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A breach in the Dyke - introduction

15/12/2007

Typically Dutch

The Dutch identity is impossible to trace in the field of music as well. Foreigners do perceive a typically Dutch sobriety, control and humor, and especially the existence of many different styles. This great variety exists thanks to the eagerness and skill with which composers and improvisers hereabouts handle all kinds of musical, theatrical and visual possibilities, wherever they come from.

But the combination of sobriety, control and humor attributed to the Dutch may not be more than a thread that serves as a clothesline, on which the colored wash is cheerfully flapping in all directions, in a stiff, changeable breeze. The very lack of uniformity and conformism, the atypical or even antitypical is, paradoxically, closer to what defines the typically Dutch: this doesn’t sound like Stockhausen, not like Adams, not like Sclavis, not like Marsalis, but it does sound good, this might well be Dutch music.

Fortunately, foreign organizers, artistic directors and programmers are not looking for the Dutch musical identity at all, they look around the world and search for quality combined with a special nature, beauty, boldness. If a Dutchman provides this, fine, if not there’s always a Scandinavian, Italian or Chinese. The idea then is getting foreigners to see and hear what Holland Musicland has to offer them, so that, with a little luck, their search ends here. That’s exactly what Gaudeamus, Donemus and the Dutch Jazz Connection have devoted extra effort to in the past nine years. With resounding success.

Gaudeamus, Donemus, DJC
As this book went to press these three institutions were in the last month of their independent existence. Starting January 1, 2008, these institutions, together with De Kamervraag, the Dutch Jazz Archives, the former Dutch Jazz Service and the Dutch Rock & Pop Institute are united in a new organization, the Muziekcentrum Nederland (Dutch Music Centre). Strictly speaking, the present tense in the preceding text sometimes refers to a recent past, but the aforementioned ideas, tasks and aims live on for the most part in the plans of the new institution.

To the Gaudeamus Foundation, started in 1945, activities aimed at foreign countries quickly became important, witness the International Gaudeamus Music Week that has been taking place bi-annually since 1951, and annually since 1958. Dutch composers and foreign musicians were always closely involved. The assignment of Gaudeamus is: the organizing, stimulating and supporting of activities and concerts featuring contemporary music at home and abroad. Young, talented musicians and composers are at the head of the cue for this, and new music from Dutch soil gets the attention it deserves.

In 1947 the Donemus Foundation, the Documentatiecentrum voor Nederlandse Muziek (Documentation Centre for Dutch Music) saw the light. The intention of Donemus was to publish Dutch music, in order to attract more attention to it at home and abroad. This way the work of Dutch composers became available to anyone who could read music. Donemus is the national institute for composed Dutch contemporary music, it promotes its distribution, also outside the national borders, among other things by making performance and audio material available, publishing compositions and documenting information.

The Dutch Jazz Connection, officially founded in 2002 but already active since 1998, has as its mission the promotion of the international reputation and concert opportunities of Dutch jazz and improvised music. While Donemus and Gaudeamus occupy themselves exclusively with music that is called contemporary, modern or new, the DJC doesn’t make this explicit choice. Before the DJC was founded, no Dutch institution occupied itself with promoting improvised music and jazz abroad.

nutcrackers
Until far into the Nineteen Sixties, sincere, more than incidental international interest in what was happening in the Dutch music field was almost non-existent. Before that time the Dutch certainly didn’t lack foreign contacts, but the stream of information and ideas flowed towards the Netherlands. Prominent foreign composers always enjoyed coming to the Gaudeamus music weeks, and the jazz venues presented famous American musicians and bands. This way, the Dutch eagerly allowed themselves to be informed and impressed by novelties and inventiveness from other countries. But if Dutch composers and jazz musicians had anything striking, individual or high-quality to offer back then, for the time being the foreign visitors hardly noticed.

With the founding of the Instant Composers Pool (ICP) in 1967 by composer-pianist Misha Mengelberg, saxophonist Willem Breuker and drummer Han Bennink, recognizably Dutch improvised sounds rang out loud and clear for the first time, becoming known abroad as New Dutch Swing. Two years later about forty activists, including Mengelberg, Breuker and composer Louis Andriessen, marched towards the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with frog clickers, rattles and horns.

