Pasta, union meeting, Mozart and the Red Light District

Amsterdam, Muziekgebouw aan ´t IJ

Amsterdam, Muziekgebouw aan ´t IJ

A delicious pasta yesterday evening at Frances-Marie Uitti’s house, not far from the Muziekgebouw aan ´t IJwhere the composers’ union meeting (Componisten 96) was to take place. Chatting away, Frances quickly threw together a tortelloni. Spices, broccoli and parmegiano. Mmmm. Better than you would get in a restaurant, of course. And we drank a good red wine. Frances is my best friend in Amsterdam and a top cellist and improviser. But I shouldn’t forget also to mention the large and imposing marmalade cat that resides at this same address……………

Nice conversation, as usual, but mainly we were meeting to decide which events to attend in the upcoming Holland Festival. Frances herself is giving two performances during this festival, on the 8th and 9th of June.

Then I walked quickly to the union meeting. Saw some friends and colleagues there – Peter Adriaansz, Roderik de Man, Michel van der Aa, Martin Altena, Martijn Padding and David Dramm. Louis Andriessen was also in attendance. There was a long presentation of what will be the new structure for administering contemporary music in Holland and many questions about it. Then some other business. Quite heavy stuff. So I was glad to drink a glass of rosé during the break.

Cycled back through the Red Light District. Lots of drunken men swaying around the narrow lanes, making it difficult to get by. And two pedestrians crashed together suddenly. I thought there would be a punch-up, but fortunately it was good humoured. As always, the atmosphere in this quarter irritated me and I was glad to be out of it. Years ago, coming down from the composer Jan-Bas Bollen’s apartment on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal we had to step over a huge drop of blood on the doorstep – obviously left there by an addict shooting up. Then a few doors away you had the prostitutes sitting in the windows. I remarked to Jan-Bas, how bizarre it was, this juxtaposition of sordid 20th century life and exquisite old buildings. He said “no, this is the oldest part of town and the prostitutes were always here. This is where the sailors came when the boats docked”.

In one of these streets, Mozart (may his name live forever) stayed, during his visit to Amsterdam, aged nine or ten. He spent seven months or so in Holland and wrote twelve works, including two symphonies….

Thoughts. No.4 – Composers and protocol

Lord Britten

Lord Britten

I will attend the Componisten ’96 meeting this evening, for only the second time. As a foreigner, I need to put my face around a bit (well I’m quite reclusive, actually) and also listen and watch. I am interested in learning further how the Dutch do things. I never went to a union meeting in the UK, so I can’t compare the two approaches, though at least in one detail I can. Louis Andriessen was at the first meeting I attended and I was struck by that…………as the leading Dutch composer, he wasn’t following anything like English protocol. In England, such a figure wouldn’t be found dead at a composers’ union meeting. Can you imagine Baron Britten of Aldeburgh attending a union meeting? No. Never. And Britten was seriously posh, so that’s another layer of protocol again.

Why English and Dutch protocol differs in this matter I don’t know.

Thoughts. No. 2 – Sex addicts

sex-addictLate last night, as I cycled home from work, a thought occured to me. I should say “recurred”, because I already had this thought some months previously. It had to do with masturbation…………of all unmentionable things…………..The context for this quite serious reflection (cycling along on my bike, in the dark) will make it comic for some.

“You will go blind” was the saying that amused the boys at my school. How risible they found the idea. And I think we can truly doubt that anyone was ever made blind by doing this dirty, dirty thing, (UGH!). But did anyone ever become mad because of it? Wasn’t that the other half of the saying we used to laugh at? I forget.

(Googling the subject, today, I immediately come across the topic “Does Masturbation Cause Madness?” in a men’s health website, with a reassurance that it, of course, doesn’t.)

Anyway, what I was thinking about as I beetled along, was that, nowadays, people (Hollywood people, anyway) do sometimes check themselves into clinics in order to be treated for sex addiction – in other words, sex is driving them nuts. So, maybe the schoolboys of my day should have been a little more attentive to the advice given, a little less dismissive………….they should have seen further……….. that there was a useful message hidden in there somewhere………or should I say lost in there somewhere. The whole idea having become so abbreviated as to become nonsensical.

