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The place where I will occasionally 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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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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Sunday, November 8, 2015

On the School Orchestra

The school orchestra has become fashionable lately in Dutch primary education. A thorough genealogy of the resurrection has still to be written, but elements that would figure in such a genealogy would be: the impetus of the 'Jedem kind ein Instrument'-initiative in Germany (which would require a genealogy of its own, of course); the dwindling municipal music schools in the Netherlands who see a new market here, a market in which their instrumental teachers may earn a living teaching groups of children a classical music instrument; the also dwindling amateur brass orchestras in the Netherlands, who have trouble surviving and see new possibilities of recruiting members; policy makers in music education who seek for new justifications of music education and in school orchestras find a means to combine arguments about the benefits of the beautiful, the ad nauseam reported beneficial effects of playing an instrument on school achievements and that 21st-century fetish 'the brain', and the supposed sociability of playing in an orchestra as an antidote to our so individualized times; and also the tendency of primary school teachers to think about themselves as 'unmusical' and that therefor the best thing to do is to give music education away to external 'specialists' such as instrumental teachers and conductors.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Feeling Known

I went to regional radio station Radio Westerwolde in the east of the province to be interviewed about music for an hour on Tuesday last week. I had visited the same programme on the radio station (entirely run by volunteers) a couple of years earlier, and was happy to find myself back again with Wilma and Herman in their programme for the 50+ listener - this time I just made it into the target group, so that already made me feel at home, as did warm and welcoming technician Peter

But what made me feel at home even more was the fact that Herman and Wilma had really taken the time to find out about me. They read my blog, my website, my other blog; they had devised a range of questions on topics they knew I would find interesting; and the music choice in their programme was entirely based upon the topics I wrote about. So they played the Beatles, Bob Dylan, shanty, Dolly Parton. And in the end they read a poem they had miraculously found somewhere which so precisely matched the interview that I asked innocently if they had written it themselves.

I felt recognized.

A couple of weeks earlier, we had a home concert featuring Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin. They sang two sets, and afterwards we had a homecooked meal with musicians and audience. Danny's song with the line "When I die, let them judge me by my company of friends" matched the occasion perfectly.

Before starting the concert, Danny asked if I had any songs I would like to hear. I asked him if it would be possible to play "This Too Shall Pass" (with its great first line "Things change fast, but this too shall pass - better carve it on your forehead or tattoo it on your ass") and "Stained Glass" (which is a great piece of poetry; and how I like lines such as "It was thirty days till Easter when the elm tree hit the church/Thank God it fell on Friday cause at least no one was hurt"). Which he did. And at the end of the concert they played a Bob Dylan song as an encore because, as Danny remarked, there were Dylan CDs and books about Dylan all over the place.

I felt recognized.

And I pondered how easy it is to make me feel recognized. Just connect, in some way or other, to my musical biography and I'll be happy.

Just to let you know what to do in order to count me in as your audience member.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Psychology of the Face

My newspaper provides me with breaking news: psychologists have found out that the preference for certain faces over other faces is not genetically determined, nor has it to do with the surroundings in which one grows up. Even twins - sharing genes as well as their childhood context - differ in face preference for some 50 percent. Some basic preferences are widely shared (big eyes, symmetrical face) but the researchers state that "probably very subtle, personal experiences" are crucial in differences in face preferences.

One wonders what made psychologists think in the first place that face preferences are determined by genes or context, or anything else than individual biography (which is, by nature, social, and is of course based on - but not explainable through - biology).

I can only explain it because psychology, in the end, tries to explain away the random - sociologists woud probably say 'contingent' - agency of individuals in favor of their mechanistic world view, hoping to become able to predict individual behavior in order to master it. A world view stemming from the natural sciences and leading to a continuous search in experimental research designs for cause-and-effect-chains, all of which eventually leads to the determinism so characteristic of our times: "It's not me, it's my context, my genes, my brain, my whatever - but not me."

The idea that if reality would repeat itself people would probably behave the same again. Which might be true, but it leaves out the basic fact that reality is about one zillion times too complex to repeat itself. It is not going to happen (unless God wants it to happen - which seems unlikely for many reasons). So here is nothing to predict, really - you may get insight in tendencies people have in certain contexts, but that's about it.

And it explains again why I am not a psychologist but rather, if anything, an ethnomusicologist, an anthropologist: because I believe the best we can do when it comes to real life matters is observing carefully, taking individuals seriously, aiming not for explanation but for careful description and tentative understanding.

