Transferrable skills: from music to ?

Four years ago, Anne Ku faced the daunting task of getting 40 musicians to play her music. She learned that those skills are transferrable.

This time four years ago, in the historic city of Utrecht, Netherlands, I was contemplating “how am I to do it.”

The task of recruiting musicians to study my music and perform (or rather, premiere) it for the first time and only once — without compensation — was a daunting one.

It would have been easiest to have just one performer play my music. And that performer could be me. After all, I know my own music. I wouldn’t need to find other musicians, convince them to rehearse, and take the risk of playing music that’s never been performed or heard before. And to play it just once?  After all that studying?

Next easiest would be to write music for a duo or a limited number of players. Why did I challenge myself with producing a half-hour-long opera with a sizable ensemble, choir, and soloists? There had to be separate rehearsals with the choir. This was not the path of least resistance.

Where could I find these musicians? Ask their teachers? Approach them one at a time?

How would I get musicians to do it? I asked other composition students. How did they do it? Nobody had written a chamber opera with so many performers before. Orchestra yes. But not opera.

Conductor Henk Alkema greets first violinist and soloists, June 2008. Photo: Some 40 musicians performed in my final exam in composition on 2 June 2008 at Utrecht Conservatory. These photos were taken by Fokke van der Meer
Conductor Henk Alkema greets first violinist and soloists, June 2008. Photo: Fokke van der Meer

What I learned from those months from February to June 2008 was how to produce a concert with no budget. What was involved? It was a collaborative effort.

  • recruiting musicians
  • scheduling rehearsals
  • getting the musicians to arrive on time
  • getting the musicians to show up
  • getting the musicians to commit
  • organizing the music (making the part scores)
  • changing and editing the music
  • preparing the programming notes
  • preparing the slides for the overhead projector
  • setting put the stage
  • getting the event photographed and recorded
  • doing the publicity
  • getting help (stage manager, stagehands, usher)
  • ordering flowers to thank the musicians and selecting wine to thank the conductors
  • arranging post-concert refreshments for the audience
  • arranging dinner for the musicians
  • getting sponsors to pay for printing programs (PDF) and posters and the rest
  • getting the posters and programs printed

Thinking back, these skills are transferrable, for now I am managing an expanding team of volunteers. I am not paying them. They are not paying me. But we all work to the same goal.

The audience at the final exam concert of 2 June 2008. Photo: Fokke v.d. Meer
The audience at the final exam concert of 2 June 2008. Photo: Fokke v.d. Meer

First international Alkema composition competition

The first international Alkema composition contest calls for scores for piano and saxophone, deadline April 2012, in honor of the late Dutch composer Henk Alkema.

While researching for my forthcoming paper on “call for scores” I came across an announcement in English and in Dutch, calling for scores for saxophone and piano, deadline April 2012.

I recognize Alkema, the last name of my late composition teacher Henk Alkema. I see the announcement is made by Matching Arts and Utrecht Conservatory. I recognize the name of one of the jurors, Jeroen D’Hoe who had also taught me composition at Utrecht Conservatory.

Once upon a time, a Chinese classical saxophonist from Szechuan (Sichuan) had shown me different effects of the alto saxophone to interest me in composing a modern piece for him. I did not write a solo work for saxophone. Instead I included the four kinds of saxophones in an ensemble piece as part of a composer-in-residence project. That’s when I learned of the saxophone’s range and versatility. Saxophones could sound like flute, clarinet, or French horn.

In my last conversations with Henk Alkema, he had urged me to start composing again. I see he has not given up.

The contest is open to composers of all ages and nationalities. I am glad to see that. During my four years at conservatory, I found that most competitions posted on our bulletin board had imposed age restrictions. I did not know then to look online. This contest has been announced in many composition forums and newsletters. I will for sure follow the results of this competition in 2012.

Introducing new piano solos

Anne Ku catalogues new piano solo works by living composers on Concertblog

As a sightreader, I am always looking for new challenges, that is, to play new music I have not seen before.  Before I entered the world of composers, I would search for published music of dead composers.

In my musical journey, I discover that the new music (of living composers) is just as interesting if not more. These days, if I come across music of a composer I like, whether it’s ensemble music or piano guitar duo, I’d ask if he or she had written anything for piano solo or piano duet. Similarly — vice versa.

Below is a catalogue of the piano solo works I have reviewed and introduced on Concertblog. I will continue to add to this list, arranged alphabetically by the composer’s last name.


