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The place where I will occasionally post thoughts and comments on any aspect of music.
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And you might check my other blog, Evert Listens to Dylan, if you would be interested what listening to the complete recordings of Bob Dylan does with (or to, or for) me.

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

All Well in Astana

I am, with 650 others, in Astana to visit the 43rd world conference of the International Council for Traditional Music, my beloved professional organization uniting ethnomusicologists from all over the world. In my case a warm renewal of friendships forming over the years, with people listening to such illustrious names as Carlos, Marcia, Svanibor, Sooi-Beng - and that's just a few.

Astana is the new capital of Kazakhstan. It is a futuristic, Dubai-like city in the middle of the Kazakh steppe.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor kazachstan astana

And as the conservatoire where I work is rebuilding, may I suggest the following?

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor kazachstan astana

You may know how conferences work. Late at night you drive from the airport to the hotel you have reserved with a bus from the organizing committee. Two girls are there to help you but they don't speak too much of English or any other language you know, whereas your Russian and Kazakh is slighty rusty. In the hotel they don't know you, you're on no list whatsoever, but finally they agree to give you a room. But only if you pay directly which is impossible because they don't do creditcards. Next morning, after a couple of hours sleep, it turns out they don't offer breakfast, and you have no money to buy it because cash machines don't work with your cards for some reason. So you walk to the conference venue and hope to find someone to borrow money from - which of course works out fine, so you cán eat lunch after all, which is the beginning of the reversal. Things fall into place: cash machines start working, when you're back at the hotel you shake hands with the hotel guy who tells you you can use the kitchen for breakfast if you want, shows you a fan you can use to replace the non-existing airco and a drinking water supply you may use, and when you ask about payment he suddenly draws a pin terminal from a drawer, hooks it up to the computer and miraculously you can pay electronically after all.

And when you go outside for an evening stroll, you walk between the huge apartment buildings and find out that there are children's playgrounds everywhere where kids play and mothers sit on benches, fathers discuss their cars, young guys play football as everywhere in the world. You find a small supermarket where you buy breakfast for tomorrow and find out again that sign language works. And you realize that life is not dependent on the size of buildings, but on humans - and that they are remarkably different but remarkably recgonizable everywhere.

And you realize that that probably is why you have become an ethnomusicologist: because of your curiosity about your own musical life and the musical lives of those others, remarkably different and remarkably recognizable anywhere - be it in Nitra, Hiroshima, St. John´s Newfoundland, Beijjng, Atsana, or wherever I will go to ICTM conferences in the future.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Fine Weekend

It's been a while - busy times, end of the year, you know how it goes. Soon I'm off to Kazakhstan to present a paper at the world conference for ethnomusicology. The paper will be on my shanty choir research, which runs for two years now after having been planned much earlier, and I am looking forward to present a paper on imagined sea life in the middle of a very arid steppe, in a country where the huge Aral lake has about vanished in the past decades.

Image result for foto aral meer droog

Me and my wife spent last weekend in Emden, the Northern German harbor town. We like to be in Germany, for many reasons. Some of my choir members see in Germany the Promised Land of Shantymen, and at least last weekend was an argument in favor of that thought.

On Saturday evening, the Berlin Shanty Crew Kreuzberg performed at a place called Zum Nordkai. Zum Nordkai is simply a quay in Emden's harbor where a guy called Klaas has set up a small alternative - yes, what is it;  a place where you can drink, eat, sit, camp, whatever. Shanty Crew Kreuzberg described their performance as 'Shanty-Woodstock in Emden', and it was. A very varied audience (fans, family, people from the neighborhood, people just happening to pass by) sat in the sun, took in the music, the view of each other, as well as drinks and various types of fish. Songs were near-exclusive in English, and from the announcements in between we could gather that the Berlin guys were not keen on commercialized shanty from the likes like Santiano or Ancora (nor were they for some reason on the GEMA, Germany's copy rights collecting organization, it seemed) and that they went for the more 'authentic' repertoire.

On Sunday morning, we went to the touristy harbor of Greetsiel because there would be music. And indeed there was: Shanty Chor Hude, a choir very much resembling the type of shanty choir I sing in, performed mainly German-language songs. Quite some people gathered as an audience, and we were welcomed by the chairman of the Commercial Society of Greetsiel. The sun shone nicely, the choir sang its songs and in between made funny announcements, and I wondered about the big differences and the big similarities between those two choirs.
I am not going to elaborate on that, but one thing was very clear: the meaning of music is not in the music. "Music is not a thing, it is human behavior", I cannot stress it enough; and this weekend that again showed. Both choirs partly shared a repertoire - they partly shared the same melodies, the some chords, the same lyrics. And at the same time, the two occasions could probably not have been more different: in the backgrounds of the choir members, the audiences, in the location, in the meanings attached to the words, the chords and the melodies. I might think the words, the chords and the melodies do the work, but that would be a mistake; but if I would think it's all in the heads, the minds, the ears of the beholders I would be equally mistaken. It's precisely in the in-between music does its work.
And I felt happy to have been in the in-between of two so different occasions in one weekend. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Bookshelves and Biographicity

Yesterday I was at Groningen's 'Night of Art & Science' to give a presentation on the functions of music in everyday life.

