Composer/performers in the Netherlands: the nuts and bolts

beasts of performance,

our sticky hunger binds us to the stage

while the makers go home

to sniff out their next fantasy.

night after day we offer ourselves

to the clouded proximity between

public and private

again and again

devoured to be ready.

Anne La Berge

Composer/performers divide their time between conjuring up concepts, structures and scores and showing up on stage to play. They thrive on a precarious balance between creating and performing new works. That is not to say that composer/performers participate in every piece they make. But it does imply that the basis of their creative work is intimately tied to their individual playing, their instruments and their unique performing histories.

It might be useful to look at the various roles performers and composers have in our music culture. This should help clarify the critical differences between musicians that are dedicated performers/interpreters who play music by composer/composers and musicians who function as composer/performers. The fundamental one is that interpreters bring ideas and sonic inventions to life by dedicating their careers to deciphering, learning and practicing works created by composers. They embody the material of someone else. They wear the sonic garment that was created by another person’s complex intellectual process. These discrete roles between interpreter and composer have been relatively tried and true for the written music world for the last few centuries. They work. They are just fine. Admittedly, countless debates come to mind with regard to the gray areas between these traditional roles, but for the purpose of this discussion let’s assume that, as a general rule, composers compose and performers interpret.

But what is actually going on when composers perform and performers compose? Did they make a conscious decision to leave the trusted fold of the traditional roles? Are they just a byproduct of an already complete scheme or do they play a significant role in the prevailing musical climate here in the Netherlands? And lastly, who are they?

An example of the differences between these various creative roles is a concert in February 2008 at the BIMhuis where two works of mine were performed. One was a quintet for the field of ears ensemble. The players in this ensemble are at home playing both written music and improvised music and jump from sector to sector with ease. Field, the work I composed for us, is a guided improvisation using Max/MSP and audio processing. While composing field, I drew from my more than 30 years of experience as an electro-acoustic flutist/improviser. The audio processing in this piece uses techniques adapted from those I’ve spent at least 15 years developing in my own performance setup. I wanted to facilitate a situation where the players could experience my sound world through processing. I also wanted them to improvise with roughly the same principles as I do. I did this by using weighted random structures in the Max/MSP patch that the players could also influence. That turned the piece into a flexible combination of my imposed musical situations, the weighted random decisions of the Max/MSP patch and the whims of the players themselves. While rehearsing this piece, it was a great advantage to be able to play as a member of the ensemble. That way, I could tweak the last details of the work in a collaborative process with the other musicians. And, considering that I had the most experience with the audio processing and Max/MSP, I could be our fearless leader in the performances.

The second work on the concert was another guided improvisation by the duo Shackle. Shackle is Robert van Heumen on laptop with controllers and me on flutes and audio processing. Our performances are a flexible mix between free improvisation and computer-generated instructions. We communicate via a network set up between our two computers and have limited control over the decisions of the computers. It is important to add that conceptual and programming elements of Shackle were also used in the development of field. For both pieces, field and Shackle, my participation as composer/performer/improviser was a completely organic and integrated part of the process of making the music. Robert and I spent hours and hours both on and off stage developing a system that works compositionally and improvisationally for the duo. Free improvisation would not have the same results. Nor would a fully composed work. In fact, the only way to notate a Shackle set is to just save the computer patches.

The majority of composer/performers began their musical careers as exceptional instrumentalists or singers. By exceptional, I mean that they, somewhere along the line, developed a somewhat convoluted approach to learning the music put in front of them confounded by a spotty devotion to the conventions of classical music performance. Over time they learned to use performance as a way to inform their compositional process and they composed works that suited their particular performing desires and inclinations. A brief account of my own career would be a useful illustration here.

