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Education: Rotterdam Conservatory, Cambridge University // Activities: composition, writing

Monday 30 August 2021

Beautiful song cycle

 Beautiful song cycle by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen (born 1952) - 'Let me tell you':


The music is full of sounds from the period around 1900, Mahler, Debussy, Strauss - but without concrete stylistic references, and lush harmonies which hover impressionistically over, under and around the text, creating a dreamy atmosphere. The harmonies don't have a logical voice leading but float through space as recollections, as impressions of harmonies once heard but now disconnected from their original contextual framework.

But there is not much melodic material: any line is broken-up, dissolving, before the ear can follow its pattern. The result is the strange experience of painful longing combined with insurmountable reserve, like being in the presence of your lover but somehow forbidden to get closer. Also the score is sprinkled with additional sounds which are the usual 'modern' ones, as if to make sure the audience is not listening to an 'old' piece. It's longing combined with 'Berührungsangst'.

Sunday 29 August 2021

Panamese / Dutch soprano died

Last week the Panamese/Dutch soprano Marianne Blok has died. She was 80. She was one of the great voices of the Netherlands, and sang in many opera productions in Holland and abroad. She performed in many recitals and worked with the Dutch Radio orchestras; one of her star roles was the Queen of the Night in the Magic Flute of which the coloratura aria was one of her spectacular feats. She also sang in productions of contemporary opera, of which her greatest success was the central role in Peter Schat’s opera ‘Aap verslaat de knekelgeest’ (1980) which not only had a very difficult singing part but also required acrobatics and fencing skills.

After her retirement from the conservatory she was a much-sought after teacher with young singers coming from all over the world who picked-up the special qualities of her voice and wanted to learn from her.

She had a radiant, spontaneous sound, and immaculate taste and sensitivity, and every part she sang sounded as if improvised on the spot. This is the great quality of a great singer: bringing the music to life as if it were her own.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yY3BwuqyjmU  A vos jeux, mes amis

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttlb43hlPKM   Où va la jeune Hindoue?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kp3_R0wLk_8   Salut à toi, soleil" 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hW8poyrWbU "Quel guardo, il cavaliere..." (D. Pasquale)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYf8TDC9AgM   Granados, Elegia Eterna 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCFgGEtExHc   Obradors, Del cabello más sutil

She had a special approach in her teaching: not the usual physical training for volume, control and willpower (the feared ‘pumping’ of the voice), but the liberation of natural resonance which is present in every voice. Resonance can carry much farther and with much less effort than volume, and even with an orchestra behind the singer, resonance can easily float above a full orchestral sound. Of course this approach is not suited to everybody but young singers who possess already some of this natural resonance, were greatly helped by Marianne’s insightful training. 

She is an unforgettable voice and she will be greatly missed by everybody who had the experience of hearing her performances.


Monday 23 August 2021

The crisis of modernity

The world is in crisis, and this crisis is one of modernity. This modernity was born in the West, and has conquered the rest of the globe, either by force or by persuasion or by example. It is not the concept of modernity in itself but its narrow-minded and destructive interpretation, turned into an ideology, which is the problem. The results we see all around us - it is not necessary to rehearse all of them here.

The version of modernity which is at the roots of the current problems is a world view, and an image of man, which began to appear a couple of ages ago. 

Classical music as a genre can offer a symbolism and an experience which may contribute to the healing of the world, beginning by the individual listener. Its effects may be minor, but it firmly puts classical music in the context of a new version of modernity.

From 'Postcorona Music; The Relevance of Classical Music in a Troubled World' (to appear somewhere in the next year):

The first stirrings of the ‘modern world view’ can be detected in the Renaissance, but its dominating characteristics only developed in the course of the 19th century with the first wave of industrialization with its ‘wild capitalism’ and the development of the (limited) scientific worldview, the period when the more subjective and spiritual forms of the Enlightenment were gradually eroding and materialism and rationalism took precedence. ‘Modern’ became a slogan, a symbol of a progressive mindset, the suggestive motor of destruction of anything that stood in its way, especially anything that could be referred to as ‘traditional’ which became a negative label of conservatism. In his ‘Une Saison en Enfer’ (1873), young French poet Arthur Rimbaud exclaimed: 'Il faut être absolument moderne!’ (‘One has to be absolutely modern!‘ or: ‘One has to absolutely be modern!‘) - he was merely echoing a wide-spread consensus that ‘the past’ stood for stagnation and that ‘progress’ promised ultimate liberation and fulfilment of humanity’s deepest longings.

