Music dead or alive

Choosing musicians to play live music seems costly, time-consuming, and risky. Meanwhile, there’s more variety to choose from in recorded music, lower cost, and less risk that something will go wrong. If musicians are to be chosen over ipod, CD players, and tape decks, we need to lower the transaction costs and risks in getting hired.

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“Due to budget constraints, let’s get a DJ instead of musicians.”

When I heard the comment from a fellow Rotarian, I suddenly understood how people decide on music for a party, wedding, funeral, and other occasions. Choosing musicians to play live music seems costly, time-consuming, and risky. Meanwhile, there’s more variety to choose from in recorded music, lower cost, and less risk that something could go wrong.

As a performer, it breaks my heart to see people opting for recorded music instead of hiring musicians for an event. Are we musicians competing with CD players?

Anne Ku and Robert Bekkers, Utrecht Conservatory Room K108 2007
Anne Ku and Robert Bekkers, Utrecht Conservatory Room K108 2007

Yesterday I attended a memorial service in central Utrecht, Netherlands. After the video ended, the music began. I stretched my neck to find its source. It was a recording. I didn’t know any of the music. I felt strange sitting among strangers, sharing a physical space filled with sadness and introspection, and listening to music that meant nothing to me. I was glad to see a guitar on stage though. Finally, a young man accompanied a young singer, both making music from their hearts. They were the nephew and the niece. And for that, I was both glad and relieved.

It was easy to see why there wasn’t live music. It was not in a church. There was no organ. There was no piano either. The place was not intended for memorials but for meetings and lectures. Therefore live music, let alone recorded music, was not the norm.

Funerals and memorial services cannot be planned far ahead of time like weddings and gala parties. Getting live musicians require finding those that are available for the date and time, discussing the programme, and negotiating a rate and payment method. This is all too complicated and opaque compared to selecting songs on your IPOD or finding CDs with the music you want played.

If musicians are to be chosen over ipod, CD players, and tape decks, we need to lower the transaction costs and risks in getting hired. As a music connoisseur, I much prefer live music to dead music. But then, I am used to hearing it live. I can tell the difference. Can others? Do they care?

How to lower the transaction cost and risk of hiring musicians instead of playing recorded music?

  1. Go to an agent.
  2. Where are musicians to be found? Go to someone you know who is a musician. Go through someone who knows many musicians. But how do you know how good they are?
  3. Figure out what music you want. Find the musicians that can play them.

I cannot argue around having a central point (such as an agent or musicians’ listing) for getting the musicians who can play the pieces you want played. Such a central point serves as a broker or intermediary between the buyer and various possible sellers.

How much does it cost? How do musicians charge for their services? Do they charge like plumbers – i.e. a call out fee and then an hourly rate? Do they give a fixed sum? Do they charge according to the difficulty of the music and how long they need to practise it? Do they charge by duration or risk? Does the musicians union have a guideline?

The opacity of how much musicians cost became clear to me when another Rotarian asked me about hiring musicians for our 5th anniversary charity gala on 6th March 2010.

“Are we talking about a few hundred euros or thousands?”

Next stop: Utrecht, Netherlands open to art music

There are music festivals, live concerts, and much more in Utrecht than one hears about. Besides the free events of Cultural Sundays, free concerts take place regularly elsewhere each week in Utrecht. It’s difficult to keep track of all the concerts and gigs that happen in this cultural city.

I heard from two friends today about a New York Times article entitled

A Dutch Town That Nurtures Its Quirk

As a resident of Utrecht, I am rather flattered by the two page article published today. Utrecht (pronounced OO as in ooze – TREK – T) is the fourth largest city (by population) in the Netherlands. It’s considered the centre of the country for reasons of the train and road network. Half the population is under 40, largely due to the largest university, the oldest conservatory, and other educational institutions.

I know Utrecht from the music side, more specifically, the classical music side, not the pop and rock culture or the visual arts scene as described in the New York Times article.

Recently an English pianist told me that he wanted to come to Utrecht because a friend had said it’s the place for music (as far as Holland was concerned). His friend was right. There are music festivals, live concerts, and much more in Utrecht than one hears about.

The Utrecht Early Music Festival takes place every August. The celebrated Dutch violinist Janine Jansen has her chamber music festival in December. The International Liszt Piano Competition takes place every three years. “Kerken Kijken” is a period of “church seeing” that opens all churches to the public for visits and concerts.

