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Aart Strootman – The State of Dutch New Music

Composer Aart Strootman, winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2017 and the Buma Classical Award 2019, pronounced the State of Dutch New Music at the opening night of Gaudeamus Festival 2023, Wednesday 6 September in TivoliVredenburg. The State of Dutch New Music is an initiative of Gaudeamus and Buma Cultuur, supporters and promoters of Dutch music copyright. 

The State of Dutch New Music

A vast landscape

When I think of De Staat, I hear hypnotic oboes, throbbing trombones, long vocal lines on passages of Plato, and guitar parts that defy the limit of what is playable. In my mind’s eye I see both the archive footage, where every effort is made to  keep all the parts together, and the recent razor-sharp performance by the RedNote Ensemble with I Solisti del Vento in which (as far as I know) the prescribed, inhuman  tempo became a reality for the first time. Yes, I think of Louis Andriessen and the important place he and his De Staat, written in 1976, occupy in Dutch New Music. Possibly prompted by the fact that I am currently putting the finishing touches to a requiem in Dutch, it is impossible for me not to dwell on Louis’ passing when talking about The State of Dutch New Music. On 1 July 2021 the Netherlands not only lost an internationally celebrated composer, innovator, iconoclast and teacher, but his death also marks the end of an illustrious chapter in Dutch history. Andriessen was the last of the seven masters who wrote the opera Reconstructie in 1969. A composition that, if possible even more than De Staat, can be heard as a cross-section of the political, financial and auditory art climate of its time.

I am reading this history book as a 36-year-old. I was not there and was not taught by this generation. However, I do teach ‘the next generation’ and so I regularly ask myself where we stand today, where we seem to be going and what relation this has to, among other things, the history just described. I hope to teach students something but I also learn from them. For some time now, no hands go up any longer when I ask who knows Otto Ketting, Peter Schat or Micha Mengelberg, and I in turn have to acquaint myself with the names that are new to me. This is where it gets interesting. I assign first-year students, as part of the music history course, to select a very recent composition. I give no parameters to the terms composition, history, classical or contemporary. The only requirement is that the works should be no older than the students themselves. In practice this usually means music written in this millennium. The result is a very varied landscape: from Michel van der Aa, Jessie Montgomery, Rebecca Saunders, Brian Ferneyhough and Kate Moore to George Lewis, Missy Mazzoli, Max Richter and Shara Nova with forays into the experimental noise of Masami Akiti (Merzbow) and the extremely tranquil music of Jurg Frey.

The assignment is not about right or wrong, who is and who is not (although I must confess that I have indeed disqualified certain names – some students unashamedly submitted Erik Satie or Claude Debussy: music history is also allowed to be about dates). On the contrary, the assignment shows how welcoming new music is and how historiography works. On the whole it produces fiery discussions about genres, new media, quality and the value of marble blocks for masterpieces. Since the history book of future music is yet to be written, the subject within the course is actually a guide to get a grip on what is being created now. It provides opportunities to analyse recent technological developments and listening culture, to place stylistic choices historically, to question concert practices and programme booklets, and, above all, to open our ears.

I find the ‘multi-coloured landscape of new music’ fascinating, because it illustrates how the youngest generation, averse to genres and styles, make their way adventurously through what they find on (mostly digital) media that are likewise not hierarchically organised. A playlist of works written by the composers nominated for this year’s Gaudeamus award takes the listener from epic collage, through a string quartet to works midway between choreography and composition. I also see this reflected in composition courses and in the attitude of young makers: not afraid to make what they want to make, and often to do so  in close collaboration with all kinds of disciplines. This reminds me of Celia Swart’s exciting Who’s There? in which three percussionists voice the composer’s fears on a custom-made door, symbolising the nightmares she experienced as a child. The work was created in collaboration with an extensive technical team and instrument builder Rob van den Broek. It is also reflected in my own practice: I write notes with an electric guitar in my hand, don’t write notes for a cello but for a cellist, and build instruments to give space to surprising dialogues in the composition process.

But, do all corners of the landscape get equal opportunities? The plots of experimental music do not have it very easy. I attribute this mainly to the fact that revenue (often expressed in the number of tickets sold) is seen as the holy grail. Orchestras usually commission new compositions of very limited duration, bearing in mind that it has to be sandwiched between old masters. You are guaranteed to get zero response if you suggest a different arrangement, or want a line-up that does not seamlessly match the rest of the programme. If four grand pianos are hired, they would rather do it for Canto Ostinato than Maxim Shalygin’s brand-new work Delirium. No art can do without an audience, but using ratings as a measure of success largely pulls what’s on offer away from the adventurous. It is, however, advertised as ‘contemporary’. Not always unjustifiedly, but it sometimes gives a distorted picture in my opinion.