After the presentation, a man asked me a good question. He said: "There is a saying that in order to know who someone is, you just have to study his bookshelf. Could you say the same about someone's music collection?"

The answer is clear: no. (I gave it so quickly that he remarked that I did not sound as a researcher at all...)

The secret of the meaning of music lies not in the music collection. It lies in the stories behind the music collection. It is possible to find two people with exact the same collection who attach a completely different meaning to that same collection because of their completely different experiences with the same music.

Simple and straightforward. But at the same time the bookshelf-idea shows one of the most persistent ideas about the value of music: that the value of music resides in 'the music' - and with 'the music' we mean the idea that music is a thing, a 'work'; and that there is something inherently valuable in that work. Eventually the discourse behind it in our culture becomes the discourse of artistic exclusivity: Beethoven in the collection: great! Alban Berg: even better! Rieu: no need at all to even think about taking thát seriously...

But, as I mentioned many times before, music is not a thing. It is human behavior. It is the relationship between the individual and the 'humanly organized sounds' the individual meets on his way through life. And the value of music lies in that relationship; not in 'the music' (as the musical connoisseur seems to think), and not in 'the individual' (as some psychologists seem to think), but precisely in the in-between.

And because this relationship is essentially biographical, music is a matter of what my Doktorvater (I love that word) Peter Alheit calls 'biographicity': the way in which we, on the basis of our biographical experiences, take in the world and try to make sense of it.

Music is the process of making sense of 'music'. Nothing more, nothing less.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Music and Care

I was in a symposium some time ago on the use of music in care settings: in settings where music is used by professional musicians, music therapists or others to ameliorate the quality of life of people with dementia, for example, or mentally handicapped people.

Two movies were shown about the work of John Hoban, made by Willem Blok. In one of the movies, John as well as his wife Isabella Basombrio philosophized at length about the rationale behind their work. Much of what John said completely coincided with my own feelings: for example that every individual is essentially musical and that anybody has the right to be who s/he is, musically; that the essential contribution of working with music in care settings is 'to let them be' and to honor other people by listening to them; and that therefore being a musician means being and giving yourself,

"There is nothing easier than this work", said John - which may be true for him but maybe less so for those I work with, those trained as professional musicians in the exclusivity - rather than the inclusivity - of a conservatoire setting.

Monday, May 4, 2015

FC Groningen Wins the Cup Final

You may think: so what?

But the level of so-what-ness is quite low if you happen to live where I live, a village up-North bordering the city of Groningen. I had to drive to Amsterdam and back yesterday, and already at the end of the morning all fly-overs for the first 60 or so kilometers of my trip (yes, way into Frisian territory) were occupied by those FC Groningen fans staying at home greeting those FC Groningen fans on their way in cars and buses to the Rotterdam stadium where the Cup Final would be played at 6 pm. I had a festive trip.

It so happened that a couple of week ago I visited a game by FC Groningen with my ten years old son. I bought a ticket behind one of the goals, not realizing that this is the domain of the hardcore fans. A domain with its own rules, which became clear immediately; in the stadium you buy fixed seats but when we found our seats two guys had occupied them. So I said they were on our seats, whereupon they explained to me that in this particular part of the stadium seat numbers had no meaning whatsoever - you could sit anywhere you liked provided the seat was empty on your arrival. So we sat down beside them, me expecting at some point to be told that we were on the seats of others, but of course that never happened.

Saturday, March 28, 2015


I was in Sarajevo. I asked a music student to describe what he did with music. He said: “I practice. Then I play a concert where other students and teachers come to listen, hoping they can find a mistake or two. Then I practice again.”

A succinct description. I felt at home immediately.

Exclusive Inclusivity

I am connected to many projects in which professional musicians try to work in participatory and inclusive settings. They invite people to join with them in their playing, to influence their decisons; they want to know what their audiences want from them, what their needs are, their opinions; they want to make music which fits them like a glove or which poses them the questions they never thought of but need to answer urgently.

And that is great.

But deep down – and sometimes not deep down but right at the surface and even blatantly open - there stays that other tendency in professional musicians: the need to feel special, to be the best and the biggest, to be exclusive, to stand out.

And so it comes that I talk with a former student about a project she was involved in, some years ago. The project was about participation and inclusion, about sharing and about empowering; the students – our future professional musicians – worked, together with teachers, in a circle with the participants, reacted to their ideas, built something together.

And the former students tells me: “I was sitting in the circle and I knew I was not appreciated. I knew the teachers felt I was not delivering enough quality, that the other students were much better. I knew that the other students felt that. I knew it all, and I felt I had no real place in the circle.”

Not exclusive enough to be included.