The term ‘modern’ is a mere historic one; it means: that which is contemporary, which is ‘now’. It has no qualitative meaning, and it is only indicating a fluid position of ‘now’ on the time line, continuously shifting. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers two definitions of ‘modernity’: 1) ‘the quality or state of being or appearing to be modern’; 2) ‘the modern era or world and especially the ideas and attitudes associated with the modern world’. The Cambridge Dictionary gives for ‘modern‘: ‘Designed and made using the most recent ideas and methods; of the present or recent times, especially the period of history since around 1500; existing in the present or a recent time, or using or based on recently developed ideas, methods, or styles.’ So, that does not help us much further on the point of qualitative meaning. But we can identify a number of mindsets characteristic of ‘modernity’ which create a mental space, a world view, dominating all other considerations:

Progress: the belief that the world inevitably moves, or has to move, towards a better condition, progress not merely as a laudable effort to improve the quality of life and of societies, but as a prescriptive ideology: “Thou shalst dedicate thyself to Progress no matter what”…. - progress understood as an independent force of history pushing humanity forwards, like time itself. This means: ‘progress‘ without any consideration beforehand what ‘progress’ means in which instance, within which context and with which goal. It is romanticized, immature thinking, escaping the concerns of the present and the necessity to learn from the past. The bottomless stupidity of this ‘thinking’ is the idea that there is anything to win by throwing ages of experience and understanding of the human condition in the dustbin, as if knowing and understanding more about ourselves would be a hindrance to any constructive development. It is utopian dreaming in a never-never-land and the opposite of true progress, which can only be qualitative – something is progressive if it improves on something that was less good. The notion of ‘progress’ without context means nothing; while we now live in a period at the end of the ideological ‘Grand Narrative of Progress’ which began with the Enlightenment, that mindset has become conservative through and through, in the sense of wanting to freeze something that has become meaningless, for its own sake. When progress is correctly understood as qualitative, then it becomes clear that classical music in its authentic form is a qualitative contribution to the human condition, which means: the more classical music there is around, and the more people get access to its experience, the better for humanity - that would be real progress.

Change: the idea that since in the modern world, things change so often and so fast, change is a sign of modernity and therefore something good in itself, ‘change‘ as a positive value indicating progress. As with ‘progress‘, ‘change‘ is a meaningless concept if not embedded in context: change from or towards something, and whether it is a change for the better or the worse. Life is development and change indeed – but never without context. Given the transience of life, it is insane not to give attention to the aspect which preserves value within the fleeting flow of time: continuity. Like ‘progress’, the idea of ‘change’ has for many ‘modern’ people become a vehicle of escape from the reality of life, and an excuse to no longer reflect on implications and consequences of ideas and actions – an empty stopgap, to avoid thinking. Since all meaningful values are timeless and transcend the concrete reality of life, they offer stability and continuity, as a background of deep structure to the ever shifting foreground. The performance of classical music illustrates as no other art the fruitful combination of stability and meaningful change: works, elevated from their time and place, represent timeless value but interpretation is by people who live in the present and, with every new birth of the musical work in its performance, offer a real experience in the ‘now’, an experience which may change from performer to performer, or over time with the same performer. It is the meaningful relationship between changeable foreground and stable background which makes the art form an intensily living one, symbolizing the way man has to negotiate himself through life.