The residents in Utrecht are lucky to have Cultural Sundays with free performances, exhibitions, and interactive workshops on a different theme once nearly every month. The biggest of them all is the Utrecht Uitfeest which takes place in September and involves more than 100 free events throughout the city.

Piano as Orchestra Monument House Concert, Utrecht Netherlands
Piano as Orchestra Monument House Concert, Utrecht Netherlands

When we moved here in 2006, we launched the Monument House Concert Series to introduce live music involving either the piano or the guitar in a relaxed and intimate setting of a private home. Our second house concert “Piano as Orchestra” in December 2006 coincided with Cultural Sunday’s “Gluren bij de Buren” (Peek at the neighbours) of some 100 house concerts – all free. While ours was not free entry, it was completely sold out and packed, with elbow room only.

Besides the free events of Cultural Sundays, free concerts take place regularly elsewhere each week in Utrecht. The Friday lunch time concerts at the Vredenburg Leeuwenbergh Church are nearly always full-house. Early arrival (i.e. around noon for the 12:30 pm concerts) is recommended. Every Saturday afternoon, the Dome Church offers free concerts that usually involves the organ, choir, or period instruments. I enjoyed a magnificent antiphonal performance of Mozart’s Requiem on period instruments.

If you’re a true classical music junkie, go hang out at the Utrecht Conservatory at Mariaplaats (between the central train station and the Dome). There are free concerts nearly every day in various styles: early music, classical, contemporary, and pop/rock/jazz. Early music is usually performed in the chapel in the brown building which was a former men’s hospital. The yellow building (K&W which stands for Kunst and Wetenschap) contains the big concert hall which boasts perfect reverberation ratio for live classical music.

It’s difficult to keep track of all the concerts and gigs that happen in this cultural city. Just like the 20,000 bicycles parked at the central station (scroll down to the last paragraph in the US News & World Report article), you have to know what you’re looking for. To make Utrecht more transparent to the non-Dutch visitor, it would help if the largest concert hall in Utrecht would lead the rest of the venues by introducing its forthcoming concerts in English. Until that happens, I do my best to keep the “free or nearly free concerts” listing updated (in my spare time).

Creative encounters in Crete to meet in Brugge: 26 Feb 2010 at 8 pm

When musicians and visual artists collaborate, ultimately there is an intersection of time and space. How does one condense a year of time into a physical space? Our exhibition entitled GAEA AEOLUS, the result of that one week of “Creative Encounters” in Paleohora Crete, will open at 8 pm on 26th February 2010 in Brugge. There will be an electric piano. It will be a surprise.

Musicians work in the dimension of TIME, while visual artists deal with SPACE.

When musicians and visual artists collaborate, ultimately there is an intersection of time and space. How does one condense a year of time into a physical space?

After the EFFUSION house concert, the film maker Julian Scaff invited us to a one week working holiday on Crete. It was the 14th Interdisciplinary Meeting of Artists at Levka Ori. There were no obligations. However, if we did create something, we could get it exhibited in early 2010 at the art gallery of the founder of this annual project.

We’d pay our own way, arrange our own stay, and meet daily for “creative encounters.” I was curious. We had nothing to lose but everything to gain. So we went in August 2009.

I began a blog of Paleochora.

Every day we drove up the mountains. What was omnipresent was the wind. In fact, the wind AND the sun competed fiercely for attention. We walked and worked alone. The wind filled the silence. When the sun grew too hot, we retreated and returned when it got cooler.

It was inconceivable to give a concert in Paleochora (the way we’re used to). What could we, as classical musicians, possibly achieve by being far away from our instruments and environments?

The “creative” part of the encounter occurred after we headed down the mountains and met for dinner. There we introduced ourselves and shared our ideas. I decided to give up trying to find a piano. Instead, I’d collect items to make musical instruments.

A box of twigs, rocks, and goat deposits in Paleochora, Crete
A box of twigs, rocks, and goat deposits in Paleochora, Crete

 

I imagined making a wind chime out of twigs and branches. I envisioned making percussive instruments out of pebble-like goat deposits. I crouched on my hands and knees and collected what I could find.

Making a musical instrument in Paleochora, Crete
Making a musical instrument in Paleochora, Crete

 

While I was completely focussed on making my wind chime, Robert had finished his “wind guitar.” He came to me and saw that my wind chime was turning into a mobile. The twigs swung in the wind but did not touch. There was no chime about it. But this gave him an idea of making a wind harp.

