Just this last week I joined the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir in two performances of the B minor Mass by J.S. Bach under the astounding direction of Ton Koopman. I am ashamed to say that this all took place on the island group of Gran Canaria. I am not proud of joining the international fleet of musicians who hop from here to there to "do their thing," and yet this seemed to important and great an opportunity to miss.
Let's be real. Ton Koopman is a legend. At 78, he is still conducting with the energy of a 20 year old. On the day of the concert, he easily gives a lecture at a local university before rehearsing and finally conducting the concert. He is well organized, having written out a plan before rehearsing so that no musicians have to wait or tire themselves out with too much playing or singing. The music making in the concert is intense. There is no boring Bach. There is an intensity and energy needed which finally adheres to what Donington writes about in his book Performing Baroque Music, and that is that nothing in the baroque was small and weak. It is big and profound. The voices were well trained and were meant to carry.
When singing with Koopman, which I have experienced for two productions now, the intensity expected of the choir and orchestra is so great, that even I have to be careful of my voice. The risk is that sheer will to elevate the music to the level that Ton wants will easily surpass the physical ability of the vocal chords.
My colleagues are the best of the best. Young and old, everyone is a highly trained expert in their distinctive fields. Especially my colleague altos Iris Bouman, Sofia Eisen, whom I stood next to, were an inspiration.
I'm inspired and informed at a much higher level than before I left for Gran Canaria to conduct this piece in three weeks.
Premiere: June 10th 2023 in the Hartebrugkerk. Written for the Leiden English Choir in collaboration with the City of Oxford Choir, the Astrolabium Chamber Choir, organist Kirstin Gramlich, and cellist Willemijn Knödler.
In short the set-up of the piece is small soprano ensemble (6 sopranos) situated behind the large choir (choir 1) which sings primarily with the organ and smaller choir 2 opposite of choir 1. The cello has a very expressive role and accompanies both soprano choir and choir 1. This large choir, here sung by the Leiden English Choir and Astrolabium, represents humanity as a whole with all of it's messes, hopes, cyclical behaviour, business as usual, and power. The intervals of the 3rd and tritone are represented as an impure contrast with the "pure" data of the soprano choir. These “human” intervals are symbolic of several societal ideas. The interval of the third represents the Holy Trinity and thus Christian dominance. In certain circumstances it can be pure and majestic, for instance in the manifestation of a major chord, here represented at it’s greatest on the word Joy. At other times it is tonally impure and causes, in conjunction with the tritone, for example, harsh dissonance. The tritone is the interval which perfectly divides the octave. It is the most dissonant interval in Western tonal music. I use this to represent how perfectly divided our society is at the moment. While the data is clear that climate change is caused by human activity and fossil fuel consumption, most of society either refuses to believe it, or refuses to act on this knowledge. However, the 4th and 5th are the basis for this choir as well, as intentions are sometimes pure, even within the dissonance that we grapple with when it comes to climate change. We are, in fact, all victims and perpetrators alike.
The small soprano choir's function is to sing the data retrieved from the observatory on Moana Loa, which has been used since 1958 to gather data on atmospheric concentrations. The soprano choir uses pure intervals of the 4th and 5th stemming from A 440, and occasionally incorporate the interval of the major and minor second under insistence of the scientists. When I first started the piece I originally named those soprano parts the “angels of Moana Loa.” There is a set number of 6 sopranos which is a loose symbol for the 6 winged seraph Isaiah. However, in the final version I chose to drop those Christian religious connotations. The sopranos singing the Moana Loa data should sound like deities that are coaxed to life by the scientists who act in the same manner as man has for centuries. I.e., regarding profound manifestations in nature, such as the volcano Moana Loa, as God-like and therefore searching for profound wisdom within.
Choir 2 represents the scientists who extract and interpret the data. Their role is to seek out the pure data, but are definitely emotionally impacted by their findings. They are somewhat ritualistic in their search for data from Moana Loa. The become increasingly disturbed throughout, ending in monotony in repetitive despair. Their intervals are those of the 4th, 5th, and 1/2 step.
