in-cassette-form to poke fun at history and people like me who still know what a cassette actually was are being poked fun at in turn by the newest listener - he laughs disdainful about anyone using an USB-stick in whatever form: cassette, fish, bear - ridiculously outdated, all of them.

Which is great, actually - because music is never 'just music', it includes all the more-or-less musicky things going on together with the sound - the thoughts, the words, the sights, the images, the people, the tastes, the smells, the memories, the love, the anger, everything. And if that is the case, if music is never 'just music', why then should a CD be 'just music'?

Well done, Sido!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Beck's Song Reader - Forget the Sheet Music!

A short history of music in Europe.

Once upon a time we sang songs we learned from our parents. And we, in turn, learned them to our kids. Fiddles were handed down over the generations. Songs and ditties changed as they were sung and handed down, songs disappeared, other songs appeared. Such was the life of music.

Later on, we started to write down lyrics in order not to forget, and invented a way to write down melodies too. We invented sheet music. Soon we started to think the sheet music wás the music. In order to hear the music, we however still had to perform the sheet music. And some people simply kept playing and singing without the sheet music. They had to excuse themselves for it, had to pose as second rank musicians - "Do you play an instrument?" "Yes, but only a bit - I don't read staff notation, you see." - but they did it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Message from Jail - Social Sound Part II

So there I was, somewhat before eight in the evening, in the back wing of the former jail of Leeuwarden, now pop stage Asteriks, where the Social Sound Night connected to the Social Sound exposition was to be held. Live radio by Zeilsteen Radio, a Complaints Choir, the band Zinkzand and more, all for just a small entrance fee.

I was asked to be the guest of the live radio programme so I was received by the production woman, who wore fabulous glasses and made a very business-like appearance. She explained that I was programmed at 20.17 hrs. to be interviewed during 12 minutes and had to be present 10 minutes before in the little room serving as the studio. The guy owning the radio station was there too - he explained this was internet radio and that Zeilsteen radio was listened to in the US, especially. Alternative rock music, 24/7 - about a hundred listeners each day. I silently wondered what those hundred American guys would think of my voice entering their heads. Probably they would think of it as véry alternative?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The PVV and music - no real issue.

The Freedom Party (PVV - Geert Wilders' 2-issue-party), department of Groningen, organizes a poll in which you can vote which government grant from the province of Groningen has gone to the most useless project. PVV pre-selected five projects. One of them is a project in which we (our research group) is involved: a project in which we try to find out how, through music, the local community of Pekela and the inhabitants of the asylum seekers' centre can live together peacefully in the same village.

Of course PVV thinks that such a project is nonsense. It is a project in which (possible) immigrants play a role, and the immigrant is one of the 2 PVV-issues (the other one is Europe - basically PVV is against The World). And of course PVV says they are not against the project because of the migrants; no, the idea that music may bring people together is a typical 1960s-idea, according to the PVV. And that, apparently, says it all.

The funny thing is that at the same time that same PVV subsidizes local brass bands in the south of the Netherlands with 5 million euros (the Pekela-project received a provincial grant of 6020 euros). 'Folk culture' must be stimulated, says the PVV - but what does folk culture do, other than bringing people together? It is clearly not the case that PVV is against the 1960s idea of music bringing people together. PVV is against music bringing certain people together. Migrants, to be precisely.

No surprises there.

But all the humdrum shows how accepting grants from governments - local, regional, national - leads to a responsibility which must be taken very seriously: the responsibility to justify, in public, why precisely public money owned by everyone - including those who voted PVV (to paraphrase Wilders: I am against the PVV but not against the PVV-voters) - is spent on certain projects. There is never an automatism in receiving grants, and never such a thing as being entitled to them. Receiving a grant is a favor, and we, the receivers, must be able to explain why we - and our projects - are worth it.

As I sometimes say to our conservatoire students: be prepared to explain to the woman behind the counter at the bakery around the corner why it is justified that most of your education is paid by her and the rest of the general public.

Better start thinking about an answer now.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Social Sound - Art About Music

I am invited to be the guest on a radio programme (Friday, February 1, 2013, 20.00 hrs; www.zeilsteenradio.nl) which is linked to the art exposition Social Sound in Leeuwarden. Artists expose "art about music and what life sounds like" in De Blokhuispoort, the former Leeuwarden jail and now one of those places where cities, after having read Richard Florida, congregate their 'creative class': visual artists, designers, multimediapeople and the like.

I know the Blokhuispoort from when I was a teenager. I was in Leeuwarden at least once a week back then and the bus I took always passed the building, at that moment still a jail. So last Saturday I took my son (8) to take a look at the exposition. I quite liked it, but that is not what I am going to write about. My son  did not like it, but I am not going to wrote about that either. Luckily at least we both liked the idea of being inside a jail, still including the cell blocks, barred windows and huge walls.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Scandalous Call: Play De Bondt!