Piano duets from Hawaii to Holland

Summary of the “Call for Scores: multi-hand piano duets” project from January to September 2011 with links to reviews of selected individual works by living composers.

Call for Scores of Multi-hand Piano Duets

This was an experimental project to get living composers to submit interesting duets for pianists to play and to get feedback from the pianists on readability, playability, and more.

The first round of sightreading took place in Maui: over 3 separate sessions, Karyn Sarring and Anne Ku sightread the 42 duets accepted. This set was short-listed and some sent to Chong Kee Tan, organiser of the mid-May event in San Francisco to get interest. As a result of feedback, it was decided not to have a sightreading competition but a sightreading workshop with piano soiree instead. The event was not publicised to composers because some pianists expressed reservation in sightreading new works in front of them. In spite of this, two Bay Area composers attended.

To get more pianists to play, Anne Ku took the printed PDF sheet music to the Netherlands to interest pianists to try the music with her. The following pianists (by first name only) in chronological order attempted the duets: Tom, Thera, Brendan, Ahti, Huub, Liesbeth, Carol, and Bart. Anne Ku recorded several extracts of sightreading with Texas-based Brendan Kinsella in early July and 3 studied pieces with Utrecht-based Carol Ruiz Gandia in early August 2011.

Chronology from 31st January 2011 onwards:

REVIEWS OF SELECTED DUETS ## = sample score ** = mp3 or video recording

Steinway Grand used in recordings of multi-hand piano duets
Steinway Grand Model A 188 (1909 New York) at the Monument House, Utrecht, Netherlands used in recording of multi-hand piano duets

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.

Relationship of teacher and student in music

When you have individual lessons, you develop a close relationship. In music, the teacher becomes the mentor.

My music collaborator in Hawaii wrote, “Losing a teacher is like losing a parent.”

She knows. She is a singer.

In music we have individual lessons. We develop a one-on-one (or one-to-one) relationship with our teachers. It’s like that in doctoral studies, too.

I still keep in touch with my piano teacher from Okinawa though it has been decades. Last year my piano teacher at university organised a concert for my piano guitar duo.

The same goes for composition. When a composer accepts you as his student, he takes on the responsibility of getting you to compose and develop as a composer.

What if you lose interest in composing? What if you stop composing altogether?

The teacher would be disappointed surely. Most would give up or lose contact.

But we continued to collaborate.

“Anne, I just wrote a concerto for euphonium. I’d like to perform it at your Piano As Orchestra house concert on piano with euphonium.”

It was the first time we had a brass instrument in the Monument House Concert Series.

At the next concert, he performed with cello in “Chamber Music Tapas Style” and with voice and cello in the “Glass Vase Concert.”

Had he not been ill, he would have served as a panel discussant in the most recent Monument House Concerts.

“Henk, would you write something for my piano guitar duo?”

We premiered Henk Alkema’s “Sailor Talk” in Cortona, Italy. We performed it in Amsterdam and La Coruna. We performed and released the CD of the live recording in Maui 2007. The score is now published with Donemus.

“Henk, do you have any piano duets I can use?”

Henk Alkema, who taught me composition, became a performer in the concerts I organised and a composer of a work I performed.

In music, your teacher becomes your mentor. The relationship is life long. When one dies, part of you dies.

After Henk Alkema retired from Utrecht Conservatory, he continued to volunteer his services, as teacher, conductor, and composer. Below is a clip featuring the Utrecht International Harp Competition.

Music of Henk Alkema

Henk Alkema was a prolific composer. Not all his music are catalogued on his website though you can hear many mp3 recordings.

Henk Alkema was working on his last opera “Job” when I visited him last.

On Friday 22nd July 2011, I told him that I had gotten to know the music scene in Maui where I would return in mid-August. He showed me the flute concerto that had not been premiered. He showed me a waltz that he was sure Americans would love. He showed me an unpublished piano duet that he orchestrated for ensemble. I asked him for piano solo works so I could introduce unfamiliar works among more familiar titles to new audiences. He had plenty.

Henk was prolific.

One summer he was busy arranging music for the Metropole Orchestra. He was also giving private composition lessons. The last time he played at the Monument House Concert Series was the last set “Dichter op Muziek” at the Glass Vase Concert with Anna Schweitzer (cello) and Marianne Verbrugge (vocals). He had accompanied Harm Vuijk on the piano for his new euphonium concerto “All in Good Time” at the Piano as Orchestra concert in 2006.

As I write this blog, I am listening to the beautiful voice of his daughter Femke Alkema singing some of the songs he told me about. Henk’s website has full mp3 clips of his works. The muziekfragmenten page contains the vocal pieces with piano. They move me to tears.

