Donemus, publishers of Dutch music

For a new comer to the Dutch music scene, it was not uncommon to see handwritten notation of the composer between the covers. Prior to coming to the Netherlands, I knew not a single Dutch composer. I had wondered why Dutch painters were world famous, and yet I could not name a single Dutch composer.

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Tuesday 24th March 2009 promised a two-hour opening lecture by the British composer Brian Ferneyhough in the new building of the Conservatory of Amsterdam, near the central train station. If I could manage my time efficiently, I’d be able to visit Donemus, in what-is-now Muziek Centrum Nederland (MCN) beforehand.

Although Amsterdam takes less than 30 minutes by train, I still prefer to hit two birds with one stone, i.e. batch my errands or appointments in one day. There is so much to see and do in this cultural capital that I’d have to plan ahead to avoid temptation and distraction. Any number of museums and lunch time concerts would lead me astray.

I cycled on my folding bike to Utrecht Centraal station, missed the direct train to central Amsterdam, but caught the fast train to Schiphol Airport two minutes later. The conductor advised that I change at the next station, Amsterdam Bijlmer Arena, for a “stoptrein” to Amsterdam Centraal. From there, I cycled to Rokin 111 where I had spent the afternoon the day before.

What is it about sheet music that lures me to spend all the time I have available? I would happily live in a music library or a sheet music store and gobble away all the notes I find. Such is the temptation that I dare not visit such places except on gift-giving occasions such as my birthday or Christmas.

The famous blue covers of Donemus publications represented music that was avant-garde and intellectual. Handwritten notation was not uncommon. Prior to coming to the Netherlands, I often wondered why Dutch painters were world famous, and yet I could not name a single Dutch composer.

I took out Chiel Meijering’s ‘n Dame scheert haar benen (Lady Shaves Her Legs) and explained to Ger, the librarian I met the day before, that the harpsichord score was difficult to read. He agreed and took me to Donemus, whereupon a lady quickly pulled up the electronic file on screen. She enlarged the PDF of the handwritten manuscript and printed it.

Is this better?

Yes, may I have it?

Sure, I’ll even bind it for you.

The philosophy of “print on demand” was new to me. The technology of Apple computers, high resolution printers, and spiral-binding machines served that philosophy. No more excuses for not trying to play that 1981 piece for guitar and harpsichord, I sighed.

I looked around the bookcases of sheet music. Have I discovered a gold mine? Just search the catalogue of sheet music online or in the printed binder, locate it in the library, sightread and play it mentally in my head, and then walk next door to Donemus to request for a copy to take home.

Among the pile of music for guitar plus other instruments, I found a three movement piece for piano and guitar by a Dutch composer I had never heard of.

Who is he?

Wolfgang Wijdeveld died in 1985.

And thus began my journey of discovering Dutch composers and their music.

First visit to Muziek Centrum Nederland

Until a year ago, Gaudeamus, Donemus, and the Dutch Pop Institute were three separate entities. Now they are merged as one and housed in an unmarked building in central Amsterdam.

After our duo concert Monday afternoon, my American friend guided me on two different trams to get to a meeting at Rokin 111, Amsterdam. It was the address of the new “Music Centre the Netherlands” Muziek Centrum Nederland, or MCN for short. Until a year ago, Gaudeamus, Donemus, and the Dutch Pop Institute were three separate entities. Now they are merged as one and housed in an unmarked building in central Amsterdam.

I was curious why my 209-page bachelor thesis on sight-reading (piano) did not get nominated. Was my thesis too long (certainly the longest submitted) or that the topic was not as timely as that of gaming? Surely, I did not lose to guitar hero! The MCN Music Thesis prize was a 500 euro cheque and probably a lot of publicity. While I was compiling the PDF version for submission, someone in Madrid had offered to buy my thesis. I didn’t know what it was worth. But I hoped to find out here.

Before the award ceremony began, I introduced myself to two men sitting near the window. Ger and Gerard were librarians at MCN. It was my first visit to MCN, and I did not know what exactly MCN represented.

The librarians were impressed that I managed to conduct a conversation entirely in Dutch.

Are you American?

No, I’m not. Why? Do I have an American accent?

Well, you have a similar accent to Vanessa Lann, the American composer.

Yes, I have heard of her. I’ve never met her though.

Or David Dramm, another American composer based in Amsterdam.

He was one of the composers-in-residence who taught me at Utrecht Conservatory. There’s another American composer. He was a guest lecturer, Ron….?

Ron Ford.

That’s it! He was just leaving Duke University when I was there. In fact, it was my piano teacher, Randall Love, who suggested that he go to Amsterdam to compose new music. Holland was a place where new music got performed, he had said to Ron Ford.

Are you American?

No, I’m not. Definitely not. But I’m amazed how many American composers have settled in this country.

I mentioned another composer-in-residence, Chiel Meijering. I had ordered a piece he wrote for guitar and harpsichord. While the guitar part was clearly written, the keyboard part was not. I complained that the handwritten manuscript of 1981 was difficult to read, and as a result, my duo would not study it for performance.