A wind mobile not wind chime at Paleochora, Crete
A wind mobile not wind chime at Paleochora, Crete

 

Later I abandoned the goat deposits as they crumbled in the moist plastic bag in our hotel room. I had created nothing feasible or substantial.

What am I going to exhibit at the ARTONIVO art gallery in central Brugge (also known as Bruges) next Friday? Our exhibition entitled GAEA AEOLUS, the result of that one week of “Creative Encounters” in Paleohora Crete, will open at 8 pm on 26th February 2010 in Brugge. Everyone else has got something to show. What will I do?

Luckily there will be an electric piano. It will be a surprise.

ArtoNivo art gallery in Brugge, Belgium
ArtoNivo art gallery in Brugge, Belgium

Death and the blogmaiden

“Death and the Maiden” — a beautiful, moving work for string quartet — begins with great intensity, like there’s not enough time left in the world. I write this blog tonight because I just read an e-mail from someone I didn’t know announcing the death of someone I did know. Jeroen Muller was 44. In the final movement, I sensed a confirmation — there is indeed not much time left in the world to fulfill your dreams. Who will continue Jeroen’s mission?

As I type this, I am listening to Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” — a beautiful, moving work for string quartet. It begins with great intensity, like there’s not enough time left in the world.

While researching music suitable for funeral and memorial services, as part of a new offering of my solo and chamber repertoire, I came across various beautiful pieces equally suitable for wedding ceremonies. This activity reminds me of the memorial services we played in Amsterdam a few years ago. We didn’t know anyone there and compiled the following programme to deliver somber tranquility. We played the pieces interwoven between poetry reading and other reflections.

  • Fernando Carulli (1770 – 1841) First movement from Sonata no. 1
  • Joaquin Rodrigo (1901 – 1999) Villano from Fantasia for a Gentleman
  • J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750) Air on a G String
  • Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934) Salut d’Amour (piano solo)
  • Wolfgang A. Mozart ( 1756 – 1791) Adagio from Piano Concerto K488
  • Agustin Barrios Mangore (1885-1944) Prelude (guitar solo)
  • Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829) Lento from Theme and Variations op. 113
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) Adagio from Piano Concerto no. 5 (the Emperor) (arranged for duo by R. Bekkers)

In September 2008, we played at a memorial tribute concert in London for our beloved friend, the late architect Ayyub Malik. It was a personal tribute to someone whose friendship we valued greatly. Each piece was carefully selected for its meaning and purpose.

  • Joaquin Rodrigo (1901 – 1999) Fantasia for a Gentleman: first movement Villano & Ricercar
  • Anne Ku, Encounter for violin and cello (2004-2008)
  • Anne Ku, Elegy for string quintet (2008)
  • W.A. Mozart (1756 – 1791) Adagio from Piano Concerto KV 488
  • Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1805) Fandango from Guitar Quintet no. 4
Jeroen Muller
Jeroen Muller, founder Disability Affairs Photo credit: H.J. Winkeldermaat from PunkMedia.nl

I write this blog tonight because I just read an e-mail from someone I didn’t know conveying the death of someone I did know. I had met Jeroen at the birthday party of my Dutch teacher last May. He was very engaging and friendly and even joked about his condition. We found we had many things in common: love of classical music, Bussum, Naarden Vesting, and Shanghai. We became connected on Linked-In.

I did not know him well. But I applauded his vision and purpose. He had started and led a Dutch foundation called Disability Affairs to raise awareness of people with disability and improve access for handicapped people. He asked me about playing the piano for a benefit concert for this purpose. I did a little research on my own and discovered that there was not as much information and wheel-chair accessibility as there should be in this country.

Here was someone with a serious cause. And I was a musician looking for a cause. I invited him to see a concert at the conservatory. When I introduced him to my friends and former teachers there, I found myself announcing that I was going to use my music to champion his cause. I was anxious to begin.

Upon learning the news of his death, I gleaned from various links on Twitter that he was a candidate for the Dutch labour party. Local elections are scheduled for 3rd March 2010. Jeroen Muller’s memorial service is scheduled for Tuesday 23rd February in Utrecht. He was 44.

