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Order, peace and disorder in the Orphanage #HF17

Roaring programmers announce new compositions: "World premiere!" jubilate the posters. Superb, but in contemporary music practice, that primal performance is often immediately the last. The score goes into an archive folder. The notes fall silent; the roar falls silent. The Orphanage takes care of those forgotten works.


David Dramm removes such pieces from oblivion and presents them with context at the Orphanage of Dutch Music. To add lustre to the 70th anniversary of the Holland Festival, he delves patient notes from the archives where the rich festival history rests.

First blank

On the first evening at the Orphanage, Jan van Vlijmen's Serie per sei strumenti and Mischa Mengelberg's About a Composer's Action will be heard. Twice you hear the pieces; first unprepared and thus blank - cold off the hot street. After a brief conversation between Dramm and Wim Laman, both works pass by once more.


Van Vlijmen's harsh rationality kettles explosively through Splendor's intimate hall. A logical sequence of phrases is hard to find. Nor does a linear passage of time seem to be Van Vlijmen's main focus. Dartily, the pioneering composition for small ensemble splashes as shrill-sounding indoor fireworks set out.


In it, Van Vlijmen does not let go of complete control. There is no room for frivolities either. The composer solves musical problems and whether that is amusing or to listen to is of less importance. That the work is nevertheless highly enjoyable lies in its crystal-clear inherent logic. This resembles the strict visual language Donald Judd used. What you hear is what you get. There isn't necessarily anything more than problem-to-solution. However, it is a certain simplicity in plain musical language that brings calm.


For Misha Mengelberg, the Great Leap Forward in terms of future music lay precisely in freedom. His 1966 piece hopscotches from heel to heel. Animatedly, the ensemble members blow toy whistles or just their mouthpieces. Mengelberg also gives them free rein to chatter and bicker; speaking aloud indeed. And then a binder with annual figures is also thrown on the floor.


Breaking with tradition of a stiff, frontal and over-serious concert orchestra means openness and letting go with Mengelberg - a celebration of freedom. The debauchery shows common ground with Fluxus, but is not totally unguided. For that, the composer keeps the ensemble just close enough to the rhythmic lesson. And you really do think you hear a Beethoven quote passing by, by way of banter, surely.

Rebel Club

In a brief conversation, Dramm and Laman discuss the context of both pieces. Naturally, the patriotic rebel club is discussed. In it, in addition to Van Vlijmen and Mengelberg, we find Peter Schat, Reinbert de Leeuw and Louis Andriessen. So many names, so many tastes and opinions. Laman recounts their radical attempts to arrive at a new concert practice. It is touched on how Van Vlijmen represented the academic flank; thoughtful, too. And Mengelberg was precisely the provocateur and disruptor; more Fluxus, perhaps somewhat Dada, too.


Laman sketches in fine couleur locale how even in the 1960s the - somewhat convulsive - criticism was already heard that the gentlemen made "not music, but sonics". Exactly that reproach was used against new music in the years that followed. Even more topically, however, the accusation is deliberately used the other way round as encouragement, where composers like Jacob Kirkegaard and Alvin Lucier go full-on for sound art.


Unfortunately, the conversation lacks reception history. Especially in context, it would be interesting to hear how these pieces were viewed by the press and public at the time. Did riots break out? Were rotten eggs thrown? Was the auditorium actually full? And: was the Mengelberg as shockingly laughed at then as it was here in Splendor?

Cackling office garden

The second performance of About a Composer's Action is - not surprisingly - totally different from the first. That Mengelberg partly voiced the heated discussions of the composers' group, as Laman recounts, cannot be un-heard. With that knowledge, the piece becomes a little less frank and free; more depiction than imagination. However, the humorous elements are magnified to a considerable extent, bringing to mind a cackling office anno nowadays.

Still a chuckle

The reprise of Van Vlijmen's Series is again tight and punishing. Accents find screeching and crunching their place in the grid system of the compelling composition. Surreptitiously, you still seem to notice a chuckle in the playing. A smile that makes you think of Sol LeWitt, who did not present his strict mathematical system art to the world with a straight face either. After all: it may be an Orphanage here, but Dramm and co are anything but "zum Tode betrübt".

Seen: Holland Festival Orphanage, Thursday 8 June; with other programme in the Holland Festival also to be seen on Thursday 15 and 22 June.

Recordings of this evening (and more from the Orphanage series) are view and listen here later this week.

Sven Schlijper-Karssenberg

Sets his ear to places he does not yet know in today's sound. Writes the catalogue raisonné of Swedish artist Leif Elggren's oeuvre, is a board member of Unsounds and programmes music at GOGBOT Festival. His essays on sound art have appeared on releases by Pietro Riparbelli, Michael Esposito, Niels Lyhnne Løkkegaard and John Duncan.View Author posts

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