Freedom: it is hard to find a concept that is more misunderstood, abused, lied about, perverted, violated, prostituted, as freedom. Namely, freedom as it has mostly been understood within the world view of modernity as the absence of limitations and restrictions, does not exist; as such, it is a meaningless term. The notion of freedom only obtains meaning in relation to something else: the freedom from something, or to something; and then it depends upon the context in how far one can speak of freedom at all. ‘Freedom’ as a slogan, as a symbol of social, cultural and idealized liberation and renewal, was born in the 18th century Enlightenment as a philosophical and political exploration of reform of a feudal class society. In such circumstance, ‘freedom’ obtains a quality that goes far beyond the practical considerations and becomes an utopian ideal in itself, an enticing but ever receding horizon. 18th-century French philosopher Jacques Rousseau thought that man is born free and is only put into chains later-on by society, while the every-day reality is that we are born entirely un-free and entirely dependent upon the direct environment of family, circumstance, location, community, culture, and have to acquire freedom gradually and in different contexts for different reasons with different results. But central to modernity’s new world view is the freedom to create one’s own life according to one’s own values and opinions and wishes; the freedom to create one’s own identity. But this freedom is also dependent upon the chances we are offered to find-out about the material from which to create an identity, and upon our individual talents and self-understanding to discover the nature of our Self, together with the wisdom to judge the value of this nature, whether this or that is good for us or not. The freedom of a criminal to create his own identity on the basis of his inclinations is one, quite different from the vicar’s self-identification. Identity formation is not an easy thing and most people seek easy methods to fill the gap of freedom, resulting from living in a free, individualistic, secular, nihilistic, egalitarian world, with trivialized simulacra of community-membership: helped and exploited by commerce, they buy their membership of an imagined cummunity of ideal people as conjured-up by advertizing. Where we see a rampant egoism and antisocial behavior, the erosion of community-feeling and family loyalty in the name of freedom and self-determination, and the existential loneliness of people left behind because of their different opinions and values, then we know that the modern sense of freedom is at work. Freedom in any context always implies responsibilities and obligations, simply because we are dependent upon other people for the satisfaction of our needs, of which human contact and loyalties are fundamental; since there are many different levels of life experience, there are also many levels of different kinds of freedom, which have to be discovered and acquired with the utmost care; thinking that freedom is simply the absence of limiting constraints, is immature and destructive. And then, what remains of freedom where it has turned into an ideology: ‘Thou shalst be free no matter what’, as so often proclaimed in the last century? It is like being forced to rejoice, as in the finales of Shostakovich’ symphonies. This misconception results from the assumption that there are historic forces which inevitably drive humanity to liberation, resulting into the paradox that we become free through laws that bind us. Concepts like freedom appear to be hard to understand when presented as abstract perfect ideals, since this invites certain types of brains to stop thinking and to surrender to a beautiful idea without any consequences in the reality of life. The concept of human rights, related to the concept of freedom and equally developed in the Enlightenment movement, has comparable problems of adjustment: in the modern world; the law has to continuously intervene to decide whose rights have to be balanced against someone else’s rights, because everybody is equal for the law. Although the concept is a great qualitative advancement if embedded in law, it is questionable whether it has really been possible to be turned into an internalized awareness of equality and justice, as we can easily see how immigrants and fugitives are treated, or people with customs or natural variations which are treated as ‘deviations’ from some imagined norm – the minorities question. How really free are minorities in the free Western world? Also the pressures of economy and class, even within a seemingly egalitarian society, almost always create severe limitations upon any sense of freedom from which it is often very hard to escape. So, in the modern world, ‘freedom’ is a questionable good – but it is, as a sign of modernity, used as a symbol of profound progress from premodern, traditional society, while there is at most a gradual and very local improvement discernible. In the name of freedom, the ideologists of modernity have embarked upon the task to dehumanize the world, and destroy its beauties and natural balance and resources, and slander ages of aesthetic development and explorations of the human condition, cutting the roots of the human being and kicking him into the empty space of modernity’s utopian and immature imaginings. What has classical music to contribute to the notion of freedom? The best of its repertoire awakens or reinforces a sense of Self, which automatically includes a sense of inner freedom which is related to meaning and thus, responsibility. From a position of inner freedom, one can intervene in an unfree world and be able to improve conditions for one’s own and other people’s life.

Materialism: according to this limited view of modernity, only that which can be measured, weighed, proven, and tagged with a price label, does exist. Which means: the perfect excuse for ‘wild capitalism’ - the market as the main decisive factor in the world, where value can only be translated into price, and wealth is a ’value’ in itself, without the preconditioned need to be invested into something of true value. Nature seen as a material resource to be exploited and turned into commodities, without understanding the meaning of Nature and its role for humanity, also beyond its material offerings; man as disconnected from Nature, and as its master, unhindered by the fact of the part which binds him to it. Technology not as a useful tool to improve the quality of life, but the other way around: life as dedicated to technology which is a value in its own right to which everything else has to be subjected. Physicality: everything that enhances the presence of the human body: fashion, sports, sexuality; the human body not as an expression of and a bridge towards the person, but the other way around: the person as a vehicle to express the body. The advanced media of today greatly support this misunderstanding of human bodily presence, with serious psychic problems as a result, of which the problems of intimacy are the most conspicuous, in spite of the ‘liberation’ from prudery as celebrated in the last century. Also: the custom of explaining human behavior by biological processes only, as if the human psyche is merely the product of such processes, while it has already been known for half a century how much the psyche influences biological processes. Classical music makes the listener aware of his immaterial existence: in its metaphorical life experiences it sheds all references to the cumbersome weight of matter and ‘makes the soul fly freely’ through inner spaces entirely unhindered by bodily presence; hence the positive effect of music therapy with invalidations and psychic ailments, and the inspiration it offers for the down-trodden, depressed, and desillusioned.

