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The place where I will regularly post thoughts and comments on any aspect of music.
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(As you see, the blog is in DInglish - Dutch International English - but comments in Dutch, German, French, Spanish and Frisian are welcome.)

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I Wish You Rieu!

I was spending an evening in front of the television and ended up watching André Rieu's jubilee concert at the central 'Vrijthof' square in Maastricht. A spectacle, as usual - a child prodigy, a soprano singing higher than high, three male singers singing louder than loud, a Ukrainian-Russian ensemble piece in order to propagate peace, a laser show, animations on enormous screens behind the stage, confetti showers, two past and one present town mayor, Rieu dancing with a hundred years old nun  - all the ingredients were there to make the jubilee a jubilee as we televise jubilees nowadays.

I wrote about Rieu earlier in this blog (for example here and here), trying to make clear that I admire the man although what he does is not necessarily my taste. While sitting in front of the telly I again enjoyed watching the show. Of course also because I studied in Maastricht, so looking at the audience and hearing Rieu speak the local dialect took me back to the years when I was around twenty years old and tried to figure out how to live an independent life at the other end of the country amidst total strangers. Recollections of all kinds, happy ones and less happy ones, as things go, if only because at least one class mate and one good friend have past away in the meantime. Would they have liked the Rieu concert? I'll never know, I guess - but you never know.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Market Failure Argument

I was at the Arts Council Groningen this week, to talk a bit about their role in arts funding. I had decided some time ago that I would not meddle into cultural policy making any more, but what is meddling? They asked me to tell a story, and as I love telling stories, I accepted.

As usually I tried to make the point that arts funding policy should look at a more inclusive way towards everyday life out there in the ordinary life world. Arts funding policy is, due to traditions, unnecessary exclusive. Decision making, for example, is often exclusively in the hands of a very homogeneous group of 'insider specialists'.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Dr. Jan and Mr. Raes

The directors of the Concertgebouw Orchestra are called Jan Raes.

One of them, Jan Raes, was a member of a small committee who wrote a report for the Ministry of Education about music education in primary schools. On the basis of that report, the ministry decided to invest 25 million euros in music education the next few years.

Jan Raes and his committee wrote in the report: "The snowball lies on top of the mountain, it just needs a little push". With this rather idiot metaphor Jan Raes meant that music education was really developing well those past few years and only needed a bit of money to get into excellent shape again.

A couple of weeks later, the other director, Jan Raes, published with his nine fellow-directors of the Dutch symphony orchestras a report on the future of the orchestras. In that report, he sketches a grim picture of music education in primary schools: it has nearly vanished. In this report, the other Jan Raes mentions the 25 million euros from the ministry not as the final little push in order to get music education in primary schools back to excellency, but as a first beginning to revive music education.

I wish I could witness the discussions between Jan Raes and Jan Raes after they found out how they differed in their estimation of music education in primary education."We're nearly there, you fool!", bellows Dr. Jan. "Not at all - it is nearly extinct", shrieks Mr. Raes. After which they start throwing snowballs at each other from the tops of their respective mountains.

In the meantime, the poor education officer of the Concertgebouw Orchestra witnesses this raging war between Jan Raes and Jan Raes, and no doubt wonders which one to believe. I don't envy her position.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Like Songs

It was 05.30 in the morning, a couple of weeks ago on a Saturday morning, and I stepped in the car to drive to Bochum, Germany. I was going to read a paper on music education in secondary schools in the Netherlands. I had chosen a small pile of CDs to listen to while driving.

As the dark turned into grey and then the grey turned into daylight, and as I drove to the south on a very quiet German highway, I listened to Bob Dylan (The Times They Are A-Changin'), Dolly Parton (The Grass Is Blue), Gill Scott Heron (I'm New Here) and Wilco (The Whole Love).

This blog kind of follows the path of the research I am doing. It started off with me wondering what other people were doing with music, how they look at themselves, how we look at others and ourselves through those powerful glasses called Culture. It was connected to the fact that I was interviewing lots of people about their musical lives for my research. But at some point this blog has become more inward-looking. I write a lot about myself, these days. That is due to the fact that I am now doing a research project in which the research method is - at least at present - what is called 'participant observation': observing others while being part of and partaking in their community. 'Walking the walk, talking the talk'; 'deep hanging out'; up to the point of 'going native'. And as the history of anthropology shows (the early 1980s, in particular), at some point this kind of participant observation is doomed to change into self-observation, and ethnography becomes auto-ethnography. It is a necessary phase in my development as a researcher, but don't worry: I will soon be leaving the auto-ethnographic phase, I will re-focus on 'the other' rather than on myself, because I feel that is where the value in my research eventually lies. And with that, this blog will undoubtedly become more outward-looking again. There is hope.

