Closure and peace

Attending the memorial service of Henk Alkema brought closure. Sharing the grief in a gathering of those who knew him — even those who didn’t — felt the power of the man who died too early. He died on 4th August was buried in Utrecht on 8th August 2011. He was 66.

When I learned of the death of my late friend Ayyub Malik three months after the fact, I was upset that I had not been notified earlier. His friends had tried everything to retrieve email addresses from his new computer. Not everyone was informed as his computer had not locked in earlier correspondence. In the ensuing months, long after the funeral, I liaised with others to organise a memorial concert nearly a year later. Only then did I get a sense of closure.

When I learned from my composition teacher that he was dying but he did not want to broadcast it, I was equally distraught. I didn’t know how many others knew. I couldn’t share it. I could do nothing about it. When I learned of his death two days after the fact, I immediately wanted to make sure others knew about it. I was glad I had not yet left the Netherlands to attend his memorial service and funeral.

More importantly, I was grateful to be granted a spot on the programme to say something about my teacher.

There is something to be said about a gathering of people who want to remember and honour the person who has died — to share the grief. This gathering brings a sense of closure and peace. I felt it today.

I found a seat next to Jonas, who had spent the past 48 hours traveling from Madrid. He had graduated before I began my studies with our teacher.  He was returning to Spain the same day.

I saw several familiar faces. I never expected to see some of them again, certainly not at a funeral. I did not recognise everyone as it was out of context — the environment of Utrecht Conservatory where I had seen most of them last. All speeches except Jonas and mine were in Dutch. I couldn’t understand most of it but the music of Henk Alkema brought tears to my eyes. Listen to “My Little Friend” sung by his daughter Femke.

Henk Alkema is buried at Soestbergen near Gansstraat 152, Utrecht, Netherlands
Henk Alkema is buried at Soestbergen near Gansstraat 152, Utrecht, Netherlands

Henk Alkema

Henk Alkema gave me a chance —to study composition, as an older student at Utrecht Conservatory.

He was critical of my work, questioning if I was doing the composing or my fingers. Was I improvising or composing? He was brutally honest about my music. “Too many notes without pause. Too busy. It’s like a preacher who can’t stop talking. You can’t understand what he’s saying. You just want him to shut up.”

Half-way through my studies, Henk retired. I was relieved. I got to study under another teacher. His most devout students, however, protested his retirement by refusing to be taught by others.  I didn’t understand why they were so loyal until I got stuck two years later.

I was preparing for my final exam – half of it was a chamber opera involving three dozen musicians that I had to recruit. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the project.

Henk came to my rescue. He asked me how I was doing. He offered to help me. I cycled to his houseboat where he sat down with me, going through detail after detail, fixing notes, explaining why certain passages didn’t work, and giving me precious lessons in orchestration. We stopped when I got tired. “Come back when you’re ready again,” he’d say. He was teaching from the heart.

I learned that it was easy to compose difficult pieces but difficult to compose pieces that were easy to play.

I was not his best student. Far from his favourite.  More like one of his worst.  In fact, I stopped composing when I graduated.

As we lived so close to each other, we began to collaborate on another level.

Henk wrote a piano guitar piece for my duo. “Sailor Talk” showed two sailors getting drunk on a boat.  When introducing this, I would tell our audiences that Henk lived on a houseboat and that he went sailing every summer. He understood life on a boat. We premiered it in Italy, Netherlands, Spain and the USA.  It is now published with Donemus.

Henk actively supported the house concert series I founded with my duo, performing chamber music in three concerts.

My current project that involved Henk included getting his piano duets sightread, performed, and recorded.  These duets were initial sketches for ensemble. On my last visit and the last time I saw him, he showed me some of his unpublished and unperformed works.

I will now play one of his unpublished piano duets from the set of 8.

One listener expressed:

Its power is haunting, a gem of simplicity and the composer’s art.