Thoughts. No.1 – Auras

auraWhen I am talking to others I am more and more keenly aware of listening to something other than their words. I listen to the sounds they make and I watch their movements, because I am trying to see what is hidden there. Speech is also music and can be listened to as such. Sometimes something rather odd happens. I passed a woman as I left work last night and I thought “yes, that is a good aura”. About a half dozen individuals at my work have what I call “good auras”.

The concept of a European soul that creates reflections of itself. Letter (part 4)

crownToday is the anniversary of my father’s birth.

Here is the fourth and final extract from my letter on “new Music”. The rest was specific to the people I was addressing last year.

The concept of a European soul that creates reflections of itself

About ten years ago, in Venice (with my teacher Ernesto Rubin de Cervin, to refer to him once more), I was in St. Mark’s for a concert given by a German orchestra and choir. They played Wolfgang Rihm, Alois Zimmerman and Schoenberg’s “Prelude to the Genesis Suite”. I said afterwards to Ernesto “Schoenberg is the Crown Jewels of Europe”. That was enough to create an understanding between us at that moment. If I have to dispense with the metaphor, I’d say that the work is at one with the spirit that created us as we are – small mirrors of a European soul. I could have said it of Machaut, or of the Grote Markt in Brussels but instead I said it of Schoenberg. It was more of an exclamation actually, as Schoenberg gets such a bad press you can start to forget what a precious jewel he is for you………

So with that conviction I have a right appreciation of Schoenberg and see what logically must follow from that. Perform him! Listen to him!

An incorrect response, authenticity, and sticking to your guns. Letter (part 3)

Lady Writing a Letter (Vermeer)

Lady Writing a Letter (Vermeer)

I went for a long walk. For days now, a four note motive has been going through my head. It seems to come from working on the string quartet, though why, I don’t know, as it’s not a theme.

Going up it’s B F# A and then down to a C# and back to the B again, then on and on in a circle. It’s in my head as those specific pitches, and when I get home and test them on the piano, the level hasn’t dropped and it hasn’t risen. I am not so constant with tempo. When I start working on something, I measure the tempo. Later on, when I consult the metronome again, I find that the tempo in my head has changed.

The only thing that I would remark about the four note group is that it is, typically for me, an idea that can likely occur in folk music, but less likely in old classical music.

I walked through Erasmus Park, then on to Rembrandt Park. Then back again. Not there and back in a line, but in a wide circle (clockwise).

Rembrandt Park is leafy, and today, it was all dripping wet. There are some comical looking water birds on the canals. And the seagulls make a loud noise. The mallards are randy.

Here is the third part of my letter about new music. I’m talking about the relation between avant-garde, and popular taste:-
An incorrect response by musicians in the minority

It follows logically from the points I have made that it is utterly foolish of contemporary composers when they start to complain bitterly that the general public takes no notice of their vast dissonant violin concertos. What presumptuousness! It is not for us to demand what should or should not be popular. Music is something of the spirit, as I said, and there is a great spiritual movement involving popular dance music and song. That movement does not involve the music we think of as great, so not Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, but also not those comparatively popular ones by Mozart and Bach. Violin Concertos are tangential in this context……

Authenticity as the correct goal for musicians alienated from the world of mass taste

I used the phrase “colossally attractive” when I spoke about the reaction to American-derived modern music. The word “attractive” is my personal key to issues about orientation in our society. To know what attracts us is to be authentic. And authenticity does not lead to popularity because what is popular is that which speaks to a deep need in the mass of people. We noted the case of Vaughan Williams. He described The Lark Ascending as “an English landscape transcribed into musical terms”. If composers want to be truly popular with classical music lovers in the UK, perhaps they can head in that direction. If however they want to be authentic, they should pay attention to their own tastes/feelings, though that may lead down uncomfortable paths (like sticking unperformed symphonies in the drawer, or whatever).
Sticking to your guns

Louis Andriessen once said to me “the public can bring us nowhere”. He meant it cannot help us to develop in new directions, so its tastes should therefore be discounted. I’m not wholly in agreement with that view, but the history of our times can be argued to confirm it. There are endless anecdotes one can tell. Just today, because it was hot, I wandered around a little in the factory district west of Amsterdam (where I work three mornings a week) before cycling home. I noticed walls and windows and outlines that directly resembled a non-figurative period of Mondriaan’s work. They don’t resemble at all the nice landscapes that the public would have preferred him to produce. What was unpopular has become the very stuff of the environment. So how stupid that it was condemned as worthless. And this same pattern crops up with us – because “useless” avant-garde music is all over Hollywood soundtracks.