However, right now I am in the reflexive mood. So I wondered about me listening to all those songs. And also to a specific kind of songs, often. Let's say: the straightforward songs. The songs telling a simple story. Or at least: me believing they tell a simple story (Wilco's lyrics are hardly 'simple', but still the songs are songs). The song being a song, nothing more. Someone writes down lyrics, picks up a guitar and sings what he wrote down. He doesn't care too much whether someone else has sung something comparable, on a comparable tune. The song has to be sung - not meaning some kind of 'artistic-drive-has-to-be-sung', but simply the fact that the song needs to be sung in order to be a song.

You still there?

"For families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same." (Marilynne Robinson in Housekeeping - by the way, the quote, for reasons I might explain some other time, brings me to Sarajevo and to its grandiose sevdalinkah.)

Infinite in number. All the same. The quote expresses precisely why I listen to songs. And why I don't care that Dylan reworks 'Girl from the North Country' into 'Boots of Spanish Leather', knowing this is based upon 'Scarborough Fair'. Or that Gill Scott Heron sings the blues accompanied by samples from old recordings. It doesn't matter - actually; it is the thing to do. Taking up history and re-writing it for your own purposes. I like it when one is satisfied with that humble thing.

It explains why I like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and other American songwriters so much that they are able to move me to tears. They don't beat around the bush. If they miss someone, they write that they miss someone. If they feel they are so lonely they want to die, they write that they feel so lonely they want to die. If they cry a pool of tears, they sing they are crying a pool of tears. No metaphors, no poetry, no psychologizing, no irony and sarcasm, no tongue in cheek. Say how it is. A thousand songs. A thousand sorrows. They're all the same, sung in porches on mild evenings.

I might now write about my past, my personal background, to explain this. But I am not going to do that. I try to stick to the idea that it is enough to say how it is.

I like songs.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Writing in the Margins

We reorganized our living room. Lots of toys have been moved to the kids' rooms. Suddenly we are able to access the lowest shelves of our bookcase again. The shelves where the record collection is: I guess some 750 LPs - the collections of me and my wife, of parents, of friends, things we bought on second hand markets (about 150 hawaii- and keroncong-albums, for example, including the successive Kilima Hawaiians jubilee-albums: 10 years, 15, 20, 25, 40 years of the Kilima's).

So now I occasionally at random pick an LP to listen to. And at some point I picked a gipsy music album - the famous Tata Mirando. I guess the LP is from the 1970s or so. To me that sounds like yesterday but it means some 40 years old now. I like the music. I generally like to think that LPs such as these were made with much love.

At the back of the LP there is a nice text about wandering gypsies, their family ties, their love for music and all that. "They played like demons and produced the kind of record of which every record producer dreams - one which is 'just right'." That kind of stuff. The texts match the picture on the front - check out the combination of little boy and empty beer bottles.

But funny enough, one of the previous owners of the LP obviously disagreed with me about the music. I like it. He put a huge cross over the track list, and as if that message was not clear enough, he wrote comments after each song title.


My grandfather used to write in the margins of his books. I have some philosophical books of his (he liked them in all forms, from the academic to the very exotic and esoteric), in which occasionally he wrote "nonsense!" or "wrong!" in the margin. The remarks on the record could have been written by him - he was a violinist (he is rumored to have bought violins from gypsies at the door, including the one I am now fiddling on, and was fascinated by the fact that at some point at the conservatoire I had lessons from Andrei Serban, son of Gregor - lessons which mainly consisted of me teaching him Irish jigs and reels and he teaching me some Balkan stuff, with sometimes just for formal reasons some attention to Bach's double concerto); but I think my grandfather liked Tata Mirando too much (and anyway, if the record would have been my grandfather's it would smell like pipe tobacco) to write what the former owner has written on - now - my record. "Long; occasionally 'real'", it says at track 1. Track 2: "short! Very 'drummy'." Track 5: "Much heavy vibrating squeaking." Et cetera.




The man may, no must have been a connoisseur; when "I. Malcaroff" is mentioned as the arranger, he underlines the "I.", as if to indicate a mistake (it may have been V. Malcaroff, indeed). (In academic circles he would have written "sic!" somewhere, to indicate he has viewed a mistake. I hate "sic!"s, I must confess, they remind me too much of people who not simply say "in academic circles" or "amongst academics" but instead say "in academia". Especially in Dutch I find that pathetic, but that of course is completely my personal feeling - no harm meant, really.)

I try to imagine my predecessor. I guess he was slightly older (I read his handwriting as the handwriting of a slightly older person - I wonder how I would read my own handwriting today if it would have been a stranger's one). I imagine it is a man's handwriting, for no good reason apart from the fact that my grandfather (and not my grandmother) is my great example of a margin-writer. I see him sitting at his desk, listening to the record for the first time - disappointed he listens and re-listens, and then resolutely puts a huge cross through the track listing (and - to be sure - marks the front side of the sleeve with a cross as well), writes his comments, and then puts the record on the shelf with all the other records with crossed-out track lists and sarcastic negative commentaries. He feels a bit sorry that the record was no good, but at the same time he is happy that at least he has, in this modest way, made very clear that there is a difference between good and bad, and that there are still people in this world who are able to tell that difference.