Which is something totally different, and ambitious enough, really.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Confusion of Categories 1

Early September Ola Mafaalani, artistic leader of the North-Netherlands Theatre, opened the Dutch theatre season with a speech in which she asked attention for refugees worldwide. To stress the importance of her statement, some hundred refugees came with her on stage.

Sympathetic. I like it if people with some sort of public profile occasionally ask attention for ethical or other problems. You use your public privileges to foster the public good.

Of course there is one small 'but': we assume that the 'public good' worth asking attention for is unequivocal - above politics, as it were. And of course it is not. We wish we lived in a world where moral affairs are straightforward, but they never are, even if they seem so. So we equate our own moral predilections with the 'public good'.

And so it comes to be that Mafaalani, according to the newspapers I read, asks the theatre sector to become the 'consciousness of society'. As if there is one theatre sector, with one idea about what is moral and what is the 'public good'. As if there is only one possible 'consciousness of society'.

It is a confusion of categories: in this case the confusion of Art with Moral Consciousness. Why would Artists by nature and/or definition have more moral consciousness than other categories - say: politicians, or lumberjacks, or olympic athletes.

The same confusion of categories seems to have played a role when the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences decided to open an Academy of Arts, where famous artists are chosen to foster the relation between the different arts, between the arts and society, and the arts and the sciences.

So far so good, no problem there. But then members of the Academy of Arts are asked to write blogs on, for example, education. And so it comes to pass that a novelist I really like for her novels, Charlotte Mutsaers, writes a little blog entry on education which is not only stupid (which is fine, because others may find it wise) but also lousy written, inconsistent, and generally the kind of talk one would utter when one in a slightly drunk state tries to give a consciously malicious imitation of Charlotte Mutsaers giving an opinion on education.

Confusion of categories.

What makes us think that a novelist - being an Artist - should speak out publicly on public affairs rather than writing another novel? It's not that I don't want them to speak out - please, be our guest, we live in a free country. It is that I wonder why we expect them to do so with miraculous results.

Would we ask Louis Ferdinand Céline or Richard Wagner as immigration policies advisors for our government? Or - if you are Dutch - the late Gerard Reve to speak out on the matter of refugees? All three great Artists.

Let Artists be Artists. Let scientists be scientists, researchers be researchers. Let individuals be individuals. Let anyone speak out his thoughts on public affairs.

But let's not confuse roles, and assume that Artists for some mysterious reason are here to Teach the Way.

Art is no TomTom.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Where Ethnos Fear to Tread"

I would like to write a little follow-up on the previous blog on public space. I was in Kazakhstan this summer, at the bi-yearly world conference of the International Council for Traditional Music ICTM. ICTM is the worldwide organization for ethnomusicologists, and in spite of its rather old-fashioned name it is a conference where ethnomusicologists of all plumage from all over the world come together and discuss their very current research. Research which ranges from the traditional ethnomusicological (research into 'traditional music' from the 'non-western world') to a huge variety of other domains: pop musics in non-western countries; traditional musics in western countries; revivals of traditional musics; safeguarding of traditional musics; or - and that is where I fit in - simply the study of music in/as culture - the study of music as human social behavior. This last category is, when carried out in western societies, rather small, so small that I sometimes wonder whether I am not too much the odd one out at ethnomusicological conferences, but in Kazakhstan I found it reconfirmed that there are enough points of convergence between me and all those other ethnomusicologists to be part of ICTM. So yes, ICTM is my academic home; and yes, I am an ethnomusicologist. Good to know who you are and where you belong, academically speaking. And looking forward to the next conference, 2017 Ireland.

'But anyway.' A conference, and especially a world conference, is a specific form of public space. Public in the sense that 600 very heterogeneous academics come and visit each other's presentations. And public in the sense that presenters share their presentation with an unknown audience, who will come to listen on the basis of a very short written abstract, or, more often, just the presentation title. So in a sense, it is a meeting of people who often don't know each other, on terrain that is home to none of them. In that sense it has a form of publicness.

In my opinion it means that a certain carefulness should be in place. Carefulness in the best sense of the word, circling around the idea of 'care': care for those other people whose backgrounds you do not know and who are there not only as 'academics' (whatever that may mean) but also as full human beings. This form of care implies a certain cautiousness surrounding topics which you know may be socially awkward - 'sex and violence', for instance (which is, by the way, also the title of the second episode of the first year of Monty Python's television series).