Bring it back. Let’s see what we can do about it.

What do you mean? I had already emailed Chiel, the Dutch composer famous for cranking out music at high speeds, that I preferred to read computer notation. He had replied that his piece was written before that era. ‘n Dame scheert haar benen (Lady Shaves Her Legs) thus laid in my pile of promising sheet music for our duo, nearly forgotten until this conversation.

The next day, Tuesday 24th March, I brought the Meijering sheet music to the library. And from there, I was led to Donemus, the famous publishers of new music in the Netherlands.

Concert in Bussum

I wanted very much to connect with the audience, all of them strangers except for one. Bussum and its sister city Naarden lie in the famous Gooi east of Amsterdam, an area generally known for its affluent residents

“Goedemiddag, dames en heren. Wij woonden in Bussum tot drie jaar geleden. Nu wonen wij in Utrecht.”

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We lived in Bussum until three years ago. Now we live in Utrecht.

I wanted very much to connect with the audience, all of them strangers except for one.

Bussum and its sister city Naarden lie in the famous Gooi (pronounced “hoy”) east of Amsterdam, an area generally known for its affluent residents in the big standalone houses of Het Spiegel next to the Naarden-Bussum train station.

Market square in Bussum, Netherlands

The only person we knew in the audience was Esta, a lady from the foundation that booked and arranged our concert schedules. She appears now and then, always unannounced and always a welcome surprise. This time she spoke only Dutch to me.

I am very happy to see that you are speaking Dutch, Anne. Shall I announce you and what you will play? Or will you do the talking?

I told her that I had started taking private lessons in Dutch, once a week, two hours each lesson. I said that I had written down what I was going to say in Dutch.

Good. Finally I will hear you talk in Dutch.

The guitarist and I waited at the door while Esta went to the microphone to open the concert. The microphone did not work. The volunteer who had earlier greeted us stood up. She tried to look for the switch. Another lady got up to help. It took them a few minutes to figure out the problem. A ha! It worked.

By the time we walked on stage, we just wanted to play.

Starting a blog of our concerts

In the rush of preparing breakfast and getting dressed, I spotted an email from a friend who wrote that she had a gap in the afternoon and would like to come to our concert in Amsterdam.

I have long wanted to write the story of our duo: how it began, what it’s like to rehearse together, why we do what we do, who we meet, and where we end up. As we begin another season of concertising, it’s become ever necessary to use a blog engine like this one.

Monday 23rd March 2009,
a typically grey, windy, and indecisive day in the Netherlands.

In the rush of preparing breakfast and getting dressed, I spotted an email from a friend who wrote that she had a gap in the afternoon and would like to come to our concert in Amsterdam. It’s always nicer to play to a familiar audience than an anonymous one, even if only one face was known among the strangers.

The drive from Utrecht to Amsterdam was uneventful until we arrived in the heart of the city where unexpected roadworks forced us to make a detour. [I should say that every concert experience is unique. There are always surprises. We’re required by our concert organisers to arrive half an hour early. We always aim for a one hour slack because of traffic delays and our need to test the acoustics.] Luckily the detour was not extensive.

After parking in front of the building, we unloaded the car with our suit bag, guitar in case, microphone stand, and backpacks of our sheet music. We left the thermos flask of hot herbal tea and the box of Dutch cream puffs in the car for later.

The lady who greeted us appeared somewhat unsettled. None of the volunteers she had contacted to help out had arrived. It was 20 minutes before the concert was to begin. The programme notes had to be handed out, the audience welcomed and seated, and of course, someone had to take care of us — the performers.

As performers, we don’t require much — really. Just a good well-tuned piano. Piano stool and pedals that don’t squeak. For the guitarist, a chair without arms (a literal translation from Dutch). A dressing room. Warm drinks to prevent cold hands. And clean toilets. I should also add good acoustics and a respectful audience. Somehow we never get all of the above.

The dressing room was a storage room for the kitchen next door. It was too warm to get cold hands. I changed into a puffy white cotton designer blouse and a long blue Jaeger wool skirt. I couldn’t find my new eyeshadow set. The make-up only needed to last the hour, and yet I felt incomplete without a touch of colour on my eyelids.

“Welkom, dames en heren.” I had prepared to speak in Dutch, introducing ourselves, the composers and their works, and what juicy tidbits of information to make the music memorable. There were perhaps 20 at most in the audience, with my American friend in the front row.

The black Yamaha upright piano made the checklist. But the acoustics was dry. This meant that I had to compensate for the lack of sustain by controlling the damper pedal carefully. The microphone we brought to record our performance ran out of battery midway through the first half of the concert. Thankfully, everything else was under control.

During the intermission, my friend suggested that I speak directly into the microphone. After the concert, she came to the dressing room. “There’s an elderly gentleman who used to sing in the Concertgebouw,” she said excitedly. “I feel young here. The man next to me is 92 !”

photo credit: Serge van Empelen, Bethanienklooster, Amsterdam
photo credit: Serge van Empelen, Bethanienklooster, Amsterdam