I try to think, these days, not in terms of 'music' but of 'musicking'. Music is not a thing, it is behavior. Listening to music, dancing to music, eating to music, collecting record sleeves. I can now add a new one to the list: writing commentaries on record sleeves.

Fascination without end.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

First the playing, then the lesson

I was talking with a great guy who invented the 'rock-school on wheels' ('rijdende popschool'). He gives villages with a couple of hundred of inhabitants the opportunity to have a rock-school installed in the village - he just needs a space, drives in the instruments and the bandcoaches, and starts a couple of rock groups.

There were approximately 98 reasons why I liked his initiative so much. I will not list them here. But one of the things that struck me was that he told me that he did not start with instrumental lessons but with playing in a band. "If they are playing for some time, some of them will want to have lessons; and the rest learns to play as they go", he said.

It does by sheer coincidence match with what I wrote in my previous blog, about the guy wanting to buy an electric guitar. And it completely does not match with the usual ideas we have about how to learn to play music. First take lessons and practice; then, at some point, if you're good enough, start playing together.

Of course, for many people, that point never comes, and they quit lessons and playing.

And, by the way, do you think that you learn to play the gamelan or the djembe in that way?

We too often think that learning to play is done in a lesson. But it is worthwhile to think differently. First, you learn to play. Then, you may take lessons. If only, because only then you know what you would like to learn more about.

One of 98 reasons to be a fan of the 'rock-school on wheels'.

Singing in the Classroom

This morning I published a small opiniating article in national newspaper Trouw. Message: first thing to do for music education in primary schools is to invest in singing classroom teachers.

Lots of reactions. Sad: people recognize that the state of music education in primary schools in many places is so feeble that priority now is something too obvious for words: SING! Happy: people embrace the simple idea that priority now is something too obvious for words: SING!

Monday, 15.40, I am expected to explain myself on Radio 1.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Some Recent Small Stories

A man tells me that, now that he has turned fifty, he should do his midlife crisis. As he had been interested in punk music for a long time, he said he would, rather than buy a motor cycle, buy an electric guitar and play it very loud. 'Coming of age', as it were,

A musician-friend who followed our conversation tells him she knows a good teacher.

Or:

An older man visits me at the conservatoire. It turns out he loves to visit concerts. "But I am not musical at all, of course", he adds hastily. "I don't play any instrument whatsoever."

When did we start to think of music as a specialism? And why?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Hearing Joan Baez Sing 'Don't Think Twice, It's Allright'

In another blog, I am following what happens to me while digesting the complete recordings of Bob Dylan. Of course, apart from the other blog being a completely self-centered (or, in scientific terms, auto-ethnographical) project in itself, it is also a project that interacts with the rest of my musical life. So Dylan trickles into this blog from time to time.

Every time I heard Dylan's song 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright', for example, I could not help feeling that this is a truly aggressive song. I am not sure where that came from; maybe from the audacity to sing about a former lover: "You've been wasting my precious time". Maybe it was fortified by the biography I read about Dylan, showing him  to be sometimes a not very nice person to his intimate relations. Somewhere in my head was the story of Dylan's relationship with Joan Baez, which had an unhappy ending, very much to do, it is said, with Dylan's simply dropping the woman. I connected 'Don't Think Twice...' to this story, wrongfully because the song was there before the story, but there you go: the funny way heads work.

I am listening now to Dylan's second album, on which the song appears. There is also the song 'Masters of War', wishing explicitly for the death of those Masters of War. It is considered to be an outrageously aggressive song, but actually I had less trouble in hearing that song and placing myself in the writer's shoes than in hearing 'Don't Think Twice...'. The former is about anger and frustration; the latter, I found, was mean and cruel. Some critics try to sell 'Don't Think Twice' as ironical. If that's irony, I know why I am not a fan of it.

Last week I was at he always fantastic Take Root festival in Groningen. Headliner was Joan Baez. I arrived late because I had to sing with my shanty choir at a harvest festivity in a small village - an extremely rewarding occasion I might write about another time, if only because I became acquainted with Motorclub Waardeloos ('Worthless') - and when I entered the main hall, there was Baez singing.

How old is she now? Somewhere in her 70s, I guess. But (?) the concert was great, very convincing, she and only two musicians capturing the audience from start to finish. She sang 'Gracia a la vida'. She sang 'Diamond and Rust', about her relationship with Dylan. She sang John Lennon's 'Imagine', reminding me of Dylan's 'Masters of War' because that always makes me think of Lennon's 'Working Class Hero', just as Dylan's 'Girl from the North Country' refers me to Simon and Garfunkel's 'Scarborough Fair'.

Listening to music in my case seems to be all about making endless connections to what I've heard before, building up a network of connotations that makes listening a richer and richer experience as I grow older; in the present moment of listening, my history is constantly present, as is the future in which this present moment will be a past moment to which the next present moment will refer - et cetera et cetera et cetera, ad infinitum (but never ad nauseam).