Earlier I wrote about a presenter at the previous ICTM conference showing, without warning, the image of the head of a freshly decapitated sorcerer being carried on a stake by a mob through the streets. This edition, I witnessed a presentation which was far more cautious - and much more interesting - but still raised questions. So let me just share the questions with you.

A young scholar gave a presentation based on the famous 'Leekspin' video, which uses a Finnish song called the Ievan Polkka (Wikipedia tells us the words are from the 1930s but the music is - maybe much - older) in the version of a Finnish folk group called  Loituma (you see the connection to ICTM's 'traditional music' at work). The video, with a Japanese anime girl, went viral; it became an internet-meme, which gave the presenter the opportunity to use a beautiful quotation from Richard Dawkins concerning the superiority of cultural memes over biological genes: "We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world's culture, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool." The presenter had tried to figure out where the Leekspin video came from, and found out that it was based on a pornographic shock video called Meatspin. Funnily enough, the presenter said, most people seem to think Meatspin is based on Leekspin, but it seems to be the other way around.

But although this was interesting, the topic of the presentation was different. By presenting his example, the presenter wanted to draw attention to two phenomena which are under-studied in ethnomusicology: the virtual world ('cyber-ethnography'), and pornography. In his abstract he wrote: "The lack of study on music associated with pornographic images (...) provides an excellent opportunity to understand the motivations and biases behind all ethnomusicologists' choices of research topics." So the presentation (called "Where Ethnos Fear To Tread: Criticizing Our Aversion To The Electronic And The Erotic") functioned as a mirror, and although I cannot judge whether pornography and, especially, cyber-ethnography are really so underrepresented in ethnomusicology (the virtual musical world is rather a topic at present, and eroticism, sex and pornography may not be widely studied but neither are they absent, I think) the point the presenter made was worthwhile and courageous.

But now the thingy. In order to make his point, the presenter first showed various examples of Leekspin-videos and remakes of it, and then a very explicit still of the pornographic Meatspin video. When I talked with the presenter afterwards, he said that he showed a still because for some reason he couldn't get the video to play, otherwise he would have shown the video. He also said that he had given the presentation on earlier occasions sometimes with and sometimes without the porn clip, and both varieties yielded strong reactions: with he porn clip he was offensive, without it he was an example of the cowardice he tried to discuss.

Personally I felt that the pornographic still came too much as a surprise. The title of the presentation would not give you a clue of its coming - it mentions 'the erotic' which is at best a euphemism but probably something completely different - nor did the abstract; and in his presentation he did not offer audience members who might not want to be confronted with pornographic images the opportunity to close their eyes or look away for the time being. I considered it unfair, but I understand the presenter's point. In our talk afterwards het stressed that the point I tried to make was a concern for him too, with no fixed answers as yet for him.

At the back of all this may lie ideas that in research ("in academia" as some of my colleagues say, often pronouncing "academia" in the same way believers pronounce the word "church") we express the objective truth and therefore any topic or finding of research must be expressed freely anywhere, without restraint; a bit like medical doctors showing disgusting pictures of horrible wounds of sometimes very private bodily parts as interesting footage. I think this idea that research is beyond/above the norms of sociality - of which I do not suspect the presenter I write about in this blog - is wrong; research in the social sciences, indeed, has to shed new light on everyday life and may make implicit norms explicit and hence understandable; but at the same time the academic community is a community - a social community functioning in the same way as any other community.

I wonder what you think, so let's have a chat about it when we meet. And what do you think: should I have incorporated the Meatspin video in the blog? Or a still? Or a link? Or should I not even have mentioned its name but spoken about "a pornographic video on YouTube"? Is the solution I chose careful, or is it cowardice?

Let me know.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Live and Let Live

It is summer, which means it is the time of the aggressive occupation of our public aural space. This implies that at least in the weekends, but preferably also during the week, at least from one but often from many directions one hears a subdued or sometimes less subdued 'whoomp-whoomp-whoomp' - the amplified bass drums of an open air music festival, and when the source is not too far away also amplified voices, bass guitars, guitars, coputers, turn tables. And if there is no open air music festival, there will be some whoomping because the local soccer club has its 40th anniversary and includes 'background music' - mostly so loud that one has to shout at the top of one's lungs to communicate over this 'background' - as an important feature. And if by chance there are no such festivities, than at least one of the neighbors will have decided to spend the entire 'evening' (which in this special case is defined as the time between17.30 pm and 02.00 am the next morning) organizing a barbecue and chatting happily away, not realizing that you can - and therefore must, you know how it works - follow every single word they say.