Evolution of the string quartet and fat sausages

sausagesToday’s work on the quartet was influenced by seeing images of children drawing. Flowers and plants poking out of grass, big letters, random looking scrawls. And the colours – those bright crayon ones. Up and down, quickly represented by a scrawl of blue for sky, a scrawl of green for grassy ground. They were still photos, but you could see the movement and speed and fluency of it all in the untroubled faces, the happy smiles.

I had yesterday evening mapped out the first movement of the quartet, or at least as much of it as I could be bothered to do, that late at night. What I had thought of as the slow movement (the section I derived from Poulenc’s harmonies), turned into an introduction to a fast movement. Just about three minutes long. This “slow movement” had ended with a long drawn out oscillation between two chords which could have been a dying fade away (O bad, bad, bad, cliche), but – suddenly – I saw that you could segue into something fast from there. And so, as in a gay bar, I quickly dropped one possibility, for another. Heh-heh.

We like segue………mmmm………oh yes we do. Anyway, as I started to work this morning, I had the childrens’ drawings in mind and that inspired me. As I sometimes do, I just took a pencil and “scrawled notes”. But quickly it became “organized” of course. I thought of ten different ways to develop material and also wrote a four-part fiddle dance (sort of) to provide subject material. Well, I needed something lighter after that dreary introduction. In my hands, the civilised Poulenc had become wintry and miserable.

We like tunes and dances………mmmm………oh yes we do.

However, that will just give me an endless stream of notes, pretty formless – like those long slabs of material in the movements of Le Marteau. Well Messiaen does that too and after a while you start to think “hello, I’ve had enough of that”.

Probably some people (people lacking my rigid self-discipline, I mean) start at such moments to think about sausages dipped in mustard. Or of licking around the base of chocolate liquors, prior to crunching on them and letting the alcohol trickle down their throats.

I agree with Pope Benedict that the public has become dreadfully hedonistic. It is distasteful, but there we are. On the other hand, I do enjoy a nice fat sausage now and again, and I feel that a German pope should show a bit of understanding here.

Anyway, I diverge……I don’t want a long unchanging slab of music, so…………em?…………er?…………

Dominant musical taste in the UK and other Germanic lands. Letter (part 2)



A beautiful day today. Went to the Erasmus Park, which is near my house. Sat there feeling very happy. Jolly joggers going around and around, though they go widdershins, which is curious, because it’s always the same there. Women – their tits bouncing up and down and plugged into music – and some men, one athletic, tall and slim. Yum-yum.

I remember that we went widdershins around San Giorgio (the Greek Orthodox church) in Venice, at Easter time in 1974, when I was a student. I walked home with a lighted candle all the way to San Samuele. Did it blow out? I don’t remember.

Today, there was a barbecue going on at one of the row of stone tables where you can play chess. Some men there were being tiresomely noisy, their women looking on, as if circumspect. Perhaps I was just viewing it through my irritation. Maybe they were looking on proudly………heh-heh.

Following on from yesterday’s dollop, here is the second part of my long letter on “new music”:- The dominant musical taste in the UK and other Germanic lands

“Those who ask themselves why the spirit of American-derived popular music is so colossally attractive to some European peoples account for it in various ways. It is fatuous in my view to point to the American music industry as merely another business success and something to do with celebrity. Music is spiritual and the triumph of American popular song and dance is a great spiritual movement I believe. Even Anglican church congregations feel the trend towards popular American styles, raising their arms (incongruously it has to be said), as if they were gospel singers.

I call the advent of modern music (in the sense that most people mean the term) ‘colonisation in reverse’ – a sign that the African diaspora has a lasting and unexpected impact……..all those hymn singing protestant colonists would be very surprised indeed at the turn of events.

And I personally see a connection between the metamorphosis of the Christian religion and the ascendancy of modern popular music. The two things are connected in my view, though they are unconnected in the view of most commentators. Europeans didn’t want to go on forever with their stiffly marching chorales and their pious Gregorian chants, they wanted to sing and dance as Africans feel free to do, without shame. When you see the painful shyness in the case of these ‘Germanic tribes’ here in the north, it is no wonder that they turn in this direction. Yet that they still do not sit in their bodies as happily as Africans do is clear. Africans appear to remain spiritually whole in spite of everything we throw at them. And we are seeking their wholeness, without any concept of what is happening, because our concept of Africa is all to do with poverty and disease. In our feelings however, we recognise its richness and its health. What generations ago would have been described as at best shameful and at worst satanic is now perceived to be authentically human, and that is the treasure that we grasp, perhaps more precious even than all the gold and diamonds we stole from our ‘inferiors’.