The most recent podcast promoting ‘rock hard classical’ argues that ‘classical music is alive and thriving’, ‘not every track has been made by someone who has been lying six feet under for at least a hundred years’ and audiences ‘have long since stopped going to a concert hall in a tight suit and believing they have to avoid coughing’. This is illustrated with new compositions that mostly consist of 3 or 4 modal harmonies. The piano which is recorded in such a way that you can clearly hear the hammers and felt of the instrument. A good initiative that will hopefully bring people to the concert hall. But is it new music? Well, it was written recently, but it is a small plot  in the landscape. Please also give opportunities to music that is not listened to ‘to calm down’ or as ‘concentration music during hours of studying’, which are often the stated reasons why classical music by today’s composers is alive and well. Please show the whole landscape when promoting new music.

We find ourselves in a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, the sector is diverse, and what is being made, even more diverse. Creators are resilient, and have an irrepressible will to produce. Many composers are taking to the stage themselves, or, as instrumentalists, are increasingly writing for themselves. Just over a week ago, for instance, Jasper de Bock’s bird dance was heard at the annual opening of the Royal Conservatoire, in which a meticulously assembled dancing parrot was musically accompanied and/or controlled by a sophisticated interplay of toy piano, piano and small percussion instruments – played by the composer himself. Educational programmes are catching on to this and are increasingly providing space for these ‘creative performers’. On the other hand, there is not much room for the truly groundbreaking sound. A small circuit of venues that embrace new initiatives and bet a priori on adventure rather than audience numbers does not stand a chance in the current cultural climate. Furthermore, we are still clawing our way out of the Corona era. For some concertgoers, the confidence to order tickets prior to a season has yet to be regained. Some no longer come at all. Unfortunately, these are the conditions that form a downward spiral: in order to guarantee audiences, what is programmed represents the safe side of the new music landscape. The rough, more unexplored part is not given a chance and is not heard. It is not made attractive because there is no audience for it, and so the circle is complete. In short, if we are not careful, a shadow will fall over the most exciting things new music has to offer. How can another illustrious chapter in Dutch music history be written in this way? Let us protect the innovators and iconoclasts of today.

Nonetheless, I am positive. There is a small number of festivals each year that offers audiences with curious ears every chance to be surprised. I didn’t know what I was experiencing when I heard Richard Ayres’ The Garden here a few years ago. I was on the edge of my seat because of the wealth of rapidly switching styles and Martha Colburn’s equally unpredictable video. Every edition of November Music lives up to its claim of  ‘music of now by the creators of now’, with now more than 100 concerts per edition. In the demanding climate, festivals that programme music from all eras are also finding room to give new initiatives a stage. Block schedules allow striking a balance between established names in big venues and young dogs and/or experimental music in the pathways leading up to them. Although the number of festivals is not endless, they partly make up for the lack of venues.

In addition, some of the Corona aid became available through unprecedentedly accessible application procedures. Among others, the Performing Arts Fund’s Balcony Scenes and the New Music Now Files enabled creators at all stages of their careers to create freely without guaranteeing unfeasible amounts of playtimes or having to ‘harness the imagination of the arts for social problems’ as D-66’s Jorien Wuite recently suggested during the Paradiso debate. The contributions were not large, but the creativity gigantic. It offered exactly the imagination and adventure that society was deprived of. Hang on to that fact.

Explaining, conveying and enthusing is entitled to take a much more central place in the promotion of new music. There should be room for this in the programming of venues, radio (and not after midnight), television and podcasts, in which ‘today’s composers’ can be heard. Trust the diversity of the landscape and the quality of the creator and bet on the curiosity of the listener, this will take music further.  Reading the newspaper, I feel that the mould in which creators have to knead their artistry is getting narrower, and the belief that marketability is the holy grail is getting bigger. In this way, authenticity and innovation end up being compromised.

In short, the biggest innovators in music are most likely to be labelled ‘at risk’. Not because of what they do, because that is indeed vulnerable, but because of ticket sales and/or because the work does not fit within outlined frameworks. There is potential growth, adventure and poetry in that risk, and it needs to be made appealing. Let it be heard and let it be seen. Invest in music schools so that the social aspect of music is experienced again and enthusiasm for the unprecedented is created. Make it attractive to be surprised and hear something new. Innovation has risks, whether it is about a particle accelerator at Cern, a new political culture or updating your old computer. In music too, thinking about innovation too late has a higher risk than starting it on time.