The text used for this piece, aside from the repetitious outbursts of “Moana Loa” and the data findings, comes from 8 lines from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence. Written in 1803, this long poem puts into words the great contrasts inherent in humanity. It’s entirety can be read here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43650/auguries-of-innocence
The lines used in my composition are:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
If there's anything that I feel strongly about (next to music education in schools, the dwindling appreciation of classical culture, loss of biodiversity and natural places), it's climate change. To be more specific, our ineptness in facing the huge challenges hanging over humanity that are so out of proportion to anything that we have collectively battled and found solutions for in the past. As a conductor of choral (and orchestral) music, it's quite hard to find a way to make an impact to be part of the solution, not the problem. The first thing that comes to mind is obviously to program music that at least addresses this issue. This, preferably, with the intention of abstaining from flying in "necessary" talent from all parts of the world and/or touring internationally by air. Programming music that addresses these very new issues and is appropriate for the ensemble is like searching for a few needles in a haystack. I have come across one exceptionally relevant and also well-composed piece for 40 voices called Earthrise (inspired by Spem in allium) by Alec Roth, which can be accompanied by organ and cello. One work that goes well with this approximately 30 min piece is a stunning work by Sven-David Sandström called To See a World. The first time I conducted this piece, the text just gripped me. Written in 1803 bij William Blake, it juxtaposes innocence and corruption. Although Sandström only uses the first verse of this work of 132 lines, they are the most poignant. They can mean so much on different levels, but for me it is a plea for finding meaning in less (of everything). Less is more.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
I have been dabbling in composition since the beginning of the corona crisis, and decided to put up my sleeves and take a jab at composing a piece myself for the three choirs, cello, and organ, using William Blake’s text as well. The reason being that one of my choirs is organising a three-choir collaboration for their Jubilee project in June/July 2023, and the thematic thread is sustainability. I decided to include the following verses from the Auguries:
Man was made for Joy and Woe
And when this we rightly know
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
Composing my To See a World was in a non-lockdown situation was tougher than I had first imagined it would be. Months of brooding over possible themes and how to link them with intervals, which texts to use, how to incorporate contemporary texts that are directly relevant to climate change yet making it not an affront to the listener, pondering over the possibilities of the large church balconies, considering the different levels of the choirs involved. All of this while speeding through “normal” life again of daily evening rehearsals in different cities, preparing scores and practicing voice in the daytime, managing my household, and finding time to take care of my health.
The day before yesterday I put the finishing touches on the first draft during a nine hour long train ride to Berlin.
Relief! I will be recording small bits myself during the next few months, but the première will take place in the Hartebrugkerk in Leiden on June 10th 2023. I’ll be posting more about this at a later time.
My question for my fellow choir conductors out there: what is the future looking like for you in terms of repertoire? A very insistent theme that comes up repeatedly is that my choir members don’t want to sing religious music anymore. I am ready to agree with them. “Mooi muziek, jammer dat het altijd over God gaat.” When 90% of your repertoire is about a subject that doesn’t have nearly the same relevance as when it was written, you have to start reevaluating your intentions as an ensemble.
What is the role of an artist in confronting the public with your own concerns about the world? Are we only there to provide beauty and comfort, or are we also there to expose and disturb?
Nederlands! Programma toelichting geschreven door Thies de Waard, Fedde Bloemhof, Hebe de Champeaux
Tijdens de coronaperiode kwam de wereld knarsend tot stilstand. De schaal van ons bestaan raakte op veel manieren danig ingeperkt, en het effect van de pandemie bracht wereldwijd discussies op gang over ons bestaan van vóór corona. Over het mondiale consumptiepatroon (de verspillende patronen, de infrastructuur en logistiek die daarvoor nodig zijn, de mentaliteit die eraan ten grondslag ligt) en de gevolgen daarvan voor de planeet en voor ons als mensen. Een soortgelijk achter-de-oren-krabben ontstond over de manier waarop we met onszelf omgaan, binnen families, en binnen de samenleving in wijken, steden, landen. In allerlei opzichten dwong Corona ons tot een pas-op-de-plaats, en tot heroverwegen en misschien (hopelijk?) zelfs herijken. Met dit programma willen we aandacht geven aan de zaken die ons tijdens de stilte die corona ons oplegde, bezighielden. Omdat we snel geneigd zijn nieuwe inzichten te vergeten zodra de vaart der volkeren ons weer meesleurt. We bundelen hiertoe de krachten van twee kamerkoren die in wisselende combinaties zullen zingen. Tevens is er een rol weggelegd voor een kinderkoor.