It is only time before we have an Archbishop of Canterbury who is ready to start jigging away…..we already have a Prime Minister who thinks that new British music means Oasis……so why not?

The process of what I called ‘colonisation in reverse’ began already at least a hundred years ago. (I can’t go into that in any detail here, but it is obviously clear in the early blues/jazz movement. It spills over also into European art. There is the case of Picasso/Braque cubism for example.) But of course it was never the case that classical music reached the grass roots of British society. A Mozart symphony was always remote from the general public. The so-called Celtic culture is very strong, the English folk one, comparatively weaker. Now however the old English folk music has become as remote as Mozart, whereas some new bit of African music will seem quite familiar in language. The situation in Africa itself, where some former colonies have a very visible Christian presence, is relevant here. A colleague told me recently that more than half the modern music being produced in Ghana is gospel.

Of course this all impacts on us. It is very important. Our activities, as classical musicians, are absolutely dwarfed by this spiritual movement. Europe shows mass disinterest in its traditional musical culture – those individuals at the top of the pyramid just as much as those at the lowest level. It reminds me of an anecdote from my teacher Rubin de Cervin. He told me that when Napoleon entered Venice, the Doge fled from his council chamber tearing off his robes as he ran. So it is now, with Europe in general, it can’t throw off its old music fast enough. I am not arguing for some quasi fascist response to this. Of course not. On the contrary, I think the change has to happen. It is a necessary transformation. It is also democratic.

But it does impinge greatly on us as upholders and extenders of a classical tradition. Indeed, in the face of all this, even some colleagues argue that we ourselves abandon our tradition. No way do we do that!

So I have ascribed a deep meaning beyond dollars and fame to this ‘colossus’ – popular song and dance”.

A dream and some mischievous elves – maybe.

"Poor little birdie teased", by Victorian illustrator Richard Doyle

“Poor little birdie teased”, by Victorian illustrator Richard Doyle

Last night I dreamt that I was giving the Chinese jeweller in Albert Cuypstraat (Tai Chong) instructions on how to make two gold rings, one of which was like a wedding band and intended for my mother. She is dead of course, but I go on dreaming about her, and also about my father, as if they both were still alive. In recent years, ever more so, in fact.

The ring for my mother was to be inscribed with a text. The same text that is engraved on the granite stone of the Homomonument that I talked about yesterday.

“Naar vriendschap zulk een mateloos verlangen” (“Such an immense longing for friendship”).

The text is an extract from the poem “To a young fisherman” by Jacob Israel de Haan (1881-1924).

In my dream I was giving instructions to the jeweller for making two rings, as I said, but I forget the design of the other one, and for whom it was intended.

This week has been an “enchanted” one, but not in a nice sense of the word. I did a lot of reading about Scandinavian and also U.K. folklore. I came across what I thought was a beautiful chant (collected in the 19th century) to drive away witches and bad fairies and to call on good ones, to come and aid whoever has the job of churning the butter that day. I said it aloud……….

Come, butter, come,
Come, butter, come,
Peter stands at the gate,
Waiting for a buttered cake,
Come, butter, come!

Later, after this study, I was disconcerted to come home at 12.30 in the night and find dumped on the street by my door, a huge pile of clothing, neatly folded and resting on a large light blue rubbish bag, as if intended for me. It was damp from the rain. I piled the clothes into the bag and brought them upstairs, with a sick feeling. When I examined the contents again I found that the clothing was not mine, but a child’s. So I put the bag outside on the landing in order that it did not “cross over my boundary”. In the morning I took the bag downstairs and knocked on my neighbours’ doors to see whose it was. Hardly anyone was in, but I spoke to three people who knew nothing and who were not interested in any case. So I put the rubbish bag back where I had found it the previous night and by the next day it was gone. Whilst doing this, I noticed that all the street lighting was on, though it was late in the morning.

This story would not have any significance but for one detail. When I examined the clothing on the street at 12.30 on Tuesday night, in that dim light, I saw that it was mine.