Cornelis de Bondt, Dutch composer, protested against the current Dutch cultural climate (read: budget cuts). He set free a helium balloon with an alarm in the Concertgebouw during a concert. The Concertgebouw was not amused. De Bondt was not amused that the Concertgebouw was not amused. The scandal was part of a concert series in the Concertgebouw called "Scandalous"; the organisers were looking for scandals like the scandal around the premiere of  Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps, 100 years ago. De Bondt scandalised the organised Scandalous-series by creating an unorganised scandal. With his scandal he protested against the growing marketing-influences in the arts world, including the marketing-through-scandals by the concert organisers - and when asked whether his scandal was also a p.r. stunt for his next concert, his answer was, according to my newspaper, "of course".

Are you still there? I lost track midway the last paragraph.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Honing Dilemma: Playing in Israel - or Not?

My newspaper reported that jazz saxophone player Yuri Honing plans to perform at the Red Sea Jazz Festival  at Eilat, Israel; but that he is put under pressure to refrain from playing there by pro-Palestinian organisations.

I am not going to take sides in this. I have my personal opinion, but it doesn't matter much. I hope you have a personal opinion too - never mind which opinion it is. And I hope it is rooted in ideas about justice, ideas about the general human condition, ideas about what musicians - as humans - should or should not do. Maybe you can sharpen your thoughts on comparable situations: Paul Simon breaking the international cultural boycott of South-Africa by recording with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, for example.

Of course Honing has rooted his opinion in ideas about justice et cetera, too. But the newspaper quoted him ventilating another idea. "My music is an apolitical means of connecting people", Honing says.

I disagree.

Music - in general, or Honing's in particular - is not apolitical. But let's be precise: it is not political either. Music is beyond politics, or before politics; or maybe above - or below? As I express from time to time, music itself is neutral. The use of music, however, is never neutral. By using music in a politically laden context (some people would maintain that every context is politically laden) it becomes partly political by definition. Whether you like it or not. Whether you proclaim its apolitical character or not.

Music is not the realm of beauty. Music is human behavior; it is action, and agency. And agency means choosing. Not playing in Eilat is a choice. But playing in Eilat is not: avoiding a choice because music is apolitical - it is just another choice. And mind you: not playing in Eilat may be (but is not necessarily) a choice for the pro-Palestinian argument, but playing in Eilat is not necessarily a choice against the pro-Palestinian argument.

Life is complex.

If you read Dutch, check out the reactions on Jazzenzo. Endlessly interesting.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Why Nynke de Jong Likes the Top 2000

Just before the new year somebody asked if I already had written in my blog about the Top 2000 - the hitparade put together on the basis of lists made by hundreds of thousands of listeners and broadcast completely between Christmas and New Year's Eve. I had not. And before I could even start to think about what I would like to write, Nynke de Jong wrote it for me. She wrote a column in NRC Next on 31/12 of which the message could have been mine. For those of you reading Dutch: it's here. For those of you not reading Dutch, a bit of literal translation:

"The Top 2000 is not a music list. They make you think so, those jokers from Radio 2. I have to admit: it looks like a music list. Al those songs in a row, the order of which everybody wants to discuss. Because why is Robbie Williams' 'Angels' higher on the list than 'A Day in the Life' of the Beatles? Well? Which audio-handicapped took care of that?

But the Top 2000 is not about music at all. It's all about memories. It's a list with 2000 memories from random Dutch individuals. (...) It's the list of Fat Freddy from Nijverdal, who in the summer waved his long hair at every barn party on Kiss' 'I Was Made For Loving You'. And during headbanging by accident collided with the head of Beatrice. Beatrice, the nice saturday morning assistant of the bakery in Hellendoorn. They kissed behind the party tent, and now they sit on the couch together every evening and he makes some toast while they watch 'Memories' together on the tv.

(...) And that is why one cannot discuss about the Top 2000. Because I may have a tendency to vomit while listening to Marco Borsato, but Erica from Loppersum wants to hear it on her cremation, so I can imagine that she thinks I should shut up my big gob or otherwise just turn off te radio.

And she's got a point there. That's why I do not complain. I grant Fat Freddy and Erica their memories. Even if I have to listen to godforsaken Enya for that."

What can I possibly add to that?

Hail Nynke!!

Something else that was written - without me knowing it - on behalf of me: a reader's letter in my paper pleading for some understanding - the paper wrote about a woman who texted a nasty remark about the fatness of the woman in front of her, and the reader rebuked her for that. Hail, Hester Schaaf!!