De kern van het programma wordt gevormd door twee monumentale en belangwekkende composities, die beide over genoemde thema’s gaan, maar er vanuit verschillend perspectieven naar kijken.
Raua Needmine (Curse upon Iron, 1972), van Veljo Tormis is een indringend, rauw en energiek werk voor koor en Shamaan-trommel, dat deels is gebaseerd op oude teksten uit de Finse mythologie (de Kalevala) in combinatie met nieuwere Estse poëzie. Met deze compositie vraagt Tormis op onontkoombare wijze aandacht voor onze relatie met de natuurlijk bronnen, en wijst hij erop dat alles wat de mens creëert zich tegen hem kan keren als het niet gebeurt met respect voor de levende planeet.
In 1968 werd de aarde voor het eerst door mensen vanaf de maan gefotografeerd. We zien een nietig, kwetsbaar, blauw balletje in een onmetelijk groot heelal. Dit beeld inspireerde Alec Roth tot het schrijven van Earthrise (2009), een episch werk voor meerdere bezettingen, waarin hij teksten uit de bijbel aanwendt die ons wijzen op het belang van goed rentmeesterschap. Earthrise is daarmee echter geen religieus stuk; het laat zien dat juist de mens, en de mens alleen, de verantwoordelijkheid heeft voor het beheer van de planeet. We voeren het werk in dit programma uit in de bezetting voor dubbelkoor en strijkers.
We vullen het programma aan met een aantal werken die eveneens onze relatie tot de natuur en tot elkaar aan de kaak stellen. To see a World van Sven David Sandström handelt op een ingetogen manier over de tegenstelling die we als mensen creëren (rijkdom tegenover armoede, de elite tegenover de kansarmen) en nodigt het publiek uit om de kwetsbare schoonheid en balans in de natuur weer te herkennen. Sandström schaart zich daarmee naast Tormis wat betreft thematiek, maar in een volkomen contrasterend idioom. Van Pēteris Vasks zingen we een aantal Klusas dziemas (silent songs) die handelen over afscheid. Met deze weinig uitgevoerde, maar bijzondere en sfeervolle werken staan we stil bij de mensen die als gevolg van pandemie niet meer onder ons zijn. Aussi bas que le silence uit de Figure Humaine van Francis Poulenc laat ons horen wat overblijft als het schone verdwijnt. De Cantate de la Paix van Darius Milhaud (met medewerking van het kinderkoor) roept op tot vrede en tot een humanere omgang met elkaar. In Mille Regrets reflecteert Hebe de Champeaux aan de hand van een persoonlijke ervaring op de toegenomen afstand en eenzaamheid die voor velen het gevolg was van de pandemie. (zie blogpost hieronder)
De Stabat Mater van Nystedt was eigenlijk ook een slachtoffer van de coronacrisis. Geannuleerd in het vorige programma doordat de dirigent in quarantaine moest, werd dit stuk doorgeschoven naar Tijdens de Stilte, waar het raar genoeg ook een sleutelrol heeft gekregen in het programma. Dit stuk is een dialoog tussen cello en koor, waarin de tekst van de Stabat Mater op indringende manier samen wordt gevlochten met de muziek. De tederheid en liefde en het wenen van de moeder wordt uitgebeeld in fragiele dalende lijnen door de sopranen en alten, terwijl het verstikkende beeld van de dood en de huilende moeder met strakke herhalende noten en kruipende dissonanten wordt uitgebeeld in klank. Het het programma komt dit stuk direct na het oerstuk Raua Needmine, waarin in feiten het einde van de wereld door nucleaire oorlog wordt gepresenteerd als waarschuwing. Dat de Stabat Mater hier op volgt is een symbool van rouw. De moeder rouwt om haar kind, de mensheid rouwt om haar onvermogen om ramp af te wenden, de vrouw rouwt om de man, die de destructie grotendeels heeft veroorzaakt. Aan het einde van dit stuk is de troost van de liefde dat vanuit de moeder stroomt alomwezig. De liefde van de moeder zorgt ervoor dat, ook al sterft het lichaam, de geest de glorie van de hemels paradijs zal bereiken. In de komende decaden zal troost nodig zijn. Laat het de vrouwen zijn die de leiders worden en vanuit wijsheid en liefde regeren.