You may think I am a grumpy old man who wants to live in a silent world apart from his own noise. The thing is, I am not. I am fully aware that all this noise makes up the sound track of modern life. It is inevitable, and because I do not live in the ideal world and never will - also because my ideal world is a very particular one in which most other people would feel very unhappy - I accept all this with relative ease, within limits. It is only very seldom that I ask other people to lower their volumes, like last night, when the street next door had its annual party which meant the accompanying whoomping became louder and louder as the evening progressed - contrary to what one would expect in a street where many kids at some point go to bed - so that at a quarter past eleven I went out to ask my neighbors if they could lower the volume a bit because not only my kids but also me myself and I would like to get some sleep, whereupon one of the neighbors said they had a municipal permission until midnight - I didn't dare to quote Monty Python by saying "I am sorry, but this is irrelevant, isn't it?" nor did I tell the neighbor that a permission to have a street party until midnight did not imply by necessity the obligation to whoomp at intolerable high levels and then scream your conversation on top of it until precisely midnight. And I must admit they did lower the volume after my request. A bit. And they stopped at midnight precisely.

I exaggerate. But not much.

But anyway (as I am prone to write in this blog). All this has to with the idea of the 'public space' in which we share our lives. It is a contested place, this 'public space'. It is - or should be - owned by everyone, and it is the territory where our capacity to live a social life is played out in full.. It is the testing ground of our democracy, one might say - the testing ground of our capacity to "live and let live" without one part of the population doing the living and the other part doing the letting live, as it were. Food for thought, therefore - it remains an incredible mystery how it is possible that more than 16 million people in the Netherlands are able to live their daily lives in relative peace in spite of all the differences they meet. Something to cherish, and good to realize that this relative peace is never straightforward but is continuous 'work in progress'.

It is with this in mind that I want to draw your attention to a little incident. Noorderzon festival is taking place in Groningen these days. An art work by an artist called Harma Heikens, as our newspaper assures us "an internationally renowned visual artist", was exposed at the festival terrain, which is accessible to everyone for free and is, outside the festival season, a nice park in the middle of the town. Two men were shocked by the art work, finding it offensive, and threatened some people of the festival, after which the festival direction decided the work should be replaced at a less public place.

I am not going into the question whether or not the festival directors were right or wrong (I guess their decision may be defendable given the fact that the festival terrain temporarily is something in between 'public space' and 'museum space' - I think in a museum one can - or must? - exhibit offensive art whereas in public space this is less straightforwardis; at the same time the decision may be questionable given the fact that it was the festival who invited the artist to expose the work in the first place - they might have been concerned about the publicness of their space a bit earlier), or whether it is good civil conduct to threaten people (obviously it is not). But I would like to draw your attention to the reaction of Harma Heikens - at least to the description of it in our newspaper.

According to the newspaper, Heikens did not think the art work - described as "a phantasy figure with an artificial penis and sagged knickers" - is offensive, telling that it was shown at the RAI and a group of kids were sitting around it drawing without being offended or shocked. I showed a picture of the art work to a good friend, and she remarked that of course Heikens could not imagine this image would be offensive because probably it depicted the artist herself in one of her daily public poses and of course people would find this a completely acceptable and normal public pose.

What worries me in all this is the self-evident way in which a visual artist claims that she may take possession of something - public space, and our gaze in public space - that is ultimately not hers to possess. Public space is not an artistic space, and the fact that many artists (and some musicians) think they are there to work at the boundaries of the offensive does never give them the right to imply others in their offense by force. Which is what they do when they work in public space (the argument "you don't have to look" - or listen - is invalid in public space, of course). And which, I think, in the end can sometimes amount to wittingly and from a very egocentric standpoint jeopardizing that so fragile work-in-progress which is the relative peace most of us strive to live in day by day.

Artists may, or maybe must, play with fire. And it is fine if they set their own house on fire. But deliberately setting fire to public space and then denying they lighted the match has nothing to do with art. And if it has, I don't like such art because of its hypocrisy. And you may quote me having said that.

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.