I spent my early years as a classical flutist with an obsessive focus on modern music. For a number of years I regarded each piece that I learned to play or heard in concerts or on recordings as a building block into the future of art. During these years I delved into the open scores of Morton Feldman, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pauline Oliveros, to name a few. I dug up as much severe music as I could find ranging from James Tenney to Pierre Boulez.  I supplemented my university music education by playing in improvising ensembles and I saw my exploration into the world of extended techniques as research for my composer colleagues. In the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, I worked side by side with composer/performers such as Larry Polansky. We improvised together. I performed his music. He published my music. When my devotion to playing the music of my contemporaries settled into a distinguishing feature of my musical personality there was no turning back. We were, as a group of contemporaries, naive and arrogant enough to believe that we were breaking ground as the new generation of performers/composers/improvisers. And our collective efforts brought new music into the world. Notable collaborations in the late 1980′s were with composer/flutist John Fonville and composer/guitarist/singer David Dramm. John Fonville and I improvised together, composed for our duo and commissioned composers to write music for us. We were, so to speak, a micro-real-time research team, regularly supplying ourselves and our colleagues with useful material. The Dramm and La Berge duo is still harvesting the fruits of our collaborations from that time. In the beginning stages of our duo, I pioneered my role as a drumming flutist and started to develop the amplified flute techniques that have become unique to my playing, particularly when using electronics. Since then I have tamed my view on how history gets made and/or interpreted, but as a result of those collaborations with other musicians (and dancers), documenting my work became a necessity. It was at that point that someone called me a composer. I saw it as freezing improvisations on paper. We had no desktop computers in those days. Notation was ink on the page. Looking back at those early documents I remember a couple of obstacles that took years to solve. One was finding a notation for the extended techniques, some of which were unique to my playing, and the other was how to construct a work where anarchy and control had equal footing. In other words, how could I compose music that sounded like me? Or even more accurately, how could I enable a performance environment where everyone involved sounded like an organism composed of separate musical personalities? Give me until 2050 and I think I may get close enough to be satisfied. Improvisation, experiment, experience, technology, colleagues and failures have all been my saving graces. Regardless of the obstacles, I continue to compose and perform because I need to and I simply can’t and/or won’t give up one or the other. Why not have it all? Or in this case, why not have a portion of both to get on with making art?

Musical life in the Netherlands offers a rich breeding ground for composer/performers. A renowned example is that of Hoketus in the 1970s. Hoketus, formed in 1976 and disbanded in 1987, was a collective of primarily composer/performers. Huib Emmer, Gene Carl and Louis Andriessen all composed for the original Hoketus ensemble. Patricio Wang, Peter van Bergen, Paul Koek, Gene Carl, Huib Emmer and Louis Andriessen have, in the last 30 years continued to compose and perform and contribute to the many-sided musical community we have here. In addition to working in the composed and improvised music scenes they have made music for theater, film, dance and installation art.

The turn of the century has brought fresh blood to the ranks. The short list includes a group of composer/performers of remarkable diversity:

Hugo Morales, Henry Vega, Teodora Stepancic, Samuel Vriezen, Eef van Breen, Pete Harden, Evelien van den Broek, Sandra Pujols, Bart de Vrees, Thomas Myrmel, Daniel Cross, Florian Maier all of whom have their own take on how to get the job done. In this new century where interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary art and crossing borders are not only supported by our audiences but also highly recommended by the structural funding sources, the tag as composer/performer no longer implies something out of the ordinary. These folks play laptops in bands in the Studio LOOS while the next day their ensemble works go into premiere in the Korzo Theater. They make music theater for the international November Music Festival in Den Bosch and show up on the off days as improvisers in the local squats. They place themselves as improvising soloists in otherwise fully composed orchestra works with the Holland Symfonia as part of a composition competition.

But who were the characters that emerged in the years between? The folks that came out of a classical music training and chose the path as composer/performer in the final decades of the 20th century? A few that come to mind are Yannis Kyriakides, Ned McGowan, Jan Bas Bollen, Alison Isadora, Sinta Willur, Maarten van Noorden, Jos Zwaanenburg, Gijsbrecht Roye and I. Unlike the Hoketus group, our calling card wasn’t a unified musical movement and, in our early training, we didn’t bounce through the incredibly diverse styles that the younger generation enjoys. We used composition as one way to create music and performing as another. And what we did as composers and what we did as performers was a constant flow of one informing the other.

The Kraakgeluiden, an improvisation series based in Amsterdam, formed to provide musicians with a venue to explore combinations of acoustic instruments and electronic instruments which thrived from 1999 – 2006, was an important breeding ground for those whose voices emerged at the end of the 20th century. Another Amsterdam series devoted to exploring specific elements in composition and performance is the Karnatic Lab that began in 1999 and is still going strong. Both of these low budget concert series offered musicians opportunities to experiment and develop their techniques and/or their compositional ideas. The Kraakgeluiden focused on improvised electro acoustic music and the Karnatic Lab on composed instrumental music. The Kraakgeluiden concerts regularly included Yannis Kyriakides, Jan Bas Bollen, Marco Ciciliani, Cor Fuhler, Steve Heather, Gert Jan Prins, a long line of international guests and me. The series found a natural death when the core musicians no longer needed the regular experimental sessions as a means for development. In other words, we outgrew the Kraakgeluiden format and headed off to the venues and festivals with our projects.

