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.

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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