Power: the importance given to the human ability to subject Nature and other people – the reserve of the poor of spirit and the empty of heart. The insane waste of the international arm race with its nuclear capacities to wipe-out complete megacities of innocent civilians in an instant, and to threaten other nations with military prowess to acquire assets and influence. The idea that there is no value above what humans decide to be a value, and that any such ‘value’ is an act of will. This is Nietzsche’s misunderstood ‘superman’ fantasy having become a perverted reality: the idea that there is nothing in the world but power, and that the one who wields it, has the right to wield it. But it is a primitive ‘jungle mentality’, threatening all life on this planet. We see it in the way politicians, covert in the West and openly in the East, operate on it, in spite of the enormous responsibilities in their hands. We have only to thank our current survival to the collective fear of extinction, which means a moral defeat unequalled by anything in human history – ‘ecce homo’, ‘behold man’. Classical music is the opposite voice of such power, it tells of worlds of awareness and experience far above the primitive drives which are a threatening force in the ‘real’ world. Even in the most evil human characters there is a little spark of longing to be liberated from such drives, as demonstrated by the interest of insane dictators in high art and classical music – they did not understand the message but it was alluring nonetheless, even for them: Hitler, Stalin. 

Dehumanizing aesthetics: instead of the normal human inclination to enrich visual perception with patterns that relate to our deep-seated sense of mathematical properties, objects have to look streamlined, flat, abstracted, ‘minimalist’, empty of ‘distracting’ details, and where possible made of slick metallic or plastic materials, demonstratively produced by factory technology or as if by artificial intelligence, not by human hands - all of which has to point towards some utopian technological future where human life will be so much better, so much more under control, so much more rational, abstract and efficient, so much distanced from Nature. It is one of the biggest lies of modernity and deeply harmful, undermining any natural human development towards discerning aesthetic perception. It is something entirely unnatural, and often even anti-natural – it is born from the wish to escape the natural world and human nature with all its entanglements and problems; in that sense it is juvenile and, surprisingly, primitive. We see it everywhere: in the ‘modern’ city scapes with their glass and steel sky scrapers; in the way cars look and appartment blocks; in the big shopping malls with their smooth ‘easy-going’ blinking interiors and expensive unnecessary commodities; in interior decoration styles with their whites, greys and blacks; in railway stations and the looks of trains, trams, busses, and cars; the way simple domestic tools are designed as if they were destined for Mars settlements: water cookers, coffee machines, irons, watches, shoes, cell phones, computers, CD players, etc. etc. Let it be clear that this narrow approach of aesthetics is entirely understandable: in premodern times, everything that man used, had a long tradition of formation behind it, which meant that aesthetics had been tried-out extensively; with the birth of industrial modernity entirely new objects came into existence and the utopian approach seemed the easiest and its message best for marketing. Abstraction has always been a part of aesthetics - of any art or practical necessity - but as an underlying structure, not as a demonstrative surface phenomenon with a ‘message‘. Even where abstraction is all there is, as in much islamic architecture (like the Alhambra in Spain), the surface is still rich in decorative detail, meant to stimulate the subjective perceptive sensibilities. As no other art form, classical music reinforces the natural human inclination to flesh-out the experience of the senses, with its wealth of details and sensual nuances, with its rich aesthetics saturated with relationships between details and the whole, with its complexities that render abstraction into an emotional experience instead of an intellectual exercise, and its emotionally-rewarding experiences of sheer beauty – telling the listener about a human world where beauties in their infinite variety and truth are the same thing.





Wednesday 11 August 2021


Nothing shows the lack of philosophical thinking more than the moment when academics or composers talk about the 'advanced language' of new music since 1900, as if the language of music is in a process of linear development to something 'more sophisticated', more 'complex', more this or that, somehow better, reflecting modern times, etc. etc. It is the naive view of music history as if it were a history of science, as if every new style, new aesthetic, new composition technique were a step 'forward' - as implied in the term 'advanced' - towards, yes, towards what? Better music?

The sophistication of Palestrina's music is lightyears different from the sophistication of Ravel or Stravinsky, but it would be entirely wrong to say that Ravel wrote 'more advanced' music than Palestrina. It is different music, with its own sophistication and complexity.  There is no more sophisticated music than, say, a Mozart string quintet with its subtle psychological playing with relationships, proportions, deviations from set-up patterns, balance, liveliness, etc. etc. - not to mention the rich palette of direct, emotional expression and appeal. But the nonsensical notion of 'advanced musical language' is parrotted everywhere at conservatories, universities, within new music circles, entirely divorced from the real world of art and true creative thinking.

It were entirely irrelevant if such notions were the prerogative of some private entertainment clubs. But no, they are established concepts handed-down to young people who want to learn the craft of writing music. And they are destroyed before they even began.

Therefore, it would be a great experiment if an institution would be set-up like the new visual art academies which teach realist, figurative drawing and painting, along traditional lines, say: 'music academies' where the nature of music is analysed, its psychology made understood, and the traditional craft of getting imagined sound scapes down on paper in such a practical way that living instrumentalists can realize them in concert. This would be a real 'advance' on the nonsense being spread through the educational channels.