De teksten van al deze muziekstukken zijn niet van het laatste jaar: ze werden reeds tien tot enige duizenden jaren vóór de coronacrisis geschreven, hetgeen onderstreept dat we ons als mensheid al erg lang bewust zijn van de gevolgen van ons handelen. We combineren de oude teksten in dit programma daarom ook juist met heel recente gedichten van Claartje Chajes, ontstaan tijdens de coronatijd. Claartje schrijft poëzie in nauwe relatie tot de belevenis van de mensen in haar omgeving, en is onder andere bekend van haar Amsterdamse Poëtische Buurtatlas. Een aantal van de gedichten zal door de kinderen van het kinderkoor worden voorgedragen – want zij zijn het tenslotte die de planeet van ons overnemen.
In just a few weeks time, my composition Mille Regrets will go in premiere with the multi-choral collaborative program Tijdens de Stilte. I'll express a few of my ideas here about why I wrote it.
At the time I was influenced by several severely contrasting musical genres. First of all, the influence of Pēteris Vasks, and in particular his Cello Concerto, the Dona Nobis Pacem, and of course Māte Saule, is imminent. In particular the combination of strings and voices, and the "cloud" technique are important. The second influence is pop, especially Lady Gaga. I wanted to use a harmonic structure that would be accessible and still would portray the mourning aspect of the song clearly. Gaga's at the time new album Chromatica, plus her album A Star is Born, (especially the ballads) were songs that I was listening to frequently, and I even made string cover of Always Remember Us This Way. The third influence is Purcell. I've always been gripped by the descending 4th as a bass ostinato. And lastly, I'll never forget my theory lessons in which was explained that Wagner always heightened emotional expression with extreem melodic intervals.
The idea for the piece came out of immense frustration and fury about the corona restrictions. A seemingly unsolvable conundrum. The protect the fragile elderly, they were forbidden to receive visitors for months on end. In fact, their homes became prisons. Wasting away in loneliness, they were asked to spend (in many cases) their last remaining months/years in isolation from their loved ones. This blatant example of human insistence on prolonging quantity of life instead of quality of life was something that I found extremely offensive.
It has a lot to do with my own past, I'm afraid. My mother was hospitalized for a very long time, and wasted away in care homes and eventually the hospital. She wrote it in her diary herself, she was no longer living, she was a shell. I still feel guilt that I (a child, and also living in a different country) didn't have the attention for her. I'm not sure she wanted to live on. She was being kept alive by endless medicines, and died at the age of 55, looking 100.
Isolating elderly from their loved ones to protect them was a mistake that we should be utterly ashamed of. Couples who shared a bed for half a century, separated by the restrictions, could not see each other unless one of them was on their death bed. Elderly couldn't be touched, held, hugged, and were separated by screens, windows, plastic sheets. What kind of society have we become if we shove aside our empathy, restrict human connection for months on end for those that only have a few months left anyways? What are we saving? It's a terrible conflict.
And therefore, Mille Regrets.
Mille regrets de vous abandonner
Et d’être éloigné de votre visage amoureuse
J’ai si grand deuil et peine douloureuse
Qu’on me verra vite mourir
A thousand regrets at deserting you
and leaving behind your loving face,
I feel so much sadness and such painful distress,
that it seems to me my days will soon dwindle away
I added my own text for the important middle section in which a simple chorale in E flat major is sung by the sopranos and altos on the original text "Mille regrets de vous abandoner." The tenors and basses sing a cloud of text as softly as possible on the most dissonant note possible, A natural. They represent the virus. "When you breath I die, I die a little inside." The virus was/is real and did really cause casualties in the nursing homes. The question is, are we willing to sacrifice our humanity to simply prolong life, or do we embrace quality of life and family love as the more important goal?