In this provocative way, unheard of at the time, they demanded attention for the performance of modern repertoire, the music of their great foreign models: Xenakis, Stockhausen, Boulez. The action didn’t have the desired result, the Dutch symphony orchestras stubbornly continued to play the old, venerable, predominantly 19th century repertoire. The young guard quickly realized that the unwieldy symphony orchestra machine was actually not suitable at all for what they wanted: to have the music played they wanted to hear, music by progressive foreigners and the activists themselves.

fertile musical climate
So it was that in 1972 Louis Andriessen founded Orkest de Volharding to play his own, eponymous piece. Willem Breuker, who played saxophone in the orchestra, created his own Willem Breuker Kollektief in 1974. High-profile musical theatre pieces by the rebelling composers, writers and directors were included in the Holland Festival, and through this drew international attention. After the ICP Orchestra, De Volharding and the Willem Breuker Kollektief, Hoketus, the Schoenberg Ensemble the (reborn) Asko Ensemble and the Nieuw Ensemble came into being, and a whole additional series of new music ensembles. This was the noteworthy result of the Nutcracker activists, the initiators of the Dutch ensemble culture.

International interest in improvised music of Dutch origin was given a considerable boost by the October Meeting in 1987, at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. Ever since, this venue is seen as one of the most prominent jazz concert halls in the world. The annual International Gaudeamus Composers’ Competition and the International Gaudeamus Music Week render the Netherlands attractive to composition students and young composers, and to musicians and music students who are interested in playing this new music, with its unprecedented diversity.

The Dutch conservatories distinguished themselves from foreign professional training colleges by a multi-faceted, undogmatic view of composition classes – composers of the Nutcracker generation taught there themselves. By now Dutch conservatories have jazz departments, so that improvisers can also apply there for a solid education. The graduates of these conservatories include world-class composers and musicians.

In this fertile musical climate the Dutch ensemble culture flowered, admired worldwide, composing and improvising go hand in hand, and music is created of an exceptional character and of high quality, and therefore fit to be performed far beyond the polder and sea dikes.

this book
This book is a sketch of the sundry activities that Dutch musicians and composers, foreign programmers, artistic directors, organizers and diplomats unfold in order to get Dutch music heard abroad. In some cases with explicit support and contributions, and initiated by Gaudeamus, Donemus or the DJC, sometimes mostly by the people involved themselves, but usually with a fine balance between these two extremes. Deciding which people are discussed, and which other matters are raised, was mostly motivated by what foreigners see, hear and find important: which composers and musicians, which situations and developments.

Three generations of composers whose works are often performed abroad are invited to speak for themselves, the radical Louis Andriessen, the chameleonic Jacob ter Veldhuis and the all-round Michel van der Aa. Pianist and composer Guus Janssen provides the link between composing and improvising, he is a jack of both trades. Three generations of improvising musicians are also featured, the contrary drummer Han Bennink, the pioneering singer Monica Akihary and the talented saxophonist Tineke Postma.

Improvisers perform their music themselves, but composers are at the mercy of their performers. How composers, with varying success, persuade and seduce foreigners can be read in the chapters on Russia, Sofia and New York. The importance of having your work performed in the Netherlands is explained by Idske Bakker of the Dutch new music ensemble Insomnio.

It is astonishing how well informed some important foreigners are about Dutch music. They praise the dedication of the Dutch music organizations, but mainly show a lot of initiative themselves. American composer and music journalist Frank J. Oteri is an admirer of Peter Schat and Jacob ter Veldhuis. British festival director Graham McKenzie, always on the lookout for musical freedom, surprises and mixtures, found them mostly in the Netherlands. The artistic directors of the big, progressive European jazz festivals especially commend the individuality of Dutch free impro.

In addition to the successes and glorious moments at large festivals and renowned venues, the amount of development work and effort that usually precede them is also described – although sometimes it seems as if it all just happens. The story about the jazz meetings is illustrative of the focused promotional activities by Donemus, Gaudeamus and the DJC. The Sofia piece is about the conquest of an entire country, under hardly ideal circumstances and driven by personal involvement. The article about New York represents the great longing for an American breakthrough, which in Ter Veldhuis’ case seems imminent.

The chapter A Breach in the Dike describes what the three Breach in the Dike partners wanted to achieve, how they went about it, who contributed to it, and what came of it. A gratifying lot, as will become apparent.


A breach in the dyke, the promotion of Dutch music abroad, 2007, ISBN/EAN: 978-90-812526-1-4, Muziekcentrum Nederland (order at info@muziekcentrumnederland.nl). © Peter van Amstel - 2007