Henk had not catalogued all his works on his website.

When he showed me the piano version of “Black Heat” I recognised it. He had given me a copy in 2008 but I had never tried it. I found the recording on his “Nog meer muziek” webpage. He wrote “Black Heat” for concert band. Sample scores are available here.

Black Heat for solo piano by Henk Alkema
Black Heat for solo piano by Henk Alkema

Reverse engineering: piano duet to piano solo of Henk Alkema

Unpublished works of composers are precious to those who want them. Here is a story of how one pianist reverse engineered a piano duet piece to a solo work so she can play it.

Shortly after sightreading and recording Henk Alkema’s 2nd unpublished piano duet, I emailed Henk on 7th July 2011:

Here is a high quality recording mp3 of your duet by me and Brendan Kinsella. Before I load the reduced quality version and write about it for my blog, I’d like to ask

  1. an updated bio from you – what is the latest thing you’re working on
  2. would you consider transcribing it for piano solo? I like it so much that I’d like to play it as solo and record in my new CD and also perform in Maui when I return in mid-August.

He responded:

Well played! The original version of this piece was for one piano. I will look for it and send it you.

When I didn’t hear further from Henk, I decided to write a blog about his duets:  “Piano Duets by Henk Alkema.”  I wrote on Henk’s Facebook Wall:

Bedankt, Henk!!! Piano duets by Henk Alkema http://wp.me/ptKTf-Ft

July 20 at 6:44pm

A few hours later, he posted the following message on my Facebook Wall.

From saturday I am not in Utrecht for a week. I am ill. Lets call. Thank you for playing my pianoduets, cheers, henk

I had not seen him for a year. I had called him from Maui several months before. I had been too busy to call or visit since I returned to Utrecht in late May. I called him the next day. He told me to visit him the next afternoon and warned me not to be disappointed if he were to ask me to leave when he became tired.

Friday 22nd July 2011 3:30 pm. I wrote in my diary.

Henk Alkema after composition final exam concert at Utrecht Conservatory, 2nd June 2008. Photo: F. vd Meer
Henk Alkema after final exam concert at Utrecht Conservatory, 2nd June 2008. Photo: F. vd Meer

Much earlier, on 11 October 2010, Henk had responded to my quest for piano duets for a sightreading workshop, as follows:

I have 8 unpublished quatre mains. Keep me posted, henk

Henk then sent me 7 piano duets.

When I visited him on 22nd July 2011, he showed me an 8th duet. None of these duets had been performed or published.

“Why did you write them?” I asked.

“I got tired of looking for music to teach conducting. It was faster to write them myself.”

So he’d compose new piano duets and then orchestrate them for different instruments, depending on the students in his class. If there was a flute player, he would include a flute part.

He showed me the 8th unpublished piano duet on Sibelius 6.0 notational software. It was magnificent.

“I will give you the score,” he said.

Henk Alkema left this world on Thursday 4th August 2011. His piano duets remain unpublished.

I can still hear his 2nd piano duet which I’ve shared with so many people since I tried it in Maui. But now I want to play it as a solo piece.  It’s entirely possible read all four voices and play it as a solo piece from the piano duet score. But it’s easier to have it written down as a solo score (below).

Pencilled notes for piano solo from 2nd piano duet of Henk Alkema
Pencilled notes for piano solo from 2nd piano duet of Henk Alkema

I think the tempo marking of quarter note = 60 is too slow. I prefer quarter note = 88.  I would dearly like to play the rest of the 7 piano duets as piano solo pieces. But how shall I get the score to the 8th duet?

Click on the image below to get the one page PDF of the piano solo version entered into Sibelius software by Robert Bekkers.

Solo transcribed from 2nd piano duet of Henk Alkema
Solo transcribed from 2nd piano duet of Henk Alkema

Remembering Henk Alkema

Henk Alkema taught composition at Utrecht Conservatory. One student remembers the early days and the last visit with CD.

Henk Alkema (20 November 1944 – 4 August 2011)

Since 9 am this morning I have been thirsting for words to inform my musician friends, particularly those non-Dutch classmates who have left the Netherlands, of the sad news.

Henk Alkema taught me composition and arranging; conducted my chamber opera in my final exam, delivered the final grade announcement speech, and actively performed and participated in our Monument House Concert Series.

Henk Alkema speaks at Utrecht Conservatory final exam concert, 2 June 2008
Henk Alkema speech at Utrecht Conservatory final exam concert, 2 June 2008 Photo: F. vd Meer

I knew he was dying. When the news came, it was too soon.