Anyway, at some point Baez sung 'Don't Think Twice'. And while listening, I found that the song's meanness and cruelty had mysteriously vanished. Suddenly the words fell into place. Was it because I thought Baez was entitled to sing a cruel song, given her history with Dylan? When home, I relistened Dylan's version, and found it  had become hard now to assess the song as a cruel song; it led me to reading the lyrics carefully for the first time, which did not help to get back to the cruel feeling the song had had earlier for me.

So here I am, listening to a song which had been frightening to listen to in the past but now has been domesticized by my own listening history. I wonder if my original experience may come back again. I guess not. But I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Politics of Music Talk, part II

I have to give some elucidations from a different angle on the previous blog entry - the malignant one about the way classical music's Radio 4 speaks to me and my daughter.

The previous blog entry was written from emotion; from my experience; from a 'phenomenological' standpoint, if you want, describing what listening to those voices while driving my car does to me. This blog entry will try to give some distantiated thoughts about it. Those thoughts were triggered by reading an article by Charles Goodwin in which two professional ways-of-dealing-with-the-world are described: the archeologist's and the policeman's.

Goodwin's article showed that professionals not just look at objective facts in the world. They have a specific way of looking at the world, which creates the facts they see. Archeologists, by knowing how to look, create archeological traces by their way of looking; a policeman, by analyzing a video of the beating of Rodney King, can create a way of looking at the video in which King becomes an aggressor and the policemen beating him up are simply performing professional police work (they are performers, rather than human beings).

What struck me while reading the article was not only the mere fact that people create their world by being 'in' it. What  struck me were the power relations involved. In the Rodney King case, attorneys succeeded in convincing the jury that the policemen's account - in which King was the aggressor - was the valuable account not because it was necessarily true or better, but because it was the account of a professional. The policemen beating King were in court supported by a professional way of looking at video images and turning those images into distantiated, scientific talk. King, initially, was supported by 'just' a common-sense viewing of the images. And as Goodwin so aptly states: "Victims do not constitute a profession",

It is something similar that bothers me in the 'official' music world I work in. Music, in that world, is an area of expertise; an area of expertise which requires experts doing the talking about playing music and listening to music. It is, as any area of expertise, an exclusive area of expertise, an area in which some people have more expertise than others and in which speaking time is allotted to people on the basis of their expertise, which is judged on their proficiency in the specific expert language belonging to that area of expertise.

In other words: talking publicly about music, or deciding about it, can only be done either by the specialists or after having consulted the specialists. That's why 'ordinary' people are so reluctant to talk about music in public - "I know nothing about it, really". And that is also why many 'non-specialist' music lovers do not understand - often are not even interested in - the formal music world: it's a world inhabited by another species speaking another language.

To be radical: this specialist music world is not a world of disinterested specialists, of people who simple know a bit more. It is also a world of people possessing the power of public speaking and defending that by many (sometimes by any) means.

But that tide actually is changing (to quote Dylan again - compare my last blog entry). Less and less, music is considered to be a professionalism; less and less, people are in awe of the opinions of the music professionals; and less and less, people feel that their musical lives should be sanctioned by the expert in our formalized music world in order to be worthwhile. And more and more  people feel free to do 'their own thing' (which is not only simply 'their own thing' - but that's another topic).

The thing is that many of the experts themselves don't seem to realize that. They feel, maybe, that they are losing their power of professional expertise. But it seems to me that they mistakenly think that this power will be reinvested in them as soon as they will have convinced enough people that their expertise is the only worthwhile basis for truly legitimate ways of 'musicking', really.

Which will not happen. Hence the volcano in the previous blog.

Charles Goodwin. 'Professional Vision.' American Anthropologist 96/3 (1994).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Politics of Music Talk

This is a grim little piece. Apologies,

I was sitting in the car with my daughter. She asked me to put classical music on. I was happily surprised - any curiosity of my children in unforeseen directions makes me happy - and wondered where that came from. Was it due to the flute lessons she just started? Anyway, I was happy; we searched a bit on the radio and found Radio 4, our national classical station.

I used to listen to Radio 4 quite a lot, but at some point stopped it because I couldn't stand the talking. It was not so much the amount (although Radio 4 could do with more music and less talking), but the character of the talking: belligerent and high-brow, I have no other words for it. And that hasn't changed; specialists still tell the innocent listener in an at times mysterious-exalted language about the excellence of it all, and in between talk and the music the listener hears announcements for concerts which will all be played either by charismatic stars of world class or by extraordinary talents on the verge of conquering the world, who are all promised to give concerts where the listener will be overwhelmed by emotions or flabbergasted by the impeccable techniques of the semi-gods on stage.

Maybe I exaggerate. But not much. Bruno Nettl's "athletic view on music" in optima forma.

And at some point the image came to me of a group of happy people dancing on a more and more active volcano. The earth shudders lightly, they are surrounded by a smokey haze, the first ashes are falling down; but they don't seem to notice and just carry on dancing the same old dance.