Another regular performer in the late 1990′s in the Kraakgeluiden was Richard Barrett. Richard Barrett lived in Amsterdam from 1993 – 2001 and now lives in Berlin. He is currently on the faculty of the Institute of Sonology at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. His work “encompasses both composition and improvisation, ranging from chamber music to innovative uses of live electronics and collaborations with visual artists, all of which come together in his composed works.” (Wikipedia page about Richard Barrett)

A concert that I took part in at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November 2009 is a good example of how Richard Barrett’s Dutch composer/performer activities are a reflection of the international scene. The concert was in two parts. On the first half we heard Mesopotamia performed by 17 members of the London Sinfonietta and on the second half a guided improvisation called fOKT 6 performed by fORCH, an international crew of 8 composer/performer/improvisers.

For the performance of Mesopotamia the musicians learned very difficult parts, feverishly rehearsed together and played the premiere for an educated and appreciative audience. This process, compose-rehearse-perform, works well. It provides opportunities for an endless list of performers to perform written music in numerous concert venues for attentive audiences throughout the world. The makers and the doers do the things that they do best. And the audience gets to hear a good concert. This first setting was quite a contrast to the fORCH performance that followed where the 8 composer/performers were asked to creatively contribute in real time. In this second performance we all participated in a piece where Richard Barrett was both the maker and the doer. This event was interesting in that it featured the performance of a fully composed work and a guided improvisation by the same composer/performer on the same concert back to back. The audience had mixed reactions to the concert as a whole. Some welcomed the experience of listening to both sides of Richard Barrett’s music while some were partial to one or the other. I enjoyed both. The juxtaposition made perfect sense to me. I wouldn’t mind taking part in more events like this one that boldly mixes composed and improvised music.

Richard Barrett describes his composer/performer career very well in an interview with Bob Gilmore:

“I don’t think of myself as doing two different things. I think of “composition” as referring to the act of creating music and of improvisation as being one means to bring that about. I think there must be very clear stylistic connections between what I do as an improviser and what I do as a composer of notated music. But conversely, there’s also the fact that I don’t want to use improvisation to do things that sound like they were composed. And I don’t want to use composition to do things that sound like they could easily have been improvised – if I have a particular kind of musical vision in mind then it’s also clear what kind of process, what kind of strategy, needs to be used to realize it.” (Interview by Bob Gilmore with Richard Barrett, 15 July 2009)

From this interview excerpt we gain a bit of insight as to how Richard Barrett’s compositional process is informed by his work with fORCH and vice versa. Keeping in mind that every composer/performer’s career has evolved uniquely, this might be a good time to talk about what makes them tick. Namely, what constitutes a composer/performer and what separates them from the traditional composer and/or performer roles? I think it is that their inspiration has its roots in their instruments and how they play them. It’s how they use their own bag of tricks: their talents, artistic passions, unique virtuosities, conceptual twists. And how they depend on their highly developed and unmistakable personal voices as performers. And last but not least, how they engage and integrate their bodies as real-time creative forces. That includes every body part, from their inner ears to their tapping feet. This real-time kinesthetically and intellectually driven music making lends itself well to improvisation as a handy tool in their work. Improvisation provides room for them to experiment and develop both as composers and as performers. Not all composer/performers improvise, but they all like to perform. They not only like the smell of the stage, they carry the burden that they can perform their own work better than anyone else does. In most situations their work is truly at its best when they are performing it.

Many works such as field and fOKT 6 have found performances in Dutch venues that program both improvised and composed music. The worldwide reputation of the Dutch music scene for its openness and flexibility is a tribute not only to its venues and programmers and funding agencies but also to the composer/performers that helped define the music it stands for. Composer/performers are busy redefining their roles in yet unforeseen stylistic directions and they continue to be a vital force in the Dutch music scene.

The recent developments in the funding structure for the arts in the Netherlands include sudden and ruthless budget cuts that pose a threat to nearly all the art institutions and the artists themselves, ranging from children’s music education to the major orchestras, from intimate jazz clubs to internationally renown rock venues, from singer song writers to opera composers. In the coming years, as these funding revisions take effect, our composer/performers will be faced with severe challenges to fulfill their roles as the mavericks in a scene that depends on their input. To go forward will be far from easy but I trust that they will find their way.

Additional website references:

Interview by Bob Gilmore with Anne La Berge, 2005

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival: fORCH, 28 November 2009


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