“Death and the Maiden” has ended on youtube. In the final movement, I sensed a confirmation — there is indeed not much time left in the world to fulfill your dreams. Who will continue Jeroen’s mission


Update on 21 Feb at 19:30

I have been checking Twitter for latest updates on news of Jeroen Muller since this blog entry. I discovered that he had been following me on Twitter. The latest twitter from @jeroenmuller65 was broadcasted 6 days ago: “gave les gehad van Jeroen van der Schenk over wat je allemaal kan doen met verschillende netwerk- en zoeksites.mindz, rss, tag, enz. 3:09 PM Feb 15th”

There have been numerous tweets and retweets of the blog of Jeroen van der Schenk about the sudden and sad news. Google “Jeroen Muller” and you will find more, including earlier articles.

Access to culture without knowing the language

Culture vultures love going to museums, concerts, theatre, and other indulgences. Without a guide or translator, one is left with images and sound. No amount of text in the unfamiliar language can help with better comprehension of the “cultural experience.” If you are a tourist, a short-term visitor, an expat, or someone who is linguistically challenged, I daresay it is a big problem indeed.

Language is the key to a culture. So I’ve been told.

What if you don’t understand the language? Are you then not able to appreciate the culture?

Culture vultures love going to museums, concerts, theatre, and other indulgences. Without a guide or translator, one is left with images and sound. No amount of text in the unfamiliar language can help with better comprehension of the “cultural experience.”

There is a lot of culture in the Netherlands. A lot of performances and exhibitions of very high quality, I must add. However, much of the publicity of such events is communicated only in Dutch. The programme notes are not translated into English or other languages. I have been to museums where the text is only in Dutch.

When I protest to my Dutch friends, they reply “but Dutch is our language. What’s the problem?”

If you are a tourist, a short-term visitor, an expat, or someone who is linguistically challenged, I daresay it is a big problem indeed. I have tried to learn Dutch. I could get by. But when it comes to a deeper understanding of a cultural event, such as the history of a concerto, the background behind an artistic collaboration, or the libretto to an opera,I and other culture vultures are left behind.

That is why I prefaced my review of a new play “Love Dolls” on its tour in Holland.

Feel free to comment on this blog about my review and this blog.

Effusion: a cross domain exploration through video and music

A year ago I got to know a film maker who introduced a new approach to our Monument House Concert Series. We called it “cross domain exploration.” Some call it “cross over” and others “interdisciplinary collaboration.” We decided to experiment with an invitation-only free house concert in March 2009 called “Effusion.”

A year ago I got to know a film maker who introduced a new approach to our Monument House Concert Series in Utrecht, Holland. We called it “cross domain exploration.” Some call it “cross over” and others “interdisciplinary collaboration.”

We decided to experiment with an invitation-only free house concert in March 2009 called “Effusion.” The film maker took the raw video from a film about different ways to travel in Utrecht. I worked with pianists to play 4-hand duets of new works of an Amsterdam-based composer. Each work was based on a method of transport: by foot, bicycle, car, boat, etc.

I thought of all the pianists I knew, both professional and amateur, and invited those that would enjoy participating in such an evening. I practised a piece with my psychologist student. I practised another piece with a fellow Rotarian. A computer programmer practised with a conservatory student. We prepared for the evening of 21st March 2009 with great anticipation.

The film maker brought six bottles of fine red wine from his neighbour who supported such artistic collaborations. The composer and the film maker met on the evening of the house concert. Robert Bekkers and I ended the concert with a preview of the composer’s new work for us, for debut in Spain.

We had grand plans to do a podcast. In the end we released a youtube clip of one duet (below). I am finally documenting that event which marked the beginning of new collaborations. [The following video can be seen in Safari 4.0, Firefox 3.6, Google Chrome, or Opera 10 Internet browsers.]

The composer was Heleen Verleur. The film maker was Julian Scaff.

Some comments from the house concert guestbook:

It was a truly marvelous evening, in a very pleasant setting, with just the right mix of people, and great cookies. The impromptu mixing video and music made for a very interesting experience. And thank you very much for your surprise performance of Fire. I could see that Heleen was delighted! And so was I.

t was indeed an extraordinary evening. I told you I didn’t really feel like coming, I was tired after a full week of teaching the violin to lots of people and needed a break. To my great surprise and happiness the evening turned out to be just the experience I needed. It was as if I’d had a holiday in your lovely house. I was delighted by your hospitality.