Without wanting to be too apocalyptic (I just listened to Bob Dylan's 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' and maybe his metaphors are contagious): the volcano will explode (or maybe not - maybe it will be 'not with a bang but with a whimper' this world ends, to (dis)quote T.S. Eliot), and I guess the survivors will be the dancers who dance different dances in different places.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On Solipsism; or: Music for a Sunday Afternoon

Halfway the afternoon, it stopped raining.

My son wanted to play football, so we put on our shoes and went to the lawn between the school and the church. We met some church-goers on the way. They greeted us friendly, we greeted back.

While we were playing football, the singing of psalms and hymns drifted  from the church faintly over the lawn. It reminded me of times long ago, when I occasionally visited church services because some of my friends were believers. For a moment I longed to be in the church, singing along in strong and uncomplicated belief. But I realised that probably that would be something reserved for a next life, not for this one. My life history is one that by now makes a 'strong and uncomplicated belief' (if such a thing exists - strong, yes, but uncomplicated?) unlikely to happen. The best I can hope for, I guess, is some peace of mind while temporarily quieting down the principles of rational doubt.

The moment of longing also made something else clear to me: that I would, in spite of all my efforts to understand what music means for other people, never even get close to the experiences of all those church-goers. I have my suspicions, my dreams about those experiences, I could gain more knowledge about it by reading, observing, asking, participating - but those suspicions and dreams and knowledge, eventually, would be my experiences, not theirs.

Solipsism sometimes seems an inescapable position. Specifically on Sunday afternoons.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Drive My Car - or: R.I.P., HSB

For a long time now I have been thinking I should write a blog entry on listening to music in the car. So here I go.

In the conversations I had in the past few years about music, one of the most musical places turned out to be the car. In the car people listen to their music; they copy CDs to do so, or have their favorite radio stations programmed in the presets of their car stereo. When they go on holiday by car, they sometimes sample a collection of 'holiday music' for the occasion - and that CD (or cassette, in earlier days) often stays a favorite for many years.

Et cetera.

With me it's the same: the car is an important place. When I am in the car with my complete family I don't often play music these days. But when I am in the car with one of the kids I often do, and we sometimes have a little chat about the music. (My youngest daughter used to ask for some time: "The Weatles?" whenever I played music in the car.)


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Waste of Talent?

Some time ago I was chairing a little symposium dedicated to the development of musical talent. It was organized by a well-known youth string orchestra from the region in honor of its 25th birthday.

The symposium was nice. We invited as a key note speaker the principal of a municipal music school which still manages to play a role in talent development, which is not straightforward. Many of those schools, traditionally considered as the key providers of instrumental music tuition in The Netherlands, are going through rough times. That is: if they manage to stay alive, because many of them close due to severe budget cuts by their municipalities. Many of them are funded by the local governement but less and less those governments consider it as a given that they should keep doing that. I am not going into that debate, apart from saying that the questions posed to music schools are sometimes not unrealistic, and the answers offered by music schools are sometimes not realistic. Having said that, I notice each and every music school that dies with regret.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Musical Other


For my inauguration as professor ('lector') New Audiences at the Prince Claus Conservatoire, Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, a small video (about 6 minutes) was made on the theme 'The Musical Other'. If you haven't seen it, you may check it out here!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Art - A Possibility of Music

I seem to have made myself not completely clear.

That counts for most topics, I guess (a sociologist called Harold Garfinkel - brother of Simon N. Garfinkel, indeed - claims that social order is possible only because people are never completely clear in their intentions and their communications. The world exists because it is messy. I will explain this another time; after I have understood  Garfinkel's claim, that is). But especially for my frantic dislike of the idea that music is art; or even Art.

So let me try to be a bit more precise on that. I do not deny that music can be an artistic phenomenon. On the contrary; dependent on what exactly 'artistic' is (has it something to do with the realm of the beautiful? with the unattainable ideal? with the creative domain?) I would probably acknowledge that music for me is an artistic phenomenon.

I must say: music for me is also, sometimes, an artistic phenomenon. Because when I say music is not Art, I only mean to say that music is not exclusively, mainly, or essentially Art. Music, as I said in my inauguration speech (check the video belonging to that happening here, including a musical saw, an opera singer and a shanty choir) a couple of days ago, is never one thing. It is always many things at the same time. It is different things for different people in different places and in different times. It is always a lot of things at the same time, in an ever changing constellation. Its character changes over time. It is everything, always, and for everyone.

And being Art is just one of its many possibilities.

So please don't try to convince me that music may have a deeply artistic effect. Because I know that; it sometimes has that effect on me. And I love it for that.

But also don't try to convince me that saying that music may have a deeply artistic effect is a convincing description of what music is. Because music is so much more than that; and that 'more' is not essentially less musical, or less important to people. The fact that our dominant culture teaches us to look at music as Art is no excuse, really, but just a question of powerplay. And probably a form of powerplay which is not on the winning side, these days. We better get used to that.