The Dutch press release sent out by his friend Annett Andriesen-Rutter has now reached many Dutch newspapers, radio, and television. The English papers? Not yet.

I have often, since my graduation in 2008, regretted not taking advantage of the proximity of Henk’s houseboat to visit him and get coaching on composition. He lived a mere 2 minute cycle ride from my home in Utrecht, Netherlands.

The truth is — I stopped composing when I graduated from composition. There was no longer a yearning to compose. The hunger that drove me to apply to study at Utrecht Conservatory where Henk was head of composition in 2004 waned as my interest in chamber music performance and cultural economics ballooned.

In January 2004, I began contract lessons with Henk Alkema. He asked me to start from scratch. On alternate weeks, I’d take lessons from the other composition teacher. Their approaches were very different. I blogged about those lessons: food for the soul, composing the Suite Bussum, composing wrong notes, and his honest feedback about my music.

On Friday 22 July 2011, I saw Henk for the last time. I gave him a copy of our piano guitar duo’s new CD “Live at Makawao 2007” produced in Hawaii – containing his “Sailor Talk.”

Henk Alkema, composer, conductor, pianist, teacher

Henk Alkema, Dutch composer, pianist, and teacher, passed away on Thursday 4th August 2011. A memorial service will be held on Tuesday 9th August at 12 noon at the Koeshuis van Boerderij Mereveld at Mereveldseweg 9, Utrecht followed by a funeral at the Soestbergen, Ganstraat 152, Utrecht, Netherlands.

Henk Alkema (20 November 1944 – 4 August 2011)

On a sunny Thursday morning, I cycled by the home of my composition classmate Mari-anne Hof to post a letter and see if she was around. I had not seen her for a year. I felt the need to tell her that I had gone to see our teacher Henk Alkema recently and that he was not well. In fact, he was dying. But he didn’t want to tell the world about it because he had only a few productive hours a day and he wanted to finish his last opera.

It’s like that with composers. You feel the urge to compose. You don’t want to be interrupted. You want to write before it disappears.

We live less than 1 km apart — a mere 12 minute walk from my house to Henk’s houseboat — which translates to a 2 minute cycle ride. Mari-anne’s house is even closer. In this radius, there are other musicians. There’s no excuse not to get together. But we work for ourselves, and time to create music is precious.

What do you do, if you know someone is dying? I struggled with this. Knowing he didn’t want to be disturbed and that I was leaving shortly, I wanted to tell others before it was too late. But even if I told others, like Mari-anne, what were they to do?

The answer came too early.

This morning I received several e-mails that Henk Alkema had passed away on the same Thursday 4th August 2011.

Henk Alkema conducted "Culture Shock!" at Utrecht Conservatory, 2 June 2008
Henk Alkema conducted "Culture Shock!" at Utrecht Conservatory, 2 June 2008 Photo: F. vd Meer

Gistermiddag is Henk Alkema tot ons groot verdriet overleden. Ik stuur je hierbij een pdf van de rouwkaart en een persbericht. Ik vraag je namens Anna Schweizer of je zo lief wilt zijn dit bericht op grote schaal te verspreiden. Het is vakantietijd dus veel mensen – studenten en docenten – zullen dit bericht missen. Misschien heb je zelfs in je oude emails een groepsmail van of voor leerlingen, die we kunnen gebruiken. En misschien wil je ook iets zeggen bij de herdenking. Dat zouden wij allemaal heel fijn vinden.

Edwin Rutten en ik zijn goede vrienden en regelen de begrafenis met Anne. vandaar dat ik je dit bericht stuur.

hartelijke groet
Annett Andriesen-Rutten

Thursday, 4th of August, our great friend and teacher Henk Alkema passed away. He has been ill for some time, but no one was prepared for him to leave us this soon. This Tuesday his funeral will be held. He’ll be buried on Soestbergen, in Utrecht.

Sunday 7th August 2011 from 13:00 to 14:00
a small gathering to pay condolences to the family at the rouwcentrum in Yarden at Floridadreef 9, Utrecht.

Tuesday 9th August 2011 from 12 noon
Memorial service: (a larger gathering than the previous) at the Koetshuis van Boerderij Mereveld at Mereveldseweg 9, Utrecht. From there (around 13:30), we will proceed to his final resting place at the Soestbergen, Gansstraat 152, Utrecht. Parking is limited thus preferrable to park at Kovelswade, Koningsweg 49 where a gathering with the family will take place after the funeral.