Heleen’s music touches me, she reminds me – as do her twins – of the atmosphere of the 20-ties, I hear that in a lot of her music too. Most of the music was performed very well I found, especially “fire” I really enjoyed. Yes, of course, I am a violinist after all, I loved Vivaldi in this way.

Interesting to have music and film together. Sometimes it was like, because of shaky filming and the character of some of the pieces, as if we were watching something very old. A number of times I have improvised with clowns at management trainings and this reminded me of that.

I found there were a lot of very interesting people, people that can be friends. I feel we were truly sharing. That is what sets this situation apart from “normal” concerts. really enjoyed the (small) part of the concert and all of the really nice time after last Saturday.

I’d like to thank you and I think part of the enjoyment, besides the music which was very interesting was also the lovely and relaxed way in which you brought it all! For me, it would have been nice to have had a really good description of how to get there………although I guess now it’s much much clearer already!

I’d love to come again. (Also there is a selfish reason – I am especially grateful for the opportunity to experience performance nerves again and to take another step to overcoming them). I was of course lucky to find such an outstanding young pianist as Stein for my duet partner. I tried not to have any expectations, but I gathered that the audience very much enjoyed Helene’s music (though there was probably not a single piece of the duet delivered flawlessly!)

Before coming to the event, I already knew that I would find the same friendly atmosphere of the previous concerts, where the cosiness of the environment erases the (physical and metaphorical) distance between artist and audience without being detrimental to the quality of the artistic performances. However, this particular event differs from the previous concerts in that the attention to novelty is not confined to the premiére of musical compositions, but it involves the construction of a bridge between music, visual arts and architecture. Both the original pieces of music played and the video clips projected during the performance are indeed complementary in describing the different movements in urban space that are associated to different means of transport.

I liked the experiment, and I would like to attend similar events in the future. It’s possible that some friends of mine will join me; on the other hand, it’s unlikely that I might get in contact, at least in the short term, with businesses that can support the event.

Effusion: a cross domain exploration house concert
Effusion: a cross domain exploration through video and music, Monument House Concert Series, Utrecht, Netherlands, 21 March 2009

Music in house concerts in the Netherlands

Stichting Muziek in Huis, which translates to Foundation Music in House or Home, is in its 11th year of operation, providing live music to venues where people live — i.e. their home. They are care-taking institutes such as nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals and clinics. All musicians are conservatory-trained and must pass auditions. The foundation provides publicity, bookings, payments, and opportunities for musicians early in their careers.

This is our third consecutive year playing for venues in the “Music in House” concert series in the Netherlands. Stichting Muziek in Huis, which translates to Foundation Music in House or Home, is in its 11th year of operation, providing live music to venues where people live — i.e. their home. But these are not your average private homes. They are care-taking institutes such as nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals and clinics. All musicians are conservatory-trained and must pass auditions. The ensembles range from duos (like ours) to string quartets or other combinations. The foundation provides publicity, bookings, payments, and opportunities for musicians early in their careers.

Every location is different. Last Sunday 14th February several of guitarist Robert Bekkers’ former guitar students and their parents came to our concert at the Zandzee in Bussum. It was our second time there, and we remembered that it was on the top floor of an elderly home where residents live quite independently. This observation I gathered from the lack of wheel chairs and nurses. [Below: video taken just before our concert.]

Although the concerts are organised for the residents, their family and relatives are also welcome. No reservation is required beforehand, though it’s good to call to double check. Sometimes it’s extremely packed, standing room only. At other times, like last Sunday, it’s comfortable and spacious. There is usually a minimal charge to cover the cost of coffee and tea during the intermission.

Over the years, we have invited our own friends, students, and contacts to come. Their presence makes our performance more special. Knowing some in the audience creates that extra tension to push us further towards our goal.

I’m sure there are organisations such as SMIH elsewhere in the world. It is not only a service for the elderly audiences who are no longer able to live independently but also for the eager musicians willing to travel.

A violinist classmate from conservatory and I interviewed the SMIH founder about programming live music for the elderly audience. We learned that we should choose and order the music by mood not genre. [Link to one page abstract of this masters elective research paper.]

With this in mind, our piano guitar duo begin our new 2010 programme with Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba to warm up and cheer up. Then we settle everyone down with Vivaldi’s Winter. How are elderly audiences different from the younger generation? In the case of the Bussum concert where the age ranged from 16 to 90, I don’t think there was a difference.