Music is so much more than Art. That is why it is such a powerful humanizing medium. Let's try and see the beauty (or Beauty?) in that.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Goodbye, Musicscape Groningen

A couple of years ago, when I started my PhD research, I decided it would be nice - me being an ethnomusicologist - to at least sketch the context of the persons I was interviewing for my dissertation. One of the things I wanted to outline was which opportunities they had to listen to live music. I thought such a description would be easy: just use some existing literature, some statistical data sets used in the world of culture policy.

To my surprise, I found out that actually no-one knew what was really going on in the province of Groningen - or in the city of Groningen - or in any other city in the Netherlands, for that matter. At least not in the broad sense I wanted to know it. Yes, there were figures about how the subsidized stages programmed music; but for the less- or not-at-all-subsidized stages there was only scattered and anecdotal information, if there was any information at all.

So I decided to gather the material myself.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Summer is in the air - you can tell it by the booming basses

Last weekend there were two big open air concerts in the city of Groningen. A Dance Party, and a live music show which will be broadcast on television later. Both attracted a lot of listeners, who had great fun. Both attracted quite some officials with Decibel measuring equipment, to check whether the festivals stayed within the official norms. Both led to complaints from people living nearby. Both led to people living nearby fleeing their home for a night - something I would probably want to do.

Party for one, a nightmare for the other - music showing both its faces at once.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Trust

I am reading about ethnomethodology these days. Ethnomethodology is a sociological theory originating in the 1960s, and I read about it with a colleague for whom using ethnomethodology as a theoretical background to her doctoral study might be useful. I remember I was totally gripped by ethnomethodology when it was first explained to me, so I am looking forward to meeting it again.

I am not going to give you an introduction into the theory, because I can't. But as I understand it, ethnomethodology shows that the basis of society - of people like you and me sharing a space and a time amongst us - lies not in 'norms and values' which bind us together, nor does it lie in the individual rational choices we make continuously in order to maximize our (material or immaterial) profits.

Society has a much deeper source. Before you can even think of norms and values binding groups of people together, before you can even act strategic in a group of people, there is a basic 'grammar of everyday life' at work which makes communication between people - be it verbal or non-verbal - possible in the first place. This 'grammar' is hidden deep down in us, and the only way we know our way around in it is by living our everyday lives. Therefore, living life is not so much a question of following laws, but rather we grope around our way in life, looking for shared understandings with our fellow members of society (Harold Garfinkel, the inventor of ethnomethodology, insists on calling human beings 'members'), and using all kinds of backwards interpretations to make that incomprehensible life comprehensible (Garfinkel: 'accountable') in hindsight, for example by saying that our social life rests on norms and values or on individual profit maximalisation.

I guess I love ethnomethodology because I feel it captures essentially the way my life is lived by me, as I see it. (Which is an ex-post-facto accountability judgement, of course).

What I like best, however, is that deep in the heart of ethnomethodology lies an idea of Trust. We live our lives Trusting that we can share our lives with others because we try to grope around life as best as we can and assume that others do the same. Because we are groping around, we don't always succeed; but because we Trust, there may be hope. It is Trust on a deep level, deeper than 'norms and values'; it is a sort of existential Trust, I guess, without which society - living together - would be impossible at all. Hence the capital T.

But although it is Trust on a deep and existential level, it is for me a sort of excuse to also believe in trust - lower case t - at the 'superficial' level of everyday life. I like to think that I can trust others; and I guess I hope that others may have some trust in me.

Has this anything to do with music? I don't know. I guess that musicking, as any form of human behavior, is social in essence and based on Trust, helping us groping our way around life. And I guess I see how music, here and now, acts not only as a thing of beauty but also - and often at the same time - as an instrument of power, and I sometimes feel that goes directly counter the idea of trust.

But in the end, sociological theory is just like music: it may touch you, but you will never be able to explain precisely why it does so.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On the Anthropologist Gradus J. Bosklopper

One of my favorite regional artists is Bert Hadders. I promised in my last blog I would write about King's Day. Well, here I go: I heard him play at King's Day in my village. He played with his band De Nozems at the central square. In front of him sat some real fans; they spoke dialect and had fun. On the side, on the cafe terrace, the local elite was looking blase over a white wine. A little bit the John Lennon-idea: "Those in the cheaper seats clap. The rest of you, rattle your jewelry."

But the band was great, as was Bert Haddders. One of his songs I like best is "Elvis, Keuning van de Bunermond", a song about a local hero somewhere in the Wild East of the Groningen province, the place we call Veenkoloniën (literally "the Peatbog Colonies", I guess), also because this song has such an irresistible video clip.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On Culture

If you do not like blog entries about abstractions, skip this one. It is about 'culture'. Soon I will write about King's Day - much more fun, I promise.

Some time ago I was giving a guest lecture in a course on research skills for teaching staff. I do those guest lectures a couple of times per year, and I like it - it forces me to think about my own research and to explain it to others.

On the basis of earlier experiences this year, I had decided that I would focus less on content and more on methodological issues, and specifically on what is called Grounded Theory: a type of research in which you do not test a theory, but develop it on the basis of empirical data.