I saw my mother dwindle away during my yearly summer visits and carry that guilt, although I could not have brought any change to the situation as a young child/teenager. There was no honor and no joy in that wasting away. There was no warmth on her sterile hospital walls. I do not wish that on anybody.
I made a home recording that you can see here: https://youtu.be/lhEEO4GXcxw
But even better: come to the premiere!
June 12th -- Dominicuskerk Amsterdam 16:00
June 18h -- Geertekerk Utrecht 20:00
June 19th -- Titus Brandsmakerk Nijmegen
For tickets -- TICKETS TIJDENS DE STILTE
The plot and ultimate ending of Avengers: Endgame left a bitter taste. While the triumph displayed and fought so hard for should be overwhelmingly ecstatic, the actual result is simply not applaudable. Thanos was right, our numbers are catastrophic, and our hubristic dominion over the earth (in the series, the galaxy) is not triumphant, it is catastrophic and suicidal. It seems like the last vestiges of religious tenacity in the scriptural quotation “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it” are taking hold. However, this is simply a smoke screen. This was made apparent to me yesterday during a Financial Management class which I was so kindly invited to attend at the RSM. In this class the market value of Disney from the 1960’s until the persent was taken as a case study. Disney had reached several financial pits due to several factors: two hostile takeovers, several failing CEO’s, and more importantly, a demographic change leading to declining income. As the first is less relevant, the second and third are relevant. Birth rates having (thankfully) naturally fallen due to a several factors - having reached peak child, declining resources linked to rising cost of living, more access to family planning, higher living standard, demographics for Disney have changed causing a significant decline in sales. That combined with longer life expectancy linked to pension funds being dependant upon the success of market value, and you get a situation in which companies like Disney have every incentive to push the Pro-Life agenda. This doesn’t, of course, manifest itself in standing by the doors of Planned Parenthood with pictures of aborted babies. This has manifested itself in a much more subtle way with a gigantic impact. Disney, under the direction of CEO Bob Iger (who essentially pulled Disney out of rockbottom), bought Marvel. Marvel, full of action heroes that speak to grown-up children, therefore avoiding the demographic problem that Disney was struggling with, was in a full position to send forth a message. The message was simply put: Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Thanos is wrong and should be destroyed. The Bible lives on in Disney, but not for the betterment of humankind or human rights. The Bible lives on in Disney to increase its market value.
I am currently conducting a 40-part piece by Alec Roth entitled Earthrise, inspired by the photo likewise entitled of the Earth from the moon. Niel Armstrong (Apollo 11) stated about the Earth, 'it suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth, I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth.' This fragility is apparent to astronaut Andre Kuipers as well, who repeats adamantly, 'this is all we have.' Now, there is reason, there is intelligence, but there is also wisdom. And what we currently have in the ant-hill that we call humanity is a whole lot of reason and intelligence, but a great lack of WISDOM based on an emotional realisation of what Andre Kuipers so simply states. So let me applaud Roth for raking through the Bible to find a more relevant text than the one that Disney perpetuates.
Here are some excerpts:
To the hard rock he stretches out his hand; he overturns the mountains by their roots. In the rocks he cuts out channels; and every precious thing is sought out by his eye. The deeps of the rivers he also searches; and hidden things he brings to light.
But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? (Job 28: 9-12)
Hear this, all you nations; pay heed, all you inhabitants of the globe, all you that are Earth-born, and you children of men, all as one, rich and poor: My mouth shall speak of wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding. (Psalm 49: 1-3)
Blessed is the man that finds wisdom, and who is rich in understanding. It is better to acquire her than good of silver; and better than purest gold are her fruits. She is more precious than great riches; and all that could be desired cannot be compared with her. Length of days is in her right hand; in her left hand, riches and glory. Her ways are of beauty; and all her paths are peace. A tree of life she is to them that lay hold of her; and those who hold her fast are blessed. (Proverbs 3: 13-18)
O wisdom, which came out of the mouth of the most high, reaching from one end all the way to the other, mightily and graciously ordering all things: come and teach us the way of understanding. (O-Antiphon 1)
We will be performing this piece in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Nijmegen on June 12, 18, and 19. Please see my coming up page for more information and tickets.