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The place where I will occasionally post thoughts and comments on any aspect of music.
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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.

The reason I am writing this blog at Oudejaarsdag is because I want to wish you all the very best for the new year. And I thought it might be fitting to wish you André Rieu. Not because I think you should like it - there is no 'should' in liking, as I wrote earlier - but because I was watching the Rieu audience and saw that they had a fantastic time: they were moved to tears, they danced with their beloved and with total strangers, they sang along, they became ecstatic, for some it was complete catharsis I guess.

I am happy the days of Marxist analysis of culture are over so that I now can simply state that I like it when people have fun - and so much more - together through music without having to state that their fun in reality is a state of ignorance forced on them by late capitalism. And I am equally happy that the era is ending where 'fun' is suspect because it is not edifying and serious and high-class and meaningful and where music is either 'good' or 'nice', but never both at the same time. I am happy the times are changing (yes, yes, Dylan again) so that I can wish you your own personal Rieu (I have to think of Johnny Cash, of course - play it loud!) - next to your own personal Beethoven, and - hard to imagine for many but still - your own personal Peter Maffay.

Go for it!

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'.

I suggested that it might be nice to include some people picked randomly from the street in meetings where funding decisions would be taken. A cherished colleague informed me that in the past experiments had been carried out in this vein, and that it showed that randomly picked outsiders were reasoning even more exclusive than the specialist insiders. I think that is hardly surprising; it only shows how persistent and dominant the 'arts-as-specialism'-discourse is; and of course the next step is not only picking people randomly from the street, but also telling them that they can be themselves in the meeting rather than that they have to behave as-if they were specialist insiders (a role they know very well thanks to the persistence with which it is transferred through our education system, television, radio, journals) only because they were invited to attend a meeting of specialist insiders.

The nicest thing happened in the end. Another esteemed colleague played the 'market failure' card: arts policies are by nature exclusive because they only need to fund those matters which regular markets do not take care of. In music terms: pop and rock can take care of itself; but some 'good' pop and rock may deserve funding because it cannot exist in 'the market', and symphony orchestras should be funded because 'the market' does not take care of it.

I always have two problems. One is: so what if 'the market' does not take care of something? 'The market' does not exist; it is you and me and everyone. So if you and me and everyone are not prepared to take care of something by for example financing it, then maybe it deserves to vanish unless it can attract enough support from you and me and everyone to survive? We have become fans of change and innovation but at the same time have become enormously conservative in the literal sense: we want the permanent new ánd we want to keep everything we once had (check the discusssion about musea selling parts of their collections and the emotional reactions).

(And now, of course, I have to make clear that personally I am a big fan of symphony orchestras and that I feel that they should exist into infinity, in order to prevent being seen as a barbarian by my peers, something which they are liable to think anyway because I enjoy the membership of a shanty choir and playing the 5-string banjo - but I want to add that it is not straightforward that the fact that I, or my peers, feel that way necessarily means that symphony orchestras must be funded. We are not alone in this world.)

The other problem is that 'market failure' seems so objective as a criterion but it is not because the definition of what 'failure' is contains so much ideology. So I suggested the following. I know that Dutch schlager singers often sing with an 'orchestral' (synthetic) tape rather than with live musicians. If you talk with such singers - something 'we' don't tend to do - it turns out that they would rather play with live musicians but they cannot afford that, nor can their audiences. Are we, if only just for the argument's sake, capable of defining this is a form of market failure and therefore as a basis for funding them to play with live musicians?

Or: suppose that  I find out that the value of singing in a shanty choir for the choir members is existential . Are we prepared to argue that therefore everybody should have access to singing in a shanty choir, and the fact that that is not the case (too few conductors, too few venues, too little knowledge about shanties, too little appreciation for it in certain social strata, et cetera) is a reason to aim for fostering the singing of shanties in choirs through educational programmes, through state funding, and through shaping experiments in which we inject the so valuable shanty choir repertoire into e.g. the programmes of our symphony orchestras?

Just for the argument's sake.

I wonder how you feel about all this.

Enjoy Christmas! Maybe this song helps...

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.