So in the lecture I was talking about one of the principles of Grounded Theory, which is called theoretical sampling. The fact that you start your research without a theory makes it hard to decide where to begin your sampling of data. So you simply start somewhere, without  fixed theoretical preconceptions.

One of the people present thought long and hard about this and then disagreed with me. In my specific case, I sampled interviewees only within the province of Groningen, which for the person present meant that at least I had a basic preconception of culture - a preconception that my interviewees, varied as they might be, at least shared a culture to some extent.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Dolly Parton - A Review

The music critic has always fascinated me. He is the professional variant of something many people do continuously: talking about their musical experiences in an evaluating way.

I guess the music critic uses three ingredients: descriptions, judgments, and emotions. He describes what has happened: who was where when with whom, why, with which backgrounds, which history, et cetera. Then there are the judgments and the emotions. They are the equivalents of what I elsewhere called "judging talk" and "liking talk". Together they make up the discourse in which we describe our personal relationship to music. Music touches us - hence the "liking talk" with which we describe our emotions. And on that basis we pick the music we like to listen to - which leads to enormous amounts of "judging talk", in which we try to rationalize our musical choices. Of course that rational story is never convincing, precisely because it is the rational counterpart of the emotional process of liking music, a process which remains inexplicable and only expressible through - mostly material (often bodily) - metaphors: "It really entered"; "It touched my heart"; "It shook me"; et cetera.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Music Generations Groningen

After some years of making plans, (not) convincing possible partners and (not) finding money, finally this afternoon the first Groningen version of the Music Generations programme started after all. I was there to take a look, and I was proud.

Music Generations is a programme which aims at making an intergenerational production with amateur singers from the categories "25-" and "50+" (which makes me feel discriminated, but because that feeling will end in a few months I am not too worried).

It calls itself a talent development programme, and maybe it is. As you may know, I am not too big a fan of the Talent-buzzword; but politicians, policy-makers and money-investors are attracted by it, so talent development it is. But what I liked most about the first audition I saw this afternoon was not the talent-thing; it was the fact that people were allowed to do their own musical thing in public. People were allowed to present themselves as the musical persons they are, all their idiosyncrasies included.

They all deserve the workshops and masterclasses offered by the programme; and they all deserve to grow musically and to become even better than they already are. But what I really hope is, that in all that growing and becoming better they do not lose themselves. I hope they grow mainly in becoming even more of the  themselves they already are.

Because that is the great attraction of sessions like the one I witnessed this afternoon: it shows how music potentially is, in the words of my beloved Clifford Geertz, a meeting place to "enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained in a world where tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other’s way".

Monday, March 10, 2014

What It Really Is About

I am working ´in´ music. I teach about it. I talk about it. I write about it. I talk about teaching it. I write about teaching it. I teach about writing about it. I talk about writing about it. I teach about talking to write about it. Et cetera, ad infinitum, and sometimes ad nauseam (all this Latin to show that I am ´not from the street´, as we say in Dutch, or, ´reversely´, that I have ´street credibility´ in doing it).

And then, of course - talking about street credibility - I play it and I sing it.

But the secret of music lies not in the hands that move the pen or pluck the strings, nor in the mouth that sings the songs or speaks the words.

The secret lies in the ears that hear, and in the soul being moved.

At times, I become so tired with those hands and this mouth. It is all so haphazard, so unfruitful, so futile. I might as well do something else - I might be better off, and so might the rest of the world.

But then I return from a rehearsal of my beloved shanty choir. I sit in the car, I put on the stereo and I listen to Dave Rawlings' 'Bells of Harlem'. And I am dumbstruck with what the sounds of music continue to do to me. They uplift me, up to the point of annihilation.

And I realize that after all, there is probably nothing else I am supposed to do than to play it, sing it, speak about it, write about it, teach about it; if only to honor the listening to it.

So, let the dance continue.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Thank you, Dino

So here I am in Sarajevo, again. It has been quite some time - three years, to be precise. I wondered if again it would snow and I would spot a Dipper, but no. But the lovely smell of the charcoal fires needed to make cevabcici was there, as was the lovely sound of the muezzins of all the mosques; the Bosnian football team still plays in lovely blue, and Music Academy Sarajevo - which hosted me so kindly - was as filled with its lovely students and as hot as ever. So although I missed my wife and kids, I felt at home, in a way.

About the sounds of the muezzins - it is music to my ears. But I know that for some muslims, reciting the qur'an and music are two very very different things; we hear the same but it feels different and listens to a different name. Related to this: one of the ethnomusicologists with whom I worked these days told me that people in a village where she did fieldwork answered in the negative when she asked whether there was any music going on in processions; of course they were singing, she discovered much later, but they did not call it music.Thank you for the story, dear colleague - and oh, the power of words and feelings

Never take a word on its word.

And speaking about words: the wisest words these days came from a composer. In a reflective conversation he remarked that what we, human beings, do need amongst us is not so much that European buzz-word 'tolerance' - we need 'acceptance'. I couldn't agree more; I told him that his words would stick with me the rest of my life, and - pathetic as it may have sounded - I meant it.

Thank you, Dino.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Blowin' in the Wind

When I was about fourteen, I stopped taking violin lessons and switched to the guitar. At that time, I think there was no choice between classical or pop, or between Spanish or electric guitar; if you took guitar lessons, you bought a Spanish guitar and learned to play classical music. But I was lucky to have as my teacher Dries Lubach, who realized that, apart from playing the etudes of Emilio Pujol, it might be attractive for kids my age to also learn to read chord schemes and play basic finger-picking patterns by means of such songs as House of the Rising Sun and Blowin' in the Wind.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Raymond Firth on Objectivity

I would like to share here some of the final words of the anthropological classic "We, the Tikopia" by Raymond Firth, because, more than 75 years after its first publication, they still point to a concern any anthropologist shares in some way.

"Social anthropology should be concerned with how human beings behave in social groups, not with trying to make them behave in any particular way by assisting an administrative policy or a proselytizing campaign to achieve its aims more easily. The scientist gives generalizations regarding the nature of the working of institutions; it is not his duty to affix ethical values to them, nor by conniving at such an ethical evaluation to pave the way for their modification. Missionary, government officer and mine manager are free to use anthropological methods and results in their own interests, but they have no right to demand as a service that anthropology should become their handmaid. Nor can the standards which they invoke - "civilization", "humanity",  "justice", "the sanctity of human life", "Christianity", "freedom of the individual", "law and order" - be regarded as binding; the claim of absolute validity that is usually made for them too often springs from ignorance, from an emotional philanthropy, from the lack of any clear analysis of the implications of the course of action proposed, and from confusion with the universal of what is in reality a set of moral ideas produced by particular economic and social circumstances.

This is not to say that the scientist himself may not have his own personal predilections, based on his upbringing and social environment, his temperamental disposition, his aesthetic values. He may regard the culture of a primitive, half-naked set of people on an island of the Solomons as a pleasant way of life, giving expression to the individuality of its members in ways alien to western civilization; he may regard it as something he would like to see endure, and he may strive to preserve it in the face of ignorance and prejudice, pointing out the probable results of interference with ancient customs. This he does as a man; his attitude is part of his personal equation to life, but it is not implicit in his scientific study. The greatest need of the social sciences to-day is for a more refined methodology, as objective and dispassionate as possible, in which, while the assumptions due to the conditioning and the personal interest of the investigator must influence his findings, that bias shall be consciously faced, the possibility of other initial assumptions be realized and allowance be made for the implications of each in the course of the analysis."

What a way to end an ethnography, long before the "reflexive turn" in the social sciences took place.

And then the question: I add to the row of "missionary, government officer and mine manager" the music festival director, the orchestra manager, the conservatoire principal, the professional musician and the music teacher; and I add to "civilization", "humanity", "justice" et cetera "art", "the aesthetic", and "beauty" - and then I wonder what my position as a so-called "applied" researcher within a conservatoire might be, regarding all Firth said above.

Raymond Firth. We, the Tikopia. Kinship in Primitive Polynesia. Boston, Beacon Press: 1963 [1936].

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Why Music Gives Us Pleasure, According To The Reverend Gilbert White

The Reverend Gilbert White (about whom I wrote before) explains in Letter XLVI to the honourable Daines Barrington (not dated, but written somewhere at the end of the 18th century) quite precisely why "the shrilling of the field-cricket, though sharp and stridulous, yet marvelously delights some hearers". I think his argument is extendable to music, so read along with me:

"Sounds do not always give us pleasure according to their melody and sweetness; nor do harsh sounds always displease. We are more apt to be captivated or disgusted with the associations which they promote, than with the notes themselves."

Short, precise, and true. Who needs a musicologist when a Reverend is available?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Will 2014 be the Year of the Third Dutch Folk-Revival?

Happy new year.

I have taken a sort of semi-sabbatical those past few months, I now realize. I wrote less regularly than I used to do, I simply did not find the time, the energy, or the right topic. But I'll get back to the normal once-a-week rhythm in 2014, I hope.

Let me start with an intriguing question: will 2014 become the year of the third Dutch folk revival in the guise of a revival of the shanty - the seafaring songs of our nautical forefathers? I ask this question because a group called Ancora (meaning 'anchor' in Latin) is - in certain circles - hugely successful. They released a CD plus DVD called "Vrij als de wind" ('Free as the wind') last September, which immediately became the number 1 in the Dutch-language CD album charts. I saw the documentary of the DVD just two days ago on the regional TV station TV Oost, and it has also been broadcast on national TV. There is a definite link to the Volendam music scene, Jan Keizer (from BZN) acting as a a sort of Godfather for the group - whose members were well-known in a previous musical life as "De Piratentoppers" (pirates not referring to sea pirates but to illegal radio stations playing Dutch-language music called 